CULTURE & TRAVEL

New Director Gaëtane Verna Inherits a Pandemic-Altered Wexner Center for the Arts

The Canadian arts leader will take the helm at the prestigious Ohio State University institution on Nov. 15.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Gaëtane Verna becomes the new executive director of the Wexner Center for the Arts on Nov. 15, 2022.

Gaëtane Verna got the hard sell. When she visited Columbus earlier this year for the first time, she met with Ohio State University officials, Wexner Center for the Arts staffers, community leaders and more. And no matter whom she spoke with—from civic leaders to Uber drivers—everyone expressed unreserved love for Columbus.

She even heard from a fellow Black Canadian museum director—COSI CEO Frederic Bertley, who grew up in Montreal, just like Verna. “He was saying so many great things about Columbus, saying he had lived in Canada. He’d lived in many other cities in the U.S. And by far, Columbus was his favorite,” she says. “He was like, ‘From a brother to a sister, this is a good place.’”

On Nov. 15, Verna will begin her tenure as the next executive director of the Wexner Center for the Arts. And while that sales pitch from Bertley and others influenced Verna’s career shift, the biggest enticement was the actual job. Since its founding at Ohio State in 1989, the Wex has established itself as a unique cultural institution with a sterling reputation in modern art circles. The chance to lead such a place, Verna says, made it easier for her to leave her longtime leadership role at Toronto’s Power Plant, one of Canada’s premier contemporary art galleries, and move to the U.S.

As an example of the Wex’s vision, Verna points to a decision to establish a video artist residency early in the center’s history, embedding the practice alongside film, the visual arts and the performing arts. “When you go to any biennale now, artists have multidisciplinary practices, and visual arts, video and film are the cornerstones of what you see in most contemporary art museums,” says Verna, speaking over the phone from her Toronto home in September. “So to put these practices under one roof together early on with performing arts shows why the Wexner always has had this great reputation.”

The Wexner Center for the Arts on the campus of Ohio State University

But the Wexner Center has suffered some wounds in recent years, from leadership instability and pandemic-induced financial struggles to the tarnished reputation of its founder, billionaire philanthropist Les Wexner, whose connections to sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein have been the focus of intense media scrutiny. Verna says the Epstein scandal didn’t affect her decision to accept the Wexner Center job, saying that the university is a trustworthy and honorable organization. But there’s no doubt that Verna is inheriting an institution in flux, one that has been altered by the pandemic.

During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, the university slashed the Wex’s budget by $2.5 million, which included staff reductions and furloughs. Since then, the university restored funding to the Wex, with the current $11.4 million budget above pre-pandemic levels, but the COVID crisis still inspired center employees to seek union representation with AFSCME Ohio Council 8, joining a wave of museum labor activism across North America. (In August, Columbus Museum of Art employees announced their own plans to form a union.)

Matt Reber (left) and Jo Snyder from the Wexner Center for the Arts. They are part of a group of nearly 40 employees who asked Ohio State University to voluntarily recognize Wex Workers United, formed with AFSCME Ohio Council 8.

Verna has experience with pandemic-inspired organizing efforts. Her employees at the Power Plant formed a union in 2021, and she says she supports workers’ right to organize. “We talk about issues of diversity, equity and emerging social, political questions. This is what we showcase on the walls,” she says, referring to exhibitions. “So we also have a duty to take care of our people, the people who work in the institution.”

Still, Verna has much to learn about the Wex’s labor dynamics. Even though workers have filed a petition for a union vote, they also continue to push university and Wexner Center leadership to voluntarily recognize the union. When asked if she supports voluntary recognition, she acknowledges ignorance of the request. “I haven’t been briefed about any of this,” Verna says. “So I really can’t say anything about it.”

Indeed, Verna is holding off on making any grand assessments on the state of the Wexner Center. She praises the staff’s dedication and commitment, which, she says, “bodes well for the future.” But until she learns more about the inner workings of the institution, “it would be unfair for me to pose judgment.”

Verna does have a track record of navigating difficult transitions. When she took over the Power Plant in 2012, The Globe and Mail in Toronto described the gallery as being in a “perpetual crisis.” Under Verna’s leadership, the Power Plant’s internal politics calmed down, and the institution grew its staff and budget, widened its audience by eliminating admission fees, hosted groundbreaking exhibitions and provided a platform for underrepresented artists.

Moreover, her 10-year directorship was the longest in the gallery’s history. Wexner Center supporters are looking for more stable leadership following the quick exit of Verna’s predecessor, Johanna Burton, who spent just 2½ years at the Wex. Verna, whose annual salary is $300,000, declines to predict how long she’ll be in Columbus, but she does point to her history at the Power Plant and her previous jobs at the Musée d’art de Joliette and the Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, where she stayed six and seven years, respectively. “I like to be invested in institutions,” she says.

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