A Gift of Art

Fran CCAS’66 and Ellen Zinni with Figures in a Landscape by Henri-Joseph Harpignies, one of about 50 pieces they are giving to the Stedman Gallery.

Fran CCAS’66 and Ellen Zinni with Figures in a Landscape by Henri-Joseph Harpignies, one of about 50 pieces they are giving to the Stedman Gallery.

By Sam Starnes

When Fran and Ellen Zinni attended their first art auction of work on paper in Philadelphia 25 years ago, they were surprised to see affordable drawings by well-known artists. “There were interesting pieces you could get for a reasonable price,” Fran Zinni said.

Fran, a native of Camden, earned a degree in psychology and sociology from Rutgers University–Camden in 1966 before going on to a 35-year career with the U.S. Department of Labor. He and Ellen, a retired materials manager for a rehabilitation hospital, married in 1989. They didn’t have many shared hobbies, “but we both liked artwork,” Fran said.

Soon collecting would become their passion. At that first show in 1993, they bought a drawing by noted American artist Frank Benson, a landscape etching titled The Ipswich River. They started attending shows of works on paper in New York and buying a few pieces each year. “If you buy two or three pieces a year, over 20 years, you accumulate a lot of things,” Fran said.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Le Marchand de Marrons 1897

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Le Marchand de Marrons 1897

They ultimately built up a collection of 150 small pieces on paper that includes works by artists in collections everywhere from the Louvre in Paris to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The works they acquired were hung salon-style in the Zinnis’ home, filling almost every inch of wall space in their South Jersey condominium. “Our artwork does not coordinate with our furniture,” Ellen said, with a laugh. “This isn’t a museum. It’s where we live.” Fran added, “The walls look like Swiss cheese if you take everything down.”

The Zinnis are in the process of donating about a third of their collection to the Rutgers–Camden Collection of Art, managed by the Stedman Gallery. They’ve turned over to the gallery pieces by prominent European painters, including Eugène Delacroix, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and they plan to give works by iconic American artists Norman Rockwell and John Abbot McNeil Whistler. Thus far, they have donated 20 pieces with plans to give about 30 more over the next three years. Cyril Reade, director of the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts and an associate professor of art history, said the gift is a tremendous addition to the university’s art holdings. “The Zinni collection is a jewel,” he said. “It’s a big
gift that represents the Zinnis’ 25-year dedication to building this collection, and it is given in a spirit of generosity to art students and art lovers in perpetuity.”

Although many pieces in their collection have increased dramatically in value, the Zinnis have sold only one of their artworks—an oil painting Ellen did not like that a collector wanted to buy. The Zinnis are excited that much of the artwork they collected will have a permanent home and be accessible to art students and lovers for years to come. “We’re both happy and thankful to have a legacy at Rutgers–Camden of things we did together,” Fran said.

John Marin Downtown, the EL 1921

John Marin
Downtown, the EL  1921

Fran’s connections to Camden and Rutgers run deep. He grew up in the city, and his younger sister, Ricki Sablove, graduated from Rutgers–Camden in 1970 and five years ago earned a doctorate in art history from Rutgers–New Brunswick. Her husband, Herb Sablove, earned his law degree from Rutgers Law School in Camden in 1973 and teaches for the school as an adjunct faculty member.

The Zinnis also are involved with many Camden organizations that they support. “I really love the city,” Fran said. “We are very happy that Rutgers is growing and becoming such a force in Camden.”


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