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Ohio’s Largest Cities Show Just What’s Possible with Public Art

Ohio’s Largest Cities Show Just What’s Possible with Public Art

Jan Mercker

Art in Our Midst tours of modern sculpture appeal to the child in all of us

There’s something about Patrick Dougherty’s magical stickwork sculpture “Far Flung” at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum that makes you want to lose yourself in the intricately twisted willow saplings.

The Art in Our Midst shows created by Ohio’s Sculpture Center are all about getting lost in the art that surrounds us. The self-guided outdoor art tours spotlight contemporary sculpture in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. The museum tapped artists and scholars with ties to each city to curate the tours. The result? Three very different takes on public art.

“As cities are shut down, we hope to bring recognition to the art that is visible in our own midst. By exploring public sculpture in our cities, we can have meaningful reasons to be outside, take pride in where we live and appreciate how an artist can change the context of our shared spaces,” said Grace Chin, executive director of the Cleveland-based Sculpture Center.

Far Flung - modern sculpture
The “Far Flung” sculpture by Patrick Dougherty (stickwork.net), on display at Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio. [Photo by Robert A. Flischel Photography]

Modern sculpture superstars in Cincinnati

Kate Bonansinga, director of the School of Art at the University of Cincinnati, curated the tour in that city. Bonansinga found an impressive trove of contemporary sculpture from acclaimed artists at pivotal points in their careers. 

“Each one of them has been sort of a milestone in the artist’s career. It’s a remarkable feat to have them here in this area,” she said. 

Bonansinga was also looking to connect with the city’s famed 19th century architecture, including the Taft Museum of Art. The museum is housed in a 200-year-old mansion in Cincinnati’s downtown. In the front yard, Dougherty’s winding trail of willow branches adds an inviting, fantasy-world feel — with no velvet ropes in sight.

“It’s a beautiful built environment that the art is part of,” Bonansinga said. “You can’t really separate the experience of the art from the experience of the entire milieu, which includes this historic architecture.”

The Cincinnati tour features pieces from the biggest names in contemporary sculpture, like the video art trailblazer Nam June Paik. His 26-foot-tall “Metrobot” sculpture greets visitors outside the city’s Contemporary Arts Center. Other works include the 12-foot-tall bronze “Pinocchio (Emotional)” by pop artist and Cincinnati native Jim Dine at the Cincinnati Art Museum. And Alice Aycock’s 2013 piece “Super Twister” greets visitors at the University of Cincinnati’s Medical Science Building.

Metrobot Cincinnati - modern sculpture
The Metrobot sculpture in Cincinnati. [Photo courtesy of the Sculpture Center]

Crossing the river for Donald Judd’s Box

One of the most important pieces on the tour requires a short drive across the Ohio River to Northern Kentucky University. There, a 1977 work by the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd is on display.

“That’s the piece that’s off the beaten path that shouldn’t be missed,” Bonansinga said. “It was really formative in his career. It launched him on this exploration of the box, which is what he’s now famous for.” 

Judd’s exploration of the box form in the 70s led to one of his most famous works: the untitled 100 aluminum boxes, completed in 1986, at the artist’s Chinati Foundation museum in Marfa, Texas.

The playfulness of public sculpture

For Bonansinga, a longtime art educator and curator, public art is always important. But during a worldwide pandemic, there’s an added sense of release and connection to be found in outdoor spaces. 

“Public artwork is important to any kind of civil society,” she said. “I don’t want to diminish its importance historically or at any time during our social, economic, cultural development. That said, I do think it has this additional role because of the fact that people can’t go to museums.”

Outdoor sculpture also has a way of appealing to kids and young people that other work may not, and all three Art in Our Midst tours lend themselves to family outings.

“It can be more playful,” Bonansinga said. “It becomes integrated into your daily life in a way that maybe a museum piece does not.”

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Before taking the role of running UC’s art school in 2012, Bonansinga ran museums at University of Texas at El Paso and the Oregon College of Art and Craft. She’s curated dozens of exhibitions. She says that while the Cincinnati tour includes phenomenal works, it also opened her eyes to the lack of sculptures by artists of color in her city.

“We really need to get to work on inviting more people of color to create three-dimensional works of public sculpture in southwest Ohio,” she said. “Creating this tour made me think that that would be the most positive and important next step.”

While Bonansinga’s tour highlights representative work from international superstars, curators in the other two cities on the tour took very different approaches.

African American sculptors and found art

In Columbus, curator Destyni Green, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, focused on contemporary sculpture from African American artists, including works by Omar Shaheed, Queen Brooks, Chief Baba Shongo Obadina, Andrew F. Scott, Charles McGee and Melvin Edwards

In Cleveland, curators Andrea Gyorody of Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum and the Cleveland-born artist Lo Smith are spotlighting cultural icons — not necessarily intentional art pieces.

Taking a found art approach, the curators have included an oak tree planted by legendary track and field star Jesse Owens, who spent his middle and high school years in Cleveland. The tree is one of the fabled Olympic Oaks given to athletes at the 1936 Olympics by Adolf Hitler. Owens won four gold medals and brought home four saplings, planting one at James Ford Rhodes High School where he trained. The tour also features the famous pink storage silos at Malley’s Chocolates Cleveland factory, underscoring the idea that art is truly where we find it.

Malleys Chocolate Silos - modern sculpture
The famous pink storage silos at Malley’s Chocolates in Cleveland are featured in the Art in Our Midst tours. [Photo courtesy of the Sculpture Center]

And while the outdoor art tours swing through the summer, the Sculpture Center is also making plans to bring visitors back inside, Chin said. The museum reopens its indoor space Sept. 12. It will showcase a new show featuring work from 2020 and 2019 sculpture graduates from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

Take an Art in Our Midst tour — or take all three

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