Wexner Center for the Arts Exhibition Will Trace the Gallery’s Early History

“To Begin, Again” will include experimental works by Richard Tuttle, Frank Stella and others.

Peter Tonguette
Daniel Marcus, associate curator at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Like many people who started a new job during the pandemic, when Daniel Marcus was hired as the associate curator of exhibitions at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts in August 2020, his early days on the job were spent at home. But this isolation led to a revelation: Poring over Ohio State’s online database, Marcus became fascinated by the impressive but rarely-seen art collection that the Wex oversees. 

“It’s not just that it’s an interesting collection, but … there was clearly a story to it,” says Marcus, a native of St. Louis who has lived in Columbus since 2015. He also serves as an assistant professor in the art history department at Ohio State. 

The Wex’s mission today is to serve as an artistic laboratory, not to collect art. But that was not the case for the gallery from which the Wex was born. 

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Marcus learned that the Wex’s opening in 1989 was the culmination of nearly two decades of work by earlier arts leaders in reshaping its predecessor, the University Gallery of Fine Arts. To tell this story, Marcus, along with associate Kristin Helmick-Brunet and intern Arielle Irizarry, has curated a show that centers on the art acquisitions and exhibitions that paved the way for the Wex. To Begin, Again: A Prehistory of the Wex, 1968–89 will open Feb. 5 and continue through May 8 at the arts center. 

The exhibition will display works by leading contemporary artists that were acquired by the university beginning in the mid-1970s, including works by Mel Bochner, Frank Stella, Richard Tuttle and other icons. 

The collection has its roots in May 1970 when, following a wave of student protests in opposition to the Vietnam War, amid frustration over civil rights and women’s rights, and in the wake of the Kent State shootings, Ohio State was shuttered for two weeks. 

“It was really obvious, after May 1970, that the university was going to have to develop a whole series of responses to student grievances,” says Marcus. In this environment of cultural ferment, officials turned to Betty Collings, a New Zealander who had recently completed her MFA at Ohio State, to run the university’s art gallery. 

“I think that, for them, it was just desperation,” says Collings, now 88. “For me, it was an opportunity.” 

Under Collings’ leadership, the gallery, which had previously shown mainly works by students and faculty members, began hosting major contemporary artists and, through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts that were matched by Ohio State, purchasing important works. Collings went on buying trips to New York, returning with radical artworks that, Marcus says, “most OSU administrators would not have recognized as art.” 

One such piece was Tuttle’s “1st Paper Octagonal,” a piece of paper that is pasted on a wall of an exhibition space and inevitably destroyed upon removal; the Wex still owns a template and letter from the artist explaining how many times the work can be shown and destroyed. 

Following the departure of Collings in the early ’80s, Jonathan Green took the reins, mounting shows by outsider artists and work that dealt with timely topics, like the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In 1989, the gallery was supplanted by the strikingly modern Wexner Center for the Arts. 

The Ohio State art department had grown up, leaving behind its “conservative, quiet” days, Collings says. “It went from a place where there was nothing much happening to where there was a lot of excitement.”  

This story is from the February 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.