Looking back at the great deal of quality work that has been presented throughout the 1996-97 exhibition season, it seems that Columbus, Ohio is keeping pace with the national exhibition record of photography. But is Columbus's photography surge merely a residual effect of a larger artistic trend, or is the city making a legitimate contribution and thus helping to define its own national identity?
The place in Columbus where one turns to begin to answer such a question is the Wexner Center for the Arts, which has, since its opening in 1989, set the pace for the city's contemporary art scene. The major show in fall 1996 was "Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945," which included the work of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, to name but a few. "Viewing Olmsted: Photographs by Robert Burley, Lee Friedlander, and Geoffrey James" -- the Canadian Centre for Architecture's seven-year project designed to record and interpret the work of pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted -- was on view this spring. Perhaps of greatest local significance this winter was " Evidence: Photography and Site," organized by Wexner Center curators Mark Robbins and Sarah Rogers, that featured the work of nine internationally recognized photo artists, including Lorna Simpson, Lynne Cohen, Uta Barth and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
The Columbus Museum of Art -- which partakes in a healthy sort of cross-town rivalry with the Wexner Center -- has been an important hub of photographic activity this season as well. In the fall, k reopened its significantly expanded Richard M. Ross Photography Studies Center, made possible by a gift (of both funds and photographs) from the family of the much-admired Columbus businessman, arts patron and photographer for whom it is named. The museum has shown two of this year's other most notable, locally-organized shows: " Dialogues with the Land: Photography of Michael Smith and Paula Chamlee" and "Recent Work by Fourteen Ohio Photographers" (including the work of Don Harvey, Masumi Hayashi, Deborah Orloff and others). In the last six months, the museum has also initiated its "Friends of Photography" program, which is designed according to Deputy Director Denny Griffith, "to focus the attention of the gallery-going public on the medium."
So what is at the root of Columbus's outpouring of photographic exhibitions? The Ohio Arts Council has been essential. During the 1996-97 season the " Evidence" exhibition received nearly $14,000 from the OAC alone. The smaller alternative gallery, ACME Art Company, received over $8000 from the OAC for a year's worth of programming, much of which focused on alternative photographic practices of local and emerging artists such as John Philip Sousa, Gaylen Stewart and Yasha Persson. It is more difficult to determine the exact amount allocated specifically to photography in the case of the Columbus Museum, since it is the only Columbus organization to receive "major institutional support," or one lump sum for all of its ongoing programs. But insofar as the OAC clinically considers the Mm of work being presented in allotting funds, and to the extent that the museum showed a series of major photography exhibitions, k is safe to say that photography was well-backed there as well. Additionally, the OAC continues to support photographers through its "Individual Artists Fellowship Program which awards fellowships of $5000 and $10,000 to selected artists. In fact, a separate category has always been maintained for photography (as distinct from the visual arts category) since this program's inception. All of this, as Susan DePasquale (Visual Arts Coordinator for the OAC) points out, is indicative of the state's strong track record for supporting photography in recent years, which she traces back to the notorious Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in 1989. She also cites the state's relative abundance of large cities (e.g. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, Toledo and Dayton) as another reason for Ohio being something of a hotbed for photography. …