Annie Leibovitz: Behind the Wexner Center’s new exhibition

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From the September 20, 2012 edition

How does a contemporary art center in Columbus land the prize of being the first institution in the world to display uber-famous photographer Annie Leibovitz’s complete, iconic Master Set? As it turns out, you start by asking.

Then you hold on for the whirlwind.

For the last 15 months, the word “Annie” has bounced again and again off the walls at the Wexner Center for the Arts, literally (actually, it’s fixed on the wall now) and figuratively.

The three-part exhibition that encompasses more than 300 photographs, some of them never before shown, started with casual conversations in December 2011. In those first conversations, Leibovitz and the Wexner Center found they shared unexpected connections. Now they’ll always be linked, through this exhibition and through the 14th Wexner Prize, which will be given to Leibovitz in a November ceremony.

The show opens with a splashy party on Friday night for Wexner Center members and another for OSU students. There will be plenty to celebrate — and plenty of relief. For a year, nearly everyone who works at the Wex has been involved somehow in making this show become reality. We talked to a few of the key players to find out what it takes to pull off a show on this scale, with an artist so famous she’s often called by just one name.

“It’s one of those moments where we have a show where you can essentially say the name and people who are not necessarily art-world people say, ‘I have to come see that.’ There have only been a few of those in the history of the Wexner Center,” said Jerry Dannemiller, the center’s director of marketing and communications.

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Walking through the Wexner Center a couple of weeks ago, visitors were greeted just outside the galleries with a closed, semi-transparent rolling door and a sign inviting them to come back soon for the opening of the Annie Leibovitz show. Behind that door, the tedious, tenuous final steps of making an art exhibition were beginning.

In one gallery, the installation team examined framed photographs (hey, that’s Johnny Depp and Kate Moss!), painstakingly inspecting the prints and their frames and glass for any flaws. In another, a couple dozen Leibovitz prints from the Pilgrimage series rested on a quilt of furniture pads on the floor. Work lights were trained on the south wall, where painter’s tape marked off spots. Visitors signed in with a security guard at the top of a back stairwell.

To hang a single photograph, measurements were taken, nitrile gloves were worn, and three people handled the frame itself (one on each side and a third acting as a middle spotter). Everything was done gingerly, quietly, deliberately.

It is hardly riveting to watch this process, but visitors won’t be able to peel their eyes from the images when all the furniture pads are rolled up, the gallery is lit and that door rolls open.

The Leibovitz exhibition is divided in three parts: The Master Set, Pilgrimage and a casual studio-proof collage in the public space just outside the galleries. Pilgrimage is a traveling exhibition that has been at The Smithsonian. The Master Set has never before been presented in a unified show.

“She chose the images in the Master Set. She wanted her range to be on view. She didn’t want her greatest hits,” said Bill Horrigan, the show’s curator. “She wanted her reportage. Pictures of her family, her children, her parents. I think people will find the range surprising.”

These are the photographs you closely associate with Leibovitz, though many of them have not been seen for years. The Pilgrimage images are wildly different.

“People tend to have a preconceived notion of the kind of work that she does, and Pilgrimage blows that out of the water,” said Jill Davis, director of exhibitions management at the Wexner Center and essentially the show’s project manager. “We want the message of this exhibition to be: She’s a broad range of work.”

Horrigan and Davis were in the gallery that Monday, watching the installation of the Pilgrimage photos. So was Patrick Weber, exhibition designer and senior preparatory, who has been responsible for all the physical aspects of the show.

Collaboration among these three is typical for any show at the Wex. But this show hasn’t been typical, right from the start.

Horrigan was with Wexner Center director Sherri Geldin and deputy director Jack Jackson in December 2011 at that first visit with Leibovitz.

“We were just kind of spitballing, a kind of agenda-free discussion, and at some point Annie started telling us about the Master Set,” Horrigan said. “The idea came to her in conversation that it might be interesting to get these photos together in the same space and see what they’d look like as an exhibition.”

Pilgrimage also came up as a possibility. And Horrigan looked through her archive book, a list of every assignment Leibovitz has shot since 1970, finding name after name of other artists the Wex has worked with. “Her idea was to identify those people and do a very unpretentious collage,” Horrigan said.

That concept developed into what visitors see at the base of the Wexner Center stairs, just outside the galleries. The installation gives visitors an idea of how a Leibovitz show or book comes together in a studio — simple computer printouts tacked to inexpensive boards.

Leibovitz and her frequent collaborator, Sharon Delano, visited the Wexner Center in early February 2012.

“I had kind of quietly inquired in one of our early conversations — it was so quiet I’m not sure Annie heard it — about the Master Set,” Geldin said. “ ‘Do you think Annie would ever think about exhibiting the Master Set?’ ‘Oh, no, she’d never do that.’ I said, ‘All right,’ figuring I didn’t want to jinx anything. When she arrived here, she said she had been giving some thought to what body or bodies of work would make sense, and when she mentioned the Master Set, I was completely flabbergasted and thrilled.”

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The scope of what goes into organizing an exhibition like this is difficult to comprehend. The physical needs of the show, from walls (color, height, placement, number of) and the art (frame material and color, glass, size of prints, preparation, framing) are just the beginning.

The prints have been struck in New York and shipped in tubes to Columbus, where they were rested flat. Reed Arts framed all of the prints — Davis calls the Grandview business a Santa’s workshop for the quantity and quality of work it did for the show.

The prints beg visitors to linger and wait for them to leap to life. In the Pilgrimage series, the feathers of a preserved bird corpse appear poised to flutter in a breeze. Water all but laps the shores of the River Ouse, where Virginia Woolf drowned herself in 1941.

“They say people moving through museums stop for 15 seconds,” Geldin said. “Maybe we’ll set a slower pace.”

The curation of the show — the choices about the story it will tell visitors as they walk through — is another enormous consideration.

“We have to make sure we’re maintaining these relationships [between photos] that Annie has in her head,” Davis said. “There’s documentation of war in Sarajevo in the Master Set, and a picture of Bon Jovi in a tanning bed. You’ve gotta be really sensitive to the way the show is rolling out through the galleries.”

The Wexner Center is setting a high bar for attendance and exposure, too. An exhibit like this is a golden opportunity to get first-time visitors in the door and excited about contemporary art.

“It’s something that galvanizes the entire community, whether you’re a culture-vulture or not,” Dannemiller said. “Bill said this before, that it’s basically a photo album of the last 40 years of America. It’s truly a moment that you have to seize."

The show has been heavily advertised locally and in targeted national media (a glossy insert went into regional distribution of a recent Sunday New York Times). A 90-foot wallscape by Orange Barrel Media was being installed week — yes, that’s Muhammad Ali languidly lounging on those stairs — on a side of Lincoln Hall readily visible to all that Saturday traffic heading north on Route 315 (the show is also being advertised inside Ohio Stadium). A travel package with a hotel room and admission to the exhibition has been organized.

And more than 50 reporters and photographers are expected at the Wexner Center on Friday morning for a tour guided by Leibovitz herself, who will also be at the members-only party that night.

“We also hope that, by virtue of coming to the center and finding something that speaks to people on a very fundamental level, we will demystify contemporary art a little bit and encourage people to come back even when they don’t recognize the name on the marquee,” Geldin said.