Cover: Johanna Burton steps into a leading role as new director of the Wexner Center

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

In 2005, the Wexner Center for the Arts reopened its renovated gallery spaces with “Part Object Part Sculpture.” Helen Molesworth, who was then chief curator of exhibitions for the Wex, curated the show, which explored the increasingly fungible space between painting and sculpture, and between sculpture and mundane, everyday objects.

Johanna Burton was a graduate student at Princeton University at the time, and traveled to Columbus for this important exhibition and examination of contemporary art. The following year, Burton traveled to Columbus again to see “May I Help You?,” a performance by Andrea Fraser that was part of the attendant programming for a Louise Lawler retrospective, which Molesworth also curated at the Wex.

“I knew about the Wex when I was in graduate school,” said Burton, who was named director of the Wexner Center last fall and officially assumed the position in early March. “The contemporary art world is pretty small at the end of the day. There are a few places where it's done really well. The New Museum (the New York institution at which Burton was previously director of education and public engagement), which is not much older than the Wex, is in that sphere of institutions that are non-collecting, that believe in centering artists as they're doing new work, and providing a context for that work. There are a handful in America, and the Wex has always been on the radar as one of those places.”

Burton recalled briefly meeting Sherri Geldin on one of those trips to Columbus. Geldin preceded Burton in her role, helming the Wex for 25 years and helping guide a then-nascent arts center in developing its reputation as both a presenter and incubator of contemporary art across varied disciplines. Burton, whom Geldin called a “perfect successor” in a provided statement, is tasked with overseeing the center, its team of curators and directors, plus its presentation and residency programs, as it enters its next chapter, which, in the short term, includes its 30th anniversary this year.

It's a task that makes sense to Burton.

“This job, this career … it's my life. There is no end of the work day,” Burton said. “I've been engaged in these conversations for 20 years at this point. I think of it as a sort of personal ecology.”

“Johanna has been obviously very involved in the contemporary art world, with her work geared toward paying a lot of attention to younger, emerging practices and making context for those,” said artist and OSU Distinguished Professor Ann Hamilton, who served on the selection committee for the Wexner Center director position. “She has all of that breadth of experience to support stepping into a new leadership role.”

Growing up in rural Lemon Valley, Nevada, outside of Reno, Burton always knew she would find her way to New York, where she could more fully explore art and the ideas that art presented, questioned and fostered. “I packed a bag when I was four,” Burton said, with a laugh that sounded half inspired by the act's precociousness and half inspired by its eventual truth.

But did she know she would subsequently find her way to Columbus?

“I did not know that,” she said, with another laugh.

Burton is named for the Bob Dylan song “Visions of Johanna.” The tune is beloved among the songwriter's fans, its language traversing both the tangible and the esoteric.

“I was raised in a pretty unconventional family,” Burton said. “My parents were both artists (her father a musician, her mother a painter), and we were a pretty tight-knit group. The area was pretty low-income and largely devoted to people with animals. We had an acre, some horses [and] some dogs.”

Burton recalled fondly a youth spent riding horses with her mom, learning to hang drywall and do light plumbing, and metaphorically sitting at the grown-up table, among other pursuits.

“It was just the three of us, and I think [my parents] forgot sometimes that I was a kid. There was a lot of visual culture, a lot of crazy films, a lot of the music of David Bowie and Lou Reed,” Burton said. “When I was little, I saw ‘Eraserhead' probably a little too young. ‘Apocalypse Now.' ‘The Deer Hunter.' To call ‘Eraserhead' a favorite… that's a funny word. It implies it didn't terrify me. There's a scene with a woman and a radiator that imprinted on me that I sometimes wish I could resolve.”

Being exposed to this sort of visual culture and its associated ideas (“Eraserhead” was hardly her last experience with David Lynch; Burton recalled the family watching “Twin Peaks” together when she was a little older) presented a coming-of-age Burton with a willingness to dig deep and to push boundaries. Fueled by her natural curiosity, she began an early investigation of feminist ideas, in no small part via feminist art.

“If you're talking about being in a household or context where you're allowed to question why things are represented as fixed, of course you're going to think about identity, you're going to think about race, about class, about gender. So, yeah, I thought about all that stuff, even if it wasn't [my parents'] specific intent,” Burton said. “I grew up thinking this was normal, which it certainly was not in rural Nevada when I was growing up.”

Despite making good on her intent to leave Reno for New York City, Burton looks back now with fondness for a place she may not have consciously appreciated at the time, calling Reno “a bit of the Wild West.”

“You go there to get divorced, or gamble, or find a prostitute,” she said, noting she returns to visit her parents, who still live in the area. “Now it's really interesting, and it probably always has been.”

“I just knew that, if you wanted to be in the art world, [New York is] where you went,” Burton added.

After earning a bachelor's degree in art history at the University of Nevada, Reno, Burton loaded up a trailer and drove cross-country with her then-partner and her dog to study at State University of New York, Stony Brook. She earned a master's degree in art history, criticism and theory, subsequently earning master's degrees from New York University and Princeton, as well.

Throughout her studies and into her early career in intern and adjunct posts, Burton pursued with greater clarity her own art as a writer, penning critical articles and essays that she learned would often bring her ideas about art to both the community and to the artists themselves.

“It was opening up real dialogues with artists,” she said. “I began writing as a really young grad student, and I'd hear from the artists, and that was incredible. And even if you don't hear from somebody, or the artist is dead, you're bringing that work into the present.”

Burton's curatorial and educational work expanded in positions with the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program and Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies, where she served as director of the graduate program. Her curatorial work included an exhibition of the work of Sherrie Levine at the Whitney and a group show investigating both appropriation and critique at the Hammer Museum at UCLA.

“I had never really curated anything, but I was an art historian who thought about exhibition practices and understood and thought about art history and curating as one conversation rather than separate ideas,” Burton said.

Curating also fed Burton's zeal for the open exchange of ideas in a different way than her writing.

“I'm an educator, so I also believe in just making space for other people to have ideas. Sometimes it doesn't have to be you talking. I enjoy that as much as the sound of my own voice,” Burton said. “As a curator and educator, that's something we learn a little later, is that sometimes you just make the space and let other people occupy it, and that's been really satisfying.”

“She is a probing intellect. She has always had a close relationship with artists, and where those things come together is where she thrives,” said Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, in a phone interview.

One of her final curatorial projects at the New Museum was an exhibition titled “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.” Predominantly composed of work made in the past few years, but accompanied by a catalog with a significant archival component, “Trigger” asked old questions in new ways and with a rawness that pushed back at gaps and faults in cultural understandings.

“These are longstanding queries. What's the phrase about never stepping into the same river twice but it's still the same river? It's not like we just now became aware of the fact that gender is complicated. It's just how it's being talked about and how people inhabit that knowledge,” Burton said.

Burton referred back then to the skills she learned growing up, offering a plain-spoken object lesson in gender and culture.

“I'm the one who does all the handiwork around the house, and it's really amazing when we have someone come in to do [repair] work, they immediately talk to [my husband],” Burton said. “Those are the things that show a lot about our culture, and it's interesting, and it's part of the reason I'm the person who beats back on that stuff. But those are also the teaching moments that can become important.”

And so Burton values her new role as director of a museum and art laboratory — one that specifically calls a university home. She hopes to have opportunities to teach, confessing she's not sure how that would fit into a busy schedule. She also is encouraged by contacts from and conversations with the OSU community that reinforce the Wex both as a resource for learning among the university community, but also as a partner in education with both faculty and students.

“One reason I'm so excited about being part of Ohio State is the opportunity to think about a museum's place within an academic institution. I think about the Wex … as a laboratory of ideas that posits itself as an educational lab of the highest level. So how do we make our platform bigger than the building?”

“Johanna's arrival is a reaffirmation of our core values,” said Jennifer Lange, curator of the Film/Video Studio Program at the Wex. “It's an exciting time for the institution, to examine our patterns and habits, and to get a jolt. But at the same time, our guiding mission of being an artist-centric laboratory for contemporary art I think is what drew [Burton] to this place.”

Musician, composer and educator Mark Lomax, who served in a non-voting capacity on the committee, was tasked with giving Burton a tour of the city beyond campus as part of the interview process.

“I tried to give her a sense of what the city really is,” he said. “Opportunity is part of a narrative, but not everyone in the city has equal access. I feel like she gets it. She sees art as a window to the world, and that engaging art is important both for enjoyment and for helping us become more clear about our place in the world.”

Burton hopes that the Wex continues to be such a nexus for the local and the international, for the emerging and established, for the created and creating, in service of providing a space for conversations about culture.

“We're in a moment culturally that we have to think about the decisions we make. I do tend to believe the best artists are interrogating the conditions of their own time,” Burton said. “I've been profoundly lucky to be embraced by institutions that are interested in questioning their own actions.”

Faced with this new set of challenges and responsibilities as a director, Burton also hopes her existing practices prove difficult to cast aside.

“Writing is a core thing, just like teaching. Writing about artists makes me have to think through problems and ideas, and teaching reminds me that everything I think I know has to be re-evaluated every couple of years,” she said. “These are things that keep me alive and engaged in the field, and I think make me valuable as a director.”