Since reopening the Wexner Center three years ago, the director of the internationally respected arts institution has been on a hot streak. Now, she has landed perhaps her biggest blockbuster: the exclusive U.S. showing of a major Warhol exhibit.
(This story originally appeared in the September 2008 edition of Columbus Monthly.)
There’s something immediately striking about Sherri Geldin’s office at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Or, rather, the lack of something.
“As you can see, for whatever reason, I don’t ever manage to get anything hung,” says Geldin, the museum’s director, with a smile. “It’s like the shoemaker’s kids have no shoes and I have no art up in my office. I do finally have some art up in my house, but even that leans against the wall for months before I manage to get it in the right place. What can I say?”
The seeming contradictions don’t end there. Despite the spotlight that shines brightly and regularly on Geldin, who has catapulted the Wexner Center to international renown during her 15-year reign, she remains something of an enigma. Although outgoing, she maintains a hard-to-crack professional image. It’s rare for people to see the stylish and polished Geldin with her guard down such as when she was swooning over an idol, acclaimed French actress Jeanne Moreau, while they shared dinner at Rigsby’s Kitchen—or when she’s adoring her friend’s Norfolk terrier and doting on the nearly 2-year-old son of Wexner Center media and public relations director Karen Simonian.
“Anybody that has a job that has a high degree of visibility and can often feel like every waking moment is spent in advancing the organization, our professional, and your personal life sort of end up being all one in the same thing,” says a friend, Denny Griffith, president of the Columbus College of Art & Design. “You’re on the job 24 hours a day.”
And quite a job it’s been for Geldin, especially the past few years. She had to endure the trauma and tension of essentially shutting down the Wexner Center for close to three years to renovate a building famous for its architecture peculiarities—and less-than-functional working space—while also trying to hold exhibits at other venues around the city. Since the reopening of the rehabbed Wexner in 2005, Geldin has overseen a rush of major shows, from the sculptures of Marcel Duchamp to William Wegman’s Funney/Strange (including the highly popular photos of his Weimaraners).
And opening this month is the expected blockbuster, Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms—an exclusive American retrospective of the late pop icon’s wide-ranging catalog that will consume the Wexner until early next year. The exhibit should bring even more attention to the museum—and Geldin, who was named, coincidentally, the chairwoman of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts board in late 2006.
Geldin often has the first—but always the last—say about what exhibits, performances and films the 242,000 annual visitors to the Wexner Center will see. Such is her influence that Ohio State University president Gordon Gee metaphorically refers to her as “The We.”
We hoped that we could have this national and international arena of recognition, but none of us knew how we would be able to go about doing that,” says Gee, who is vice chairman of the Wexner Center Foundation board of trustees. “And I think, very frankly, that has happened. It’s an enormous tribute to her, but also clearly exceeds any of our expectations.”
Not surprisingly, when Geldin was asked to choose her most comfortable place to meet a writer for an interview, she selected her office at the Wexner Center. Just weeks before the opening of the Warhol show, Geldin sits at her desk, which features a packed Rolodex filled with connections throughout the arts world. It’s almost 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, but she’s energetic, with an endless smile, and she still looks fresh in her fitted powder yellow blazer, brown bubble skirt and matching brown heels. As she chats about the center, she unconsciously clunks her chunky yellow and white bracelet against her desk.
She talks as if she’s excited about working even longer into the evening—taking emails from potential speakers for the international symposium on Warhol’s art and making calls to the West Coast on behalf of the institution. Her idea of relaxing is attending a gathering of intellectuals, such as Gee’s Cultural Cabinet—a dinner klatch of six to eight arts advisers at the president’s mansion in Bexley.
It’s easy to assume that such a hard worker would be involved in every little detail concerning the Wexner. Not so, says Jeffrey Kipnis, who teaches architecture at Ohio State, Princeton and the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. He spent four years curating architecture for the Wexner Center before leaving in 2003. Geldin finds a middle ground between micromanagement and letting her staff have free rein, he says. “She basically protects the institution with a kind of ferocity, and that means whatever she says goes, goes,” he says, laughing. “But as far as a director in a working relationship with curators, I just don’t think there’s a better one today. She’s someone who cultivates the curator’s idea, helps them do what they do best.”
And in an arena that would be intimidating to many—in which billionaire Les Wexner is chairman of the Wexner Center Foundation board of trustees, responsible for the center’s name and, if he chose, could bring weight to bear on a leadership change—Geldin has a knack for making friends in high places. She says she’s become close to some of the center’s trustees, donors and employees—and some are like family.
As if to second that thought, Wexner comments on Geldin via email: “Sherri is a wonderful friend and colleague. For the past 15 years as director of the Wexner Center, she has done a tremendous job managing the center as well as bringing new artists to the community. Not only is she very passionate about the arts, but also is extremely talented. I feel fortunate that she made the decision to move to Columbus to lead The Wex, and endeavor I hold dear to my heart.”
It’s obvious that Geldin also holds the Wexner dear to her heart. She’s passionate and outspoken about the center and works to make it accessible to the Columbus community (admission has been free since the reopening), even though many of the exhibits could be viewed as inaccessible for mainstream audiences.
On occasion, Geldin’s sense of humor will seep through. In one case, she engineered an amusing scene in 1995, when Gee and pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, then 71 years old, played Twister on the Wexner’s outdoor plaza. (It was part of the center’s fall Student Welcome Party and tied to the now-deceased pop artist’s exhibit at the museum.) And in 2007, Geldin hosted Dog Day at The Wex as part of Wegman’s Funney/Strange exhibit. At one point during the event, Weimaraner ears mysteriously appeared on the Norfolk terrier, Amos, that Geldin cares for when his owner is away. (She calls it her “goddog.”)
As for Wegman, the Wexner Center’s unconventional gallery spaces weren’t a laughing matter. (Geldin persuaded him to come to Columbus after he already had set his tour schedule.) He describes his initial expectation of hanging his art on the herky-jerky Wexner Center walls as “stressful.” But he says Geldin worked hard to reassure him about the exhibit’s installation and presentation. Now, he calls the experience “fantastic.” Geldin arranged for a William Wegman Day and also introduced him to “a gazillion people,” including Mayor Michael Coleman and Francis Strickland, the wife of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. “It was like I won something when I went to Columbus.”
As Queen of the Wexner—and, perhaps, sitting at the top of the pyramid of the city’s arts leaders—Geldin could operate in a vacuum, focusing only on her institution. After all, her work has been recognized by Vanity Fair, which once named her one of the 20 leading art museum directors in the world, and the French government, which awarded her the prestigious distinction of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. That’s not the case, says Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art. IN fact, she says, the Wexner and the CMA work well together.
“I think it’s really important that the two institutions do complement each other and again create a bigger impact for the city together,” she says. “I always get to go to the Wexner ball, to the [Anniversary] Gala, and we always invite Sherri to our ball. She comes to things at the museum; I got to thing at the Wexner Center, as do our staff. Again, both collegially to endorse each other and to support each other, but I also think it’s important that people in the city see that arts leaders participate in each other’s events.”
Constantly living and breathing the Wexner Center, though, is why Geldin guards her private live, says Griffith. “The people that are in her closet circle of friends, I think, know her for just what an extremely caring and generous person she is,” he says. “And I’m not saying that that doesn’t come through in her professional life. It’s just, you know, she’s beautiful and she’s polished and she’s probably one of the great public speakers that I’ve encountered. And I’s easy to think of someone like that as distant or overprofessional. But Sherri’s just a sweetheart.”
“We’re in the public so much,” says filmmaker and friend John Waters (Hairspray, Polyester, Female Trouble), a fellow member of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts board. “I think if you don’t save anything for our private life, you don’t have a life at all.”
Keeping a level of privacy in the arts world is difficult, though, says Waters, who also is on the 2008-2009 Wexner Center International Arts Advisory Council. “Part of the business arena here in the art world is a lot of socializing. But believe me, those parties are work.”
Richard Koshalek, president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, has known Geldin for decades. He ran the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles when Geldin was its associate director. “She has a remarkable mind that is both clever and focused . . . She has that individual flexibility where she’ll follow her instincts . . . and she’ll go in directions that are going to surprise people.”
For instance, she’s not all contemporary art, all the time. When traveling, Geldin’s just as likely to be caught in a bookstore buying a tome she won’t have time to read as she would be visiting a museum. Musically, Geldin is just as likely to relax to Allegri’s choral masterpiece “Miserere” as Brazilian jazz.
During a recent trip to New York on Wexner Center business, Simonian called Geldin to talk about the Jasper Johns exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That’s when she found out that Geldin just happened to be there, too, admiring pieces by the 19th-century artist Gustave Courbet, who depicted scenes of poverty and unvarnished landscapes while helping to pioneer modernism. “There are these through lines,” Geldin says of historic and contemporary art periods. “Understanding one gives you a perspective on another.”
In her opinion, Manet is the father of all things modern and Vermeer is a master of light, space and color. The Frick Collection speaks to her as much as Dia:Beacon. (Henry Clay Frick’s home, where he collected a variety of works until his death in 1919, is now a museum. Dia:Beacon concentrates on art from the 1960s to present.)
She is drawn to challenges and fledgling operations—part of what brought her to the Wexner Center. “I had spent quite a long time at MoCA,” says Geldin, who essentially created her own job at the facility after finishing her academic career. “I had done virtually every job one could do there, because as we were building the institution, I would basically run each department as we created it until we found someone to run it. For me it wasn’t a job. It was really a kind of calling. Although that sounds entirely too religious. But I just felt so fortunate to be on the ground floor of something that we all hoped would have a cultural impact.”
After a while, though, the process started to be repetitive and dangerously close to joyless. Geldin announced plans to move on. “I had this vague sense that it was time to do something else,” she says. “Building an institution is very different than maintaining an institution. . . . Of all the institutions I talked to, and I talked to several, I decided that this one [the Wexner] offered the greatest potential. I was also very, very taken with the fact that—for all the rhetoric that many cultural institutions cite about being multidisciplinary—this one really was . . . I had absolute faith that this was an institution that had a future.”
One of Geldin’s first challenges was to open minds at Ohio State to the contemporary arts. Another passion is adding arts requirements to a university education. She fears the spreading trend of “vocationalism” that is happening on some college campuses. “I believe heartily in arts education even in times of stringent budgets,” she says. “Certainly, the Wexner Center has done what it can to augment and to complement arts education in the public schools K-12 and then further through the university.”
After all, that’s how she found her calling. Originally a bookworm who wanted to become a teacher, her steady path took an unexpected turn during her first academic quarter at UCLA, when she stepped into a Renaissance art course led by Jean Weisz. “I can still hear her voice in my ears,” Geldin says.
So she pursued a new goal. “My family was not at all steeped in the arts,” Geldin says. (She paraphrases Tolstoy when discussing her twin sisters and late parents: “My family life was happy in the ways most families are, and troubled in its own particular manner.”) After that introductory art history course, a bachelor’s degree in art history (summa cum laude) and an MBA with a specialization in arts management, Geldin entered the workforce in June 1979 with no prospects before landing at MoCA. “I pretty much assumed I would end up working in a museum,” she says. “But I had no idea what the trajectory of that experience would be. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that I’ve had these opportunities that have come my way and, in some cases I guess, that I’ve seized.”
Although she could be considered a strong candidate for a post at another major institution, she says she’s happy here. Her tenure at the Wexner Center hasn’t been devoid of trials, however. As the center isn’t a collecting museum, Geldin can’t really offer reciprocity for borrowed exhibitions—as in, it’s difficult to do favors for other museums when the Wexner Center needs all the art it gets to be on its walls. Aside from the three-year closing and all that entailed, there’s still the constant challenge of the building’s architecture itself—installing each exhibition in what Geldin calls “this very idiosyncratic building” is a new curatorial experiment.
And in 1997, there was a situation that couldn’t be foreseen. OSU police officer Michael Blankenship was shot and killed in the Wexner Center after responding to a security guard’s concern about a suspicious person. Officers confronted the man, who pulled a gun and fired on Blankenship. The man later committed suicide at another location. Afterward, the center increased and improved building security. Asked to recall the incident, Geldin wipes tears from the edges of her eyes. “It was such a tragedy,” she says.
At some point, you have to ask Geldin about the elephant in the room. What’s it like to run an arts center at a university obsessed with OSU football?
Rather than being deterred by the shadow the sport casts on all things associated with the school, Geldin sees it as an opportunity for her to score points for her side.
For instance, the 2007 national championship game against Florida was played at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona, which was designed by Peter Eisenman, the same architect responsible for the Wexner Center. So Geldin arranged for guided tours of the football facility.
“Having come to Ohio State with no strong background in athletics, either as a sportswoman or as a spectator, it was immediately apparent that in order to really understand, and absorb, and infiltrate the culture here, one simply had to understand that mindset,” Geldin says. “And so it became something of a game for me and a challenge to me to see how could we kind of commandeer the attention of the hundred thousand people that come sweeping across campus on any given Saturday during the fall. How can we sort of demonstrate the relationship between basketball and choreography? Or any other team sport, for that matter. How can we remind people who are spending their Saturdays at the stadium that there are plenty of other Saturdays when there isn’t a football game going on and they might want to come and visit a place like the Wexner Center?”
It appears she’s accomplished that goal.