The Lobby Curator

Actor and art curator Alexander Di Persia stands in front of the painting SP 179 by Sterling Ruby, in the lobby of 767 Third Avenue.

Alexander DiPersia has deep roots in real estate. In 1924, one of his great-grandfathers, William Kaufman, established a Manhattan development firm that today manages nearly four million square feet of commercial space. Mr. DiPersia, an actor, never joined the family business, but through a family-cultivated appreciation for art, he happened onto an auxiliary career as a curator for private and public spaces that started with several lobbies in the Kaufman portfolio.

Until recently, commercial real estate didn’t figure in his career plans. If he wasn’t auditioning or acting (“Lovestruck: The Musical” on ABC Family; upcoming episodes of “Gotham” and “NCIS”), he was perusing avant-garde galleries, on the lookout for ravishing pieces of affordable art to embellish his own evolving collection. On weekends, he visited museums to hone his eye.

But a couple of years ago, when the William Kaufman Organization, now run by his grandfather Robert Kaufman, began refurbishing the lobbies of some of its properties through its leasing and management division, Sage Realty Corporation, Mr. DiPersia took notice. He knew his great-grandfather had hired the artist Hans Hofmann in 1956 to encase the elevator core at 711 Third in a Venetian glass mosaic. And he knew his great-uncle Melvyn Kaufman, who directed the company for decades alongside his grandfather, had installed a great deal of art in buildings, albeit of a kitschier type. Mr. DiPersia does not consider his great-uncle a mentor, but appreciates the whimsy of the sculpture of a naked woman between the revolving doors at 747 Third Avenue: she can be glimpsed only while entering or exiting and is easily missed by the unobservant.

Armed with this legacy, Mr. DiPersia went to see his cousin Jonathan Iger, a vice president of Sage, with a proposition: How about letting him act as an unpaid curator of a rotating display of contemporary art to enliven the lobbies?

“I thought it would be a mistake to reinvigorate these spaces and not beautify them with art that could be seen by the public,” Mr. DiPersia said. With Mr. Iger on board, Robert Kaufman granted them permission to start with the lobby of 320 West 13th Street. Then Mr. DiPersia tracked down a large, appropriate piece of borrowable art. “Edgy but not too edgy,” he said. “It had to be accessible; I wanted to start a dialogue, not a riot.”

He started the dialogue in November 2012 with a mixed-media work by Rashid Johnson.

His friendship with the art dealer Vito Schnabel, the son of the painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was pivotal during his curatorial infancy. “I didn’t really know the artist Rashid Johnson, but Vito did, and at that time Vito didn’t have the exhibition space. But I did, so it was a nice symbiotic undertaking; from the first day we put it up, it was a draw.”

Mr. DiPersia’s latest curatorial coup is “SP 179,” an enormous spray-painted canvas by the Los Angeles artist Sterling Ruby. The post-graffiti-themed piece dominates a lobby wall at 767 Third Avenue, guarded by a velvet rope. Valued at around $1.5 million, it is on loan from Christie’s, the auction house.

“I knew Christie’s had the painting in storage,” Mr. DiPersia said, though he thought there was little chance it would lend it to him. “But when I called and asked, they said yes. I’m a true believer that you fail at 100 percent of the things you don’t try.”

Besides family (his parents and grandparents now consult him), his clientele has burgeoned to 15. Some are friends; several are collectors he met on acting gigs.

“If people like my taste, that’s great,” he said. “Acting pays my mortgage, hopefully, and my selling of art decorates my walls. Every dollar I make doing this goes back into buying art,” added Mr. DiPersia, 32, who countered his mother’s concern about those purchases by reminding her that, until he is married with children to support, investing in good art is not such a bad habit to have.

Brendan Brogan, a senior vice president of the Starwood Capital Group, enlisted him to personalize the walls of his downtown penthouse. “A.J. seems to be perpetually ahead of trends,” he said, using Mr. DiPersia’s nickname (his middle name is John). “I generally look for pieces that visually appeal to me without getting boring. The investment aspect is secondary, but this is an area A.J. seems to have a good handle on. He opened my eyes to a number of artists I probably would not have found on my own.”

Mr. DiPersia grew up in Southport, Conn., the son of a lawyer, John DiPersia, and Ronna Kaufman DiPersia, an amateur artist. An interest in art hit him early: An insomniac, he had a revelation when he first saw a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting.

“I said, ‘That’s it! That’s what I see when I close my eyes but can’t sleep,’ ” he recalled, sitting on a black leather couch in his loft on lower Broadway, a cavernous space he moved into four months ago after a six-year acting stint in Los Angeles. “You cry your heart out in L.A., and now I’m rehydrating,” he said.

He’s still using garment bags as room dividers but has not stinted on his wall décor: a small purplish abstract by his mother hangs between behemoths by Ethan Cook, a Brooklyn artist who weaves his own canvases, and a ghostly silver work by Parker Ito. The Rene Ricard painting above his bed, “It Will Warm With the Sunrise,” acquired through Vito Schnabel, was a 30th-birthday gift from his mother. An ostrich skeleton stands next to the couch and a cow skull sits on his desk, pets of a sort that never require feeding.

Benjamin Godsill, a specialist in the contemporary art department at the Phillips auction house, said Mr. DiPersia’s relative youth and lack of academic baggage — at Boston College he majored in philosophy and history — enhanced his ability to interact with up-and-coming artists.

“Some of the best collectors and art dealers have come not from academia, but from a refined sense of connoisseurship,” Mr. Godsill said. “A.J. is someone who, in his collecting and curating, reflects the artists of his generation and can personally speak to their concerns, and what could be more fun than to get to hang out with the jesters and agitators of our society? The best curators are always enablers of the artist.”

Frank E. Flowers, a writer, producer and filmmaker with residences in California and on Grand Cayman Island, praised Mr. DiPersia’s nonelitist sensibility. “Alexander embodies the perfect blend of traditional taste while keeping abreast of modern trends,” he said. “He’s a cultural attaché of sorts. I can give him an envelope of cash and trust him to come back with something stunning.”

Mr. DiPersia foresees a hybrid career: actor/art curator. “I hope this will eventually lead to curating art not just for commercial spaces but for residential lobbies and shared environments. It’s clear there’s a market for a curated lifestyle.”

He is in negotiations to curate the lobby and amenity spaces of a luxury residential building at a mega-development on the Far West Side. “Art not only enriches the lives of those who view it, it’s meant to slightly alter the mood of whoever may be viewing it,” he said. “Whether they walk away smiling or puzzled, I think either works.”

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