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Inaugurated in 1989 as both a creative laboratory and public venue for contemporary art in all forms, the Wex is a dynamic cultural institution, housed in a signature work of late 20th-century architecture.
“When the Wexner Center opened, the building was hailed as a major cultural happening…and since then it has helped turn Columbus into a cultural destination.”
—New York Times
“The Wexner Center was truly pioneering in making an equal and vigorous commitment to visual, performing, and media arts—often incubating collaboration across disciplines.”
—William Forsythe, choreographer
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 Wexner Center for the Arts complex was designed by architects Peter Eisenman of New York in association with Richard Trott of Columbus, along with landscape architect Laurie Olin from Philadelphia. The design for the center emerged from a 1982–‘83 competition held by The Ohio State University calling for a bold building to house its ambitious new multidisciplinary contemporary arts center.
Eisenman’s design for the Wexner Center deliberately draws on history while invoking the future. The prominent brick arch on the building’s southern façade and the tower-like structures that cluster around the entrances to the building are fragments meant to reference and recollect the Armory, a campus landmark formerly located on this site, which was torn down in 1959 after a fire. The distinctive white scaffold-like spine that runs along the entire east façade of the building points toward the future, evoking the impression of something continually evolving—like contemporary art itself.