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Even before it was officially launched on the campus of The Ohio State University in 1989, the Wexner Center for the Arts had already attracted international attention for its bold contemporary mission and daring design. An unlikely experiment in the heartland, the Wex (as it soon came to be called) was then the only cultural institution of its kind affiliated with a major research university, and among the earliest anywhere with a mandate to equally champion and present the entire spectrum of creative practice across the fields of visual art, performance, film, video, architecture, and design. Initially conceived by university leaders in consultation with national museum experts, the center gained considerable momentum in its early planning stages when OSU alum and prominent Columbus civic leader Leslie H. Wexner came forward with a significant founding gift that “named” the institution for his father Harry L. Wexner. He (Les) immediately saw the promise of a contemporary art center as both physical and symbolic gateway to an institution of higher learning—“one where free expression, independent thinking, and vital interactions among leading artists and cultural figures with students and academic experts would exemplify the ideals of a democratic society.” At the same time, Wexner recognized the importance of courageous ideas and creative practice to building a vibrant, innovative, and diverse community as well as a highly educated, motivated, and entrepreneurial work-force.
In that same spirit, he conceived and, together with his wife Abigail, funded the Wexner Prize which since 1992 has been awarded to pioneering artists whose achievements exemplify the pinnacle of daring innovation, bold intellect, and creative brilliance. The first Wexner Prize was awarded to theater director Peter Brook. In subsequent years the Prize went to such luminaries as Merce Cunningham with John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Martin Scorsese, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg, Bill T. Jones, Spike Lee, and Annie Leibovitz.
From its inception, the Wex pursued ambitious and adventurous programming that engaged local and national/international audiences alike. Akin to a European “kunsthalle” (arts space without a permanent collection), the Wex building was designed with purpose-built flexible spaces to accommodate interdisciplinary artistic exploration—including new genres yet to be imagined. And since 1989, the center’s robust Artist Residency Awards program has invested significant resources to support the research, production, and presentation of new work—a then novel concept that has since been replicated across the museum field.
Immediately staking its claim among vanguard institutions, the center’s inaugural-year programs featured such notable artists as Martha Graham, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Trisha Brown, Spalding Gray, Adrian Piper, Chris Burden, Ann Hamilton, Bill T. Jones, Barbara Kruger, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage, among many others. Not surprisingly, the Wex garnered coverage in publications ranging from the New York Times to Travel & Leisure, from Vogue to Newsweek, from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News. Entire issues of architecture magazines—including Progressive Architecture, Architecture and Urbanism, and Architectural Design—were devoted to this audacious new entry on the cultural landscape. Kurt Andersen, writing for Time, declared it “both grand and zany. . .And it works.”
The unique ambition and potential of the Wex arts professionals from around the country to join the staff. Sherri Geldin, formerly associate director at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, was named director of the Wex in 1993, embracing the institution’s founding vision and advancing it. A diverse array of exhibitions followed the inaugural shows, including the Guggenheim’s sweeping retrospective of the work of Roy Lichtenstein (1995) and the Wex-organized multimedia exhibition Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire (1999). In 2001, the center organized As Painting: Division and Displacement, exploring the ever more elastic parameters of “painting” among European and American artists since the 1960s (still a significant touchstone for many artists and scholars). Mood River (2002), a dazzling, kaleidoscopic overview of the design of the moment, from aeronautic to automotive to athletic, included a fully operational skate bowl that drew avid young boarders—as well as a segment on CBS News Sunday Morning.
Other notable exhibitions have included Part Object Part Sculpture; Sadie Benning’s Suspended Animation (2007), which toured to the Whitney Museum of American Art; the immersive, multimedia exhibition Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms (2008); Luc Tuymans (2009), jointly organized with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which toured internationally; the first museum retrospective of Mark Bradford (organized by the Wex in 2010), the first-ever exhibition of Annie Leibovitz’s Master Set along with her Pilgrimage series (2012); Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection (the keystone of our 25th Anniversary Season, featuring Picasso, Giacometti, and Dubuffet); the only Midwestern stop for Leap Before You Look (2016), celebrating the remarkable culture and lasting impact of Black Mountain College; and Sarah Oppenheimer’s enormous kinetic pivoting mechanism, titled S-337473 (2017), created during a multiyear Wex residency. Complementing and amplifying these major exhibitions, the Wex contributes important new scholarship to the field with in-depth catalogues and gallery guides that have become important documents and resources for the field.
Groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary programs in performing arts and films have animated Wex stages and screens since the center’s opening. In recent years newly commissioned works have included The Great Flood, a joint project by composer Bill Frisell and filmmaker Bill Morrison (2012); Landfall, Laurie Anderson’s partnership with Kronos Quartet (2014); the theater is a blank page, an award-winning collaboration between Ann Hamilton and theater director Anne Bogart (2015); and A Thousand Thoughts, a live documentary by Sam Green and Kronos Quartet (2018), to name just a few. Major filmmakers from around the globe regularly visit the center to introduce and discuss their work for public audiences, helping make Columbus a film destination for the entire region. Among them are Claire Denis, Miloŝ Forman, Philip Kaufman, Laura Poitras, Liza Johnson, Jim Jarmusch, Kelly Reichardt, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Walter Salles, Kevin Jerome Everson, Abbas Kiarostami, Isabella Rossellini, Charles Burnett, and Lucrecia Martel, plus dozens more. And the center’s Film/Video Studio is truly unique in the country—a state-of-the-art post production facility with two full time editors placed at the disposal of artists 365 days a year.
While the Wexner Center has grown considerably in national and international stature over the years, it has also enriched the campus experience for thousands of students, faculty, and staff, forging collaborations and exchanges with a host of academic departments and student organizations across campus—ranging far beyond arts and humanities to the fields of business, engineering, law, medicine, agriculture, and even athletics. An illustrious roster of artists, architects, filmmakers, art historians, critics, cultural commentators, and social activists have spoken at lectures, panels, or symposia orchestrated by the Wex over the past three decades. Similarly, it is universally acknowledged that the very existence of the Wexner Center has enriched the cultural ecosystem of Columbus, making it a more open, vibrant, and sophisticated place to live and visit, while empowering local arts institutions to pursue more contemporary programming. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer has noted, “Let it be stated early and often: Since it opened in 1989, the Wexner Center for the Arts has provided some of the best contemporary art programming in the Midwest, if not the entire country.”
Timeline on Ohio State website on occasion of Wex at 25 years:
TV coverage in 1989: