Home » A+E » Opinion: Don’t touch that — Sterile atmosphere at Wexner Center for the Arts puts visitors on edge

Opinion: Don’t touch that — Sterile atmosphere at Wexner Center for the Arts puts visitors on edge

Visitors look at Giacometti's work at the Wexner Center for the Arts while a security guard looks on. Credit: Daniel Bendtsen / Asst. arts editor

Visitors at the Wexner Center for the Arts look at Giacometti’s work while a security guard looks on.
Credit: Daniel Bendtsen / Asst. arts editor

There’s a reason this section is called “arts and entertainment.” The two have a lot of overlap — in an ideal world, they’d be synonymous: aesthetic and amusement intertwined into one.

Too often, the “fine arts” (e.g. ballet, sculpture) fail to entertain the masses. For some, art museums can seem to be full of some elitist snobbery, where the phonies go to become sophisticates.

That was a stigma curator Robert Storr was hoping to avoid when he worked on the Wexner Center for the Arts’ new gallery, “Transfigurations.” The collection comes from Les and Abigail Wexner’s personal collection and features the work of Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, among others. It’s a big deal for the center, and, as Storr said, “the best art should be seen by the most people.”

The populace, he said, is not alienated by art, but by what people say about art. Students in middle America usually “see art on screens or pages,” he said, and so he hopes the exhibition will give visitors a personal relationship with the works.

That is an admirable and wholly appropriate goal.

It’s only a shame, then, that the Wex hasn’t fostered an atmosphere conducive to make the most of the art.

Like going to the zoo or a stroll atop the Grand Canyon, a visit to the Wex’s galleries should be fun and thrilling, as well as cerebrally stimulating.

Unfortunately, all the fun goes out the window when you walk in the door. The Wex’s galleries have all the inviting charm of going through airport security.

There’s a cop at the entrance and another one inside. There are guards standing sentinel as though they’re Secret Service — and in case you didn’t figure out what they’re there for, the word “security” in big block letters on their backs drives home this point: Don’t you dare touch anything!

There are railings around the perimeter of the floor to keep visitors a good 3 feet from the paintings — which is a damn shame considering the painterly nature of much of the Wexners’ collection. For as much as people like to rant and rave about the childlike approach to the human figure from Picasso and Dubuffet, these works are great in part because of how texturally compelling they are.

There are works here of gouache, charcoal, pastel and bronze.

The oil paint on Willem de Koonings’ “Pink Lady” is cracked and shimmering; DuBuffet’s grotesque portraits are layered with tar and sand; the silhouettes of Giacometti’s sculptures are serrated and rough like an ominous shadow from a dream.

Part of the awesomeness of DuBuffet’s “Paris – Montparnasse” is the chaotic world of a city street it depicts, a depiction so strongly helped by the equally chaotic globs of paint plastered on the piece.

These works are strange and often absurd depictions of the world — brilliant, too, in their ability to show reality in a novel way it is clearly not.

But even more bizarre is to put them in an environment that turns an experience of the absurd into a sedated study session.

During one of my recent visits to “Transfigurations,” a man’s phone started ringing and he got a lengthy stare down from the two guards in the room until he was able to turn it off.

How dare he? He broke one of the “rules” on the lengthy list detailing the gallery’s “etiquette.” Didn’t he notice the dozen signs saying “no cell phone usage” lining the galleries?

Whether intentional or not, the atmosphere creates the impression that this is a place for silence. Whenever I’ve been in with a friend and our conversation about a painting rose above a whisper, the guards turned into prudish librarians and gave us a stern look as though our behavior had broken a carefully-cultivated solemnity.

There’s no problem with pondering over a work in quiet solitude, but there’s an implication here that it’s the only way to experience art.

In interviews and in videos at “Transfigurations,” Les Wexner gives a spiel about the inspiration a Picasso painting can catalyze. Maybe inner-city kids will do better in their classes or a doctor can find a cure if they all come to look at his paintings, he says.

Even if that pretension is possible, it’s pretty hard to feel inspired when guards are magnetized to you as soon as you actually seem interested in something.

I’m not saying we need to let everyone touch the paintings, but the guards need to stop acting like that’s everyone’s intention.

And as much as the guards can be repressive, I mostly feel bad for them. Can someone please get these people some chairs? There is no reason for them to be standing as though there’s the constant need to jump in action. Half of them seem to be kicking their feet and pacing around to keep their legs fresh — it’s no wonder they seem so glum.

In a previous exhibition at the Wex, I was tapped on the shoulder by a security guard when my eyeballs got within a foot or two of a sculpture — even more irritating when it’s a 3-D object made to be looked at from all angles.

What’s so entirely frustrating about this environment is that it seems so unnecessary. I’ve been to art museums in New York, Chicago and London, where the works dwarf the monetary or historical value of anything the Wex has. There, people laugh and talk. People are having fun and having lively discussion, and if you stick your nose close enough to a painting, the most likely reaction from a guard is to share an interesting anecdote about the work. The guards feel more like tour guides than security.

Whatever those museums are doing, they’re doing it right. Please, Ohio State, give them a call.

The environment at the Wex makes it seem like it expects its typically affluent and elderly patrons to deface the art and start a heist at any moment. Isn’t this what security cameras are for?

It’s no secret OSU wants to raise the eminence of its arts program. Provost Joseph Steinmetz told The Lantern in the spring OSU hopes to create a world-class corridor of an arts district, focused on the Wex.

If the Wex wants to reach the paramount, it needs to first break from the repressive atmosphere it has unfortunately created. When the center becomes vibrant and inviting, the people will come.

7 comments

  1. If this seems like overposting, I generally publish when I’ve been assaulted, or when my privacy is ignored, or when my cats cry out in pain by some assault of government. if you see three postings in a row, as sometimes happens, it just means i’ve been assaulted, or my cats assaulted, or my privacy invaded, three times lately. the other day it was a flash energy assault aimed at my temple/top of my head. literally thousands of such assaults over the past decade, I’m sure that estimate is accurate….the other day one of my cats was bleeding, hair missing from its back, and two of them actually had scabs and radiation bumps on their back as a result of being shot with energy weaponry. A cat that was hospitalized by energy attacks and food tampering less than a year ago was groaning in pain from energy attacks , and they’re induced to vomit constantly . for many years my cats were crying out in pain from energy attacks –several times a day over many years. they’re still being attacked, and are crawling with fleas despite the application of frontline or advantage products every few weeks–the community is actually putting bogus or weak products on the market in retaliation. they knocked one of my cats off a ledge the other day, 15 foot drop, and have induced another of my cats to run off twice, a cat that is very docile and usually doesn’t even want to go outside/agitated by being shot with energy weaponry. i contacted the aspca in 2007, and after that could only find work fundraising for abused animals, the community’s own form of symbolic punishment. not a bad job, though the idea that they manipulated my circumstance to this extent is ridiculous. My entire apt. is being heated by radiation, more than 10x the norm, causing my cats to noticeably sweat–you could probably measure it from space.
    The federal government of course has all the power in the world to stop it. My tooth was knocked out in increments, over a 2 year span by energy weaponry assaults, for stating and proving the crimes committed by the federal government, absolute torture, like having a tooth drilled without novocaine for several hours. in 1997 i was made homeless by community manipulation; in an 8 or 9 month span i had a gun to my head, was knocked out, and was intentionally run down by a car and taken by ambulance to a hospital, believe it or not, to the laughter of the community.
    the federal government has admitting to torturing, and of course that’s a per se violation of the 8th amendment, though it should also be regarded as criminal.
    If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth, right? The Democrats’ great accomplishment is producing the political equivalent of a Rodney King video, clearly demonstrating the lies of the right, the right Hilary Clinton correctly identified as a vast conspiracy. Confirm by examining Central District of California Cases, 01-4340, 03-9097, 08-5515, 10-5193, US Tax Court 12000-07L –though I think you want to view my US Tax Court Appeal to the 9th Circuit for a good account of their day to day assaults, a few month time slice indicative of a decade of assault, and more recently 9th Circuit case 11-56043.

  2. I can’t help but think this article misrepresents this magnificent exhibition. I have also been to numerous art museums in the U.S., Europe, and Middle East, and I would argue that the Wexner Center is right up there in terms of “view-ability.”

    I recently spent a weekend in NYC visiting the MoMa and The Whitney, and I can objectively say that I felt no difference in atmosphere – other than the amount of foot traffic in NYC vs. Columbus.

    Speaking to your critique of the security, throughout my undergraduate studies I have developed a positive rapport between myself and the security guards at the WEX.

    Daniel – I’m afraid your painting a bleak picture of the Wexner Center. Instead of poking holes into this brilliant exhibition, I implore you take the time to appreciate it’s worth.

  3. You cannot ignore the fact that the Wexner’s have an estimated $1 art portfolio that they are allowing to be viewed, seen, and shared. A Picasso painting is one of many extraordinary pieces found in their collection. These pieces of fine art are not toys. They are not meant to be handled. While I understand it is not the intention of all to touch them, you cannot take the risk with such delicate works of art. These pieces are historical, not just any given sculpture by a modern day aspiring artist, but by world-renowned figures. They’re must be ropes keeping a 3 foot distance between viewers and the art work. It is a necessity to have security to make sure these paintings are not harmed or damaged. While the environment may not be as inviting as you would like, the security and safety precautions are not to blame.

  4. The Wexner Center consistently thinks its too good for the public.
    Anywhere else, a show like this would have been opening and inviting (and, yes, had a appropriate amount of security), without being stifling.
    Yes, they are works by important artists, but every other museum on earth manages to display other, more valuable, masterpieces without making you feel like you are in line for the TSA.
    The Wexner Center needs to get off its high horse… (what am I saying, we know thats never gonna happen).

  5. Someone’s upset they couldn’t take a selfie with Picasso it seems.

  6. You idiot. First off, this “article” isn’t even a basic “review” executed by a “journalist” practicing his right to review under “fair comment and criticism” protection under libel law. Sure, it may not be proven that he set out with malicious intent to defame the Wexner Center’s unique attempt to share never-before-seen art to the public in Ohio, but his best defense in the court of public opinion, among his OSU peers who are able to attend such a mind-blowing and expensive exhibit for free, is simply “I am an idiot and a poor excuse for a writer”. A kid like this has very little hope of ever being called a journalist because should he ever use this “opinion clip” as an example of his work, he would never be hired by any serious publication.
    I really would like to address the paid “advisor” who is supposed to monitor such flaws in the Lantern’s student writers. You did him no favors by allowing him to form a half opinion without taking into account that literally thousands of school children will see this exhibit, some of who are young and like to get touchy with art. I mean what if that guy who ran onto the field at the football game picked up and tried to run with a Degas statue like a football? Should we only fine him $100 and send him on his way or should he be stopped? To stop stupid behavior, you need security as a first line of defense. Mister “advisor,” aren’t you the first line of defense to stop stupidity within the pages of The Lantern? It seems to me that someone other than the Wexner has dropped the ball here.

  7. Interesting article. I was reprimanded for leaning against the corner of a wall not associated with the collection. Not the friendliest atmosphere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.