Ohio State University: Inside Wexner Center for the Arts’ ‘To Begin, Again’

One of the more arresting pieces in To Begin, Again: A Prehistory of the Wex, 1968-89 at the Wexner Center for the Arts is a 40-foot-long sculpture made by Betty Collings. “Dance” is an inflated, pale vinyl tube that twists and turns over itself. It is also one of many pieces that posed challenges for the exhibitions team at the Wexner Center: How best to display this unique object in what is already a unique space?

The show traces the history of the University Gallery of Fine Art and its collection, which became the arts hub for the Ohio State University community in the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, the gallery became so prominent that its final exhibition was the largest institutional show in the country addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis.

It was this foundation that led to the creation of the Wexner for the Arts, which in turn led to this meaningful retrospective. Many pieces in the show have not been on view since the ’90s and, as a result, require extra care. Collings, who served as the first director of the University Gallery, is one of the dozens of artists represented in the exhibit.

When it opened in 1989, the Wexner Center was already drawing interest for its architectural design. Peter Eisenman and Richard Trott’s submission to the Center for the Visual Arts design competition was selected in part because it echoed the university’s history – the building contains references to the Armory, which stood where the center now sits – and it gave visitors a suggestion for what the future might look like, with its soaring white grids. Additionally, the interior of the building was meant to be dynamic, with galleries of different shapes and sizes. Flooring shifts from wood to tile and back again. A wall of enormous windows allows natural light to flood the space far more than in a traditional art gallery.

Such a design could present obstacles when curating and installing a show. Instead, the staff at the Wexner Center find it exciting.

David Dickas
David Dickas
“The challenge is getting through the space and understanding what’s going on,” said David Dickas, installation manager and exhibition designer. “There are always people who are up for the challenge of Eisenman’s style. It becomes a bit of a game. You’re able to overcome the irregularities of the space and the artwork is able to come forth.”

Dickas and his team worked closely with the To Begin, Again exhibition’s curator Daniel Marcus to find the best location for each piece.

“For this show, a lot of crucial decisions were made looking at models, either physical ones or digitally in SketchUp [a type of modeling software],” Marcus said. “I have a model of the gallery and rudimentary cutouts of things that I use to figure out what grouping of pieces work. I think about this as a spatial experience – how many things can I have in this space before it starts to feel like too many?”

“We take time to kick ideas back and forth,” Dickas added. “We treat approaches as not too precious. ‘What if we did this?’ And sometimes we improvise. If we can’t work it out in models, we need to go up into the space and see what works.”

The placement of Collings’ piece is a good example of this collaboration. According to Dickas, there were a few locations in the models in which the piece would fit, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.

“This is one that was more fun,” he said. “It inflates quickly, it deflates quickly, so if we want to try it in 20 places, we can do that.”

Daniel Marcus
Daniel Marcus
It turns out that one of the Wexner Center’s special attributes, the varied flooring throughout, made the final choice an easy one. Dickas suggested that the piece might look best on a wooden portion of the floor.

“That really made all the difference,” Marcus said. “So much of the attitude toward the Wex is ‘it’s a difficult building, it’s a difficult space,’ but then you realize there are things here that can help you, that there are things here that other buildings don’t have. In this case, Eisenman articulated these different spatial zones with the changes in flooring. Otherwise,the space would just flatten out. It’s very helpful.”

Marcus and Dickas’ hard work is on view throughout To Begin, Again, where objects like a 36-foot-long painting by Futura2000, a massive aluminum relief sculpture by Frank Stella, and neon screen prints by Ohio State alumnus Michael Keyes join Collings’ inflatable. Marcus was quick to praise Dickas’ crew for their attention to detail.

“There’s an extra layer of care in dealing with objects that come from our own collection. We’re responsible for them – not just making them look good on the walls but also for their longevity. They have to physically endure and we’re responsible for that.”

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