Quick Leadership Change at Wexner Center for the Arts Startles Columbus' Arts Community

Richard Ades
Johanna Burton

The Wexner Center for the Arts is on the lookout for a new executive director, as Johanna Burton is stepping down to lead the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. That leaves some Wexner fans wondering: Why so soon?

Burton replaced the Wex’s original director, Sherri Geldin, who led the center for more than 25 years and helped cement its reputation as an avant-garde, multidisciplinary institution. Though Burton threw herself enthusiastically into the position and carried on the Wex’s adventurous and socially conscious programming, her Oct. 29 departure comes little more than 2½ years after she arrived in March 2019.

The early exit raises some questions: Does her departure signal a loss of prestige for the institution that helped put Columbus on the contemporary culture map? Or, even more troubling, has an organization chaired, supported and named for Les Wexner’s father been tarnished by the scandal surrounding the late Jeffrey Epstein and his connections to the L Brands founder?

Sherri Geldin

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No, say a pair of art experts Columbus Monthly asked to comment on the situation. In their view, the L.A. job was simply too good to pass up.

Ron Pizzuti, CEO of the Pizzuti Cos. and a prolific art collector who serves on the Wexner Center board, says he was both surprised and unsurprised by the announcement that Burton was stepping down. “I don’t think she had any intention of leaving,” he says, but she just couldn’t ignore the career opportunity the MOCA position presented.

A similar explanation is put forward by Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, who calls Burton “generally the kind of person who makes long-term commitments.” Even so, he adds, the chance to work with L.A.’s “enormous and extremely active” arts community was too tempting for her to decline. If Wexner fans are disappointed by Burton’s departure, he suggests, it’s because they’ve been “spoiled” by her predecessor’s long tenure. “There are not many directors who’ve stayed 25 years,” Weinberg points out. “The average tenure tends to be more like five years.”

Of course, not all years are created equal. Burton acknowledges her time in Columbus seemed longer than it really was, having been complicated by a worldwide pandemic that forced the Wex to cancel events, close galleries, lay off staff and cut salaries, including her own. But these challenges—which, of course, affected galleries worldwide—did not play a role in her decision to leave. “MOCA’s a once-in-a-lifetime job, so I would have considered it no matter when it came,” Burton says. “I don’t know that I could have turned that phone call down.”

The phone call came from a search firm that contacted her last spring, after the L.A. position was posted. “I ended up having a number of conversations with the board and various members of the MOCA community,” she recalls. The result was the Wexner Center’s Sept. 3 announcement that Burton would soon be leaving Columbus for Los Angeles.

The Wexner Center for the Arts

What kind of institution was prominent enough to entice Burton to head west? First of all, MOCA is huge and is divided between two locations: the multidisciplinary Geffen Contemporary space—which alone is three times the size of the Wex’s galleries—and the Grand Avenue exhibition space in downtown L.A. On the other hand, MOCA is an institution that’s had its share of problems over the years, including financial shortcomings that became acute after the Great Recession hit in 2008. The Art Newspaper, an international publication that covers the visual arts, also notes that MOCA changes leaders on a regular basis, as Burton will be its fourth new director in 12 years.

And, as it turned out, its leadership was shaken up yet again before she could even move in. The original plan was for Burton to replace executive director Klaus Biesenbach, who would stay on as artistic director. Biesenbach issued a statement saying he looked forward to collaborating with Burton, and on Sept. 9 he welcomed her to the opening of a multimedia exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary space. But the very next day, in a development that Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight said was handled awkwardly by the museum, it was announced that Biesenbach had accepted a position as director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in his native Germany.

“That was a surprise to everybody,” Burton says. Then, turning philosophical, she adds: “Shift happens in executive leadership … so we just reconfigured things quickly at the executive level.” The museum subsequently announced that no new artistic director would be appointed, as Burton will take on that responsibility in addition to her previously agreed-upon duties.

So Burton is leaving Columbus for a challenging new position that is now even more demanding than the one she signed up for. Asked what she’s most looking forward to doing at MOCA that she couldn’t do at the Wexner Center, she mentions overseeing “one of the best collections of contemporary art in the world.” That’s a key difference between the two institutions, as the Wex’s famously odd-shaped galleries are devoted to visiting exhibitions rather than a permanent collection.

Beyond that, the Reno, Nevada, native says she’s attracted to the idea of returning to the West Coast and working in L.A. “Lots and lots and lots of artists that I’ve worked with, that I admire, are in that city [and] really part of a tightknit group that I’m excited to join.”

The Wexner Center has named two existing staff members—chief operating officer Megan Cavanaugh and chief advancement officer Kelly Stevelt—to serve as co-interim executive directors while it seeks a replacement for Burton. That will take time, says Pizzuti, who was involved in hiring her in 2019. “When we were going through the interview process, we knew as soon as she arrived and presented herself so beautifully that she was the candidate for this position,” he says. “It’s a loss for the center, it’s a loss for the city. It’s a big gain for the folks in California.” 

This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.