Article by Steven Litt
William Busta, widely regarded as the leading dealer of locally produced art in Northeast Ohio, said Friday he’s retiring and closing his business July 31 after 26 years and hundreds of exhibitions.
Until then, Busta said he’d maintain a full schedule of shows at his 4,500-square-foot gallery at 2731 Prospect Ave., an unusually large space in comparison with other local galleries that has functioned as a virtual museum of art from across the region.
“With age you just have less energy,” said Busta, 63. “I can’t afford to hire anybody else to take up the slack.”
He said he contemplated trying to operate a smaller gallery, “but it doesn’t make any sense.”
In his 26-year career, Busta, a 2014 winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize, has promoted the careers of dozens of the region’s best artists, many of whom went on sell works to leading private and corporate collections and museums.
Members of Busta’s gallery “stable” include Don Harvey, Douglas Sanderson, Dexter Davis, Timothy Callaghan, Mark Howard, Brinsley Tyrrell, Hildur Jonsson and the late Kirk Mangus, whose wildly imaginative ceramics are the subject of a powerful retrospective on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
Busta said he shared his news with The Plain Dealer, after having first notified his landlord, architect Robert Bostwick, whose two-story architectural office building houses the gallery on its first floor.
Busta said he has also sent letters to the artists he has represented.
Harvey, a sculptor, photographer and installation artist, said Friday he was taken aback by the news that Busta would retire.
“As soon as I can put my jaw back in place I’ll talk to you,” he said. “I’m not sure what takes his place.”
Jonsson, whose dyed and woven silk tapestries evoke the glacial and volcanic landscapes of her native Iceland, said Busta’s retirement would be “an incredible loss to the community. He’s been, as we all know, an amazing presence in the community with his support of artists.”
Jonsson said that among artists, Busta developed a reputation as a highly supportive mentor who scheduled exhibitions for them as a way to goad them to meet deadlines and to break new ground with new work.
“Having a scheduled a show with him, it kind of compels you,” Jonsson said. “It really helped me make my work.”
Jill Snyder, director of MOCA Cleveland, said she wanted to congratulate Busta “for accomplishing an illustrious career,” and added, “his loyalty to his artists is unparalleled.”
She said Busta is “unchallenged” as a tastemaker among regional dealers.
“He has had courage and has been brave in what he showed,” she said. Closing the gallery “will leave a hole and a vacuum, one hopes others will look to fill.”
Busta said that retiring “is a big deal for me,” but that he feels he no longer has the energy to visit numerous other galleries to keep up with regional trends, the strength to “lift those 120-lb. sculptures,” and the fortitude to turn down artists whose work he feels he can’t show.
“I don’t want to tell artists ‘no’ any more,” he said. “The gallery is approached by artists every week. You have to say ‘no’ every week.”
Busta said he would spend his time writing about art and traveling with his wife, Joan Tomkins, the retired former finance director for the Cleveland Public Library whose income made it possible for the dealer for pursue a less than highly lucrative career.
Busta said last year in an interview that when he and his wife discussed his ambition to open a gallery, he told her, ” ‘There’s not much chance of it making hardly any money.’ ”
Tomkins said she told her husband, ” ‘That’s OK.’ Couples have deals, that’s our deal.”
A Cleveland-area native who grew up in Parma and Brecksville, Busta earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea in 1973, followed by a master’s degree in history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in 1976.
He later served as director of the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen, S.D., and as assistant director of the Plains Art Museum in Moorhead, Minn.
He then became director of the New Organization for the Visual Arts, NOVA, a marketing and service organization for artists in Cleveland, from 1980 to 1982.
Busta returned to graduate school, intending to complete a doctorate in history at CWRU. Busta paid bills by working as a taxpayer service representative at the Internal Revenue Service in Cleveland.
He never completed the degree, but decided to open his first gallery in Little Italy in 1989. After closing that space in the 1990s, Busta reopened with a gallery on Detroit Avenue in what is now the Gordon Square Arts District.
He opened his space on Prospect Ave., just east of the Cleveland State University, in 2007.
During down periods between locations, Busta organized 20 shows at other venues, including Heights Arts on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, Spaces in Cleveland and Lafayette College.
Bostwick said Friday he has been thrilled to have Busta as a tenant for reasons that had nothing to do with receiving the modest rent he charged.
“I’m bereft about Bill’s decision, I truly am,” Bostwick said Friday.
He said that hosting Busta’s gallery has been “about about the lights in the building, the life in the street and a having cultural venue that was just such an important part of the arts community in the city.”
After leaving a recent opening at the gallery, Bostwick said he paused before walking to his car and gazed back into the gallery.
“I looked back on the crowd and the lights, and the warm glow of life on the ground floor,” he said. “I’m going to miss it terribly.”