The Other Columbus: Learning to love your culture before it’s gone

A city benefits when it honors its artists in their time

Scott Woods
At the Columbus Museum of Art in 2002,  Aminah Robinson sits in a chair she created.

Aminah Robinson is Columbus' greatest visual artist. She is the one that Columbus holds up in every corner, from the Black neighborhood she grew up in to the Columbus Museum of Art and the art community at large. Like most famous artists, she is more revered after her death than she was in her lifetime. That is traditionally how artistic fame works, but shouldn't.

I was recently afforded the opportunity to speak and perform at a mural unveiling, and I brought up this same point. It seemed fitting, considering the subject of the mural, best-selling poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib, was on hand to receive the honor directly. And not only is Hanif not deceased, but he’s still quite young. His presence was part of what made the moment powerful and communally inspiring. It felt good to honor an artist to their face for once, to hand them roses while they can smell them for themselves. Doing so makes it feel like the city got one right, like we might actually appreciate the culture we produce for once. 

More:Why, yes, that is Hanif Abdurraqib staring back at you on East Main Street

To be clear, I am doing nothing as gauche as comparing the two artists. I am comparing the way that a city holds up its artists. And not just its great ones, but all of its artists, and more importantly, their work.  It is easy to appreciate a great artist, and a well-known one is even easier. And to be clear again, cities looking to up their property values need things like culture and art in the brochures. Otherwise they're just selling that old chestnut about living in close proximity to shopping malls.

Some cities do reverence just fine; cities that have longstanding art traditions and deep cultural roots. Columbus is far from being one of those cultural enclaves. It's OK to say it out loud because it's not something that you can fake. So it is a good thing — beautiful, in fact — to see artists being held up the way that they have been by their communities in recent years. Let us see more murals and billboards. Increased resource support would be better, but we’re making the whole bus stop advertisement work for now.

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Using the Black arts community as a gauge, the impression is that we're getting closer and closer to doing it the right way, by which I mean at the right time. We didn't get Elijah Pierce right, as he is clearly more famous after his passing than when he was alive, and he lived behind the museum. Respected muralist Wali Neil is someone we missed the boat on during his lifetime, but at least we figured it out not long after. What used to happen with an artist like him is they would pass on and would not be widely recognized by the city until many years after their passing. The Long Street bridge commemorating Black Columbus history is filled with artists like that. 

The Lincoln Theater has stepped up to address that void in the last few years with its Walk of Fame additions, some of whom were posthumous entries, some of whom were alive to see their stars installed. The recent crowning of poet Is Said is a great example of us getting it about 90 percent right. We could have received a perfect score if we had given him that shine 10 years ago. Said remains a working artist and an active mentor. Such accolades and expanded awareness would have been nice to place into his hands a decade ago, when he was still turning out a new book and play every year. A concrete star and a mural are great, but making him part of a school syllabus ensures we keep getting more Is Saids.

Thanks to the advent of social media, communities are able to crown their noteworthy artists in real time. That is a beautiful thing. Flawed, but beautiful. I don't think I'm speaking out of school to point out that social media turns everything into a popularity contest, while at the same time feeding into the American obsession with prodigies. But the whole thing works when great artists are recognized just as their greatness is breaking. 

And for once, with Hanif, we got it right. It wasn’t too soon and it wasn’t too late. He has a lot more work left in him to give the world, and Columbus will benefit from that in myriad ways. As a city in search of an identity, we should all be embracing opportunities to do more of that kind of cultural canonization while our artists can benefit from such love. When you get it right, it is the kind of reward that gives back.