Dennis Harrington hasn’t used his artistic training to create much of his own art lately. He instead makes it his mission to optimize the artistic visions of others.
The longtime director of The Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery is widely thought to curate some of the region’s finest shows. In 2015 the Weston celebrates its 20th year, and remains true to its original mission of showcasing the works of local and regional artists.
The non-profit gallery within the Aronoff Center for the Arts complex hosts 8-10 museum-quality shows a year in its high-profile, two level, 3,500-square-foot space.
Harrington credits the women who mentored him as an installer and curator after he graduated in 1979 with his master’s degree in fine arts (painting and drawing) from the University of Cincinnati. He notes his work as an artist also has aided his work.
“Partly because I’ve had the experience of being an artist – I wouldn’t say I was the most successful artist in the world, by any means, but I had the experience of making art and working as an artist, and being on both sides – the Weston has always been very supportive of artists’ efforts,” says the unassuming 60-year-old Clifton resident.
He’s carved a respected career for himself, an impressive feat for someone who left UC not knowing what he’d do next.
An Unexpected Path
“I came out of graduate school without really a plan and was very fortunate to land a job, to work with Toni (Birckhead, now Toni LaBoiteaux) , who opened this commercial space (Toni Birckhead Gallery) on West Fourth Street in 1979.”
Toni approached Harrington about the job because he had some experience with exhibits: He had helped install a show as an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery, aided with exhibitions as a graduate student at UC’s former Tangeman Fine Arts Gallery, and worked on installations at the Contemporary Arts Center’s old location on East Fifth Street.
Harrington worked for Toni 16 years.
“It was a different world,” he said. “It was a commercial gallery, which is a very challenging profession,” he said. “Toni initially was showing emerging New York artists and was interested in this kind of New York connection. And we did some early exhibitions that kind of featured a combination of what you might consider blue-chip artists, like Jim Dine or (Robert) Rauschenberg, with some up-and-coming artists and try to just kind of mesh.”
But it was costly to ship the art here, and there wasn’t much of a market for it in Cincinnati. Also, as it turned out, “People in Cincinnati, collectors that were interested in purchasing New York artists, wanted to go to New York,” Harrington said. So the gallery gravitated toward local and regional artists – generally, those working in southwestern Ohio or across the state.
Toni was to be the Weston’s first director, but ultimately decided against it.
Salli LoveLarkin, who had run the non-profit, alternative-exhibition CAGE (Cincinnati Artists Group Effort) gallery on West Fourth Street for years next to the Birckhead gallery, then became the Weston’s director.
“Salli set the mark and established the programming for the Weston,” with the help of the nine-member advisory board, including Toni, Harrington said. LoveLarkin, herself a fine local artist, created the gallery’s unofficial mantra: “Without artists, we have no purpose.”
Given that foundational belief, said Harrington, who was exhibition preparator under her, “Of course we’re going to be sympathetic to their cause.”
After the gallery opened in 1995 LoveLarkin had difficulty early on with an unknown ailment that took more than a year to diagnose. It was determined to be ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s Disease. She remained in the position another year, before retiring, and died in 1999. Harrington was appointed interim director and became permanent director in June 1998.
Big Efforts for Artists
After LoveLarkin retired, Harrington hired Kelly O’Donnell as full-time assistant, and she later became assistant director.
“I think we’ve been fairly consistent and vigilant in continuing to show local and regional artists and to continue to offer up artist opportunities to present their work in the best possible way,” Harrington said.
“We go to great lengths to present their work, provide them with honorariums, we transport their artwork, we provide them with installation assistance,” he added. “I think we go to extraordinary limits, within the limits of our budget and safety,” he said.
“The upper gallery is a bit more challenging, but I have to say the organization as a whole – the Cincinnati Arts Association (the Weston’s non-profit parent agency) – has been very tolerant of many projects we’ve done upstairs through the years, which have been pretty challenging,” he said. “And I think that’s a unique aspect of the gallery, is that we’re willing to go the extra mile for the artists because we believe in artists.”
Harrington was working with Toni before the gallery opened, and they toured the raw space during construction.
“I had the opportunity to make suggestions about the physical space, just in terms of making it what I saw as more functional, more practical, and they accommodated many of those requests,” Harrington said. “I was really quite surprised. I didn’t know that I was really coming out of any area of any great expertise.”
He suggested, for example, they put ¾-inch plywood behind the walls, and add a gallery office and prep space, plus an adequate track flexible-lighting system. The gallery originally was designed just to be completely open. He suggested outlet strips along the base of the walls, a drop ceiling be used rather than a fixed one so crews could get above it.
“So I was involved before the space opened,” he said.
When the entire place was merely an idea, its working name was The Performing Arts Center, before the Aronoff name was added. The visual arts community discovered no space had been designated for the visual arts, a reason the gallery ended up in the basement: That was the only space left. Since the Proctor and Gamble lobby was a space no one knew what to do with, it was added to the gallery’s areas, and, in the early days, the two spaces were informally referred to as “the top gallery” and “the bottom galleries/basement.” Alice and Harris Weston gave significant funds for the space, and the gallery has its own board, as well as advisory committees that help select the artists who show there. Many art observers feel Harrington that he has performed special wonders with a basement space that features little natural light.
Windows to the City
Currently, the glass-enclosed, street-level gallery that serves as an entryway to the theater upstairs houses a large work displaying 650 paper-mache skulls by Columbus College of Art and Design professor Tim Rietenbach.
During recent Elf performances, Rietenbach’s The Man exhibit was still being installed, “But we still had people coming in and gawking at it, like, ‘What is that thing?’
“I have to say, for the most part, from what I’ve heard – and maybe I’m blocking out the negative – but most of what I’ve heard about Tim’s work seems very positive. People are bemused by it. You will get the occasional complaint, ‘It seems inappropriate for Christmas.’”
The street-level gallery, above the other two, “was not created as an exhibition space,” Harrington said. “It’s a large vestibule as (Aronoff Center architect) Cesar Pelli I think envisioned it, which is a public space to gain entrance to the theater upstairs. We were happy to have that space because it gives us exposure to the street – public access.”
The Weston aims to expose as many as possible to new art by the region’s artists, and to spotlight the work of talented artists who don’t often get much attention, and aren’t always focused on the money.
“A lot of great artists working in the state of Ohio, mostly working in the shadows, in little isolated pockets,” Harrington said. “Universities and colleges provide a support system for artists, I think to provide a steady income, but also to be connected with creative people, with students that come through. But to be able to produce their work without the burden – I call it somewhat of a burden – of trying to sell it. I would say many of the artists we’re working with are not necessarily producing a saleable product. They’re interested in ideas and concepts. Sales are kind of a bonus. It’s not always the first criteria.”
Also, “We’re offering the viewing public an opportunity to engage that artwork and expand their knowledge of the visual arts, but also expand, or hopefully give them a different perspective on the world, which is what I think artists do.”
Two Fine Examples
Among the most enjoyable shows for Harrington and O’Donnell was the recent American Primitives show by Todd Slaughter, a Columbus artist who teaches at Ohio State University.
“Todd has just approached 70 and he’s done some really pretty amazing sculptural projects over the years, really large-scale monumental work,” Harrington said. “And we did a show early in the gallery’s history, when Salli was director, called Domestic Comfort and Galaxy Clusters.”
“We’ve done a number of shows over the years, having one artist do the entire space, and Todd did this show in 1997 and he just returned this past summer, and did another show. And it’s just a major, major undertaking, in terms of the scale of the work and getting the work here, the transformation of the space.
“We did the most major building upstairs that we’ve ever done – building 14-foot walls,” he said. “And in the lower galleries, we took out a section of the ceiling; we created different rooms; we painted the gallery; we covered the glass windows; we created a very theatrical experience, moving through the space.”
In Slaughter’s previous show, when LoveLarkin was director, “We covered all the windows upstairs with blue theater gel. And it was the first time we’d ever suspended work in that space. We’d figured out a way to do it through the lights and Todd created his own lighting system for that work upstairs. It was like kind-of a blue cathedral space, almost,” he said.
Those Slaughter shows wee exceptional because of the amount of work and coordination of dealing with very non-traditional materials, such in the earlier show, where there was a galaxy-like elliptical plane of burnt doll-house furniture and cats molded from denture material that were filled with dry ice, he said.
“To make those things happen, and work with these artists in the planning process, and to have an end result that’s very pleasing is very satisfying, if not exhausting, I have to say.”
Slaughter “was very happy,” Harrington said. “I can tell you the majority of artists we’ve had the privilege to work with over these years are very pleased with our efforts, and very appreciative. And many of them are just blown away to receive that kind of attention and support. Because in some cases they can even – on the opposite end – I’m not saying this happens too often, they can almost be adversarial in some major institutions, working with artists that they may take the view they’re doing more for the artist than the artist is doing for them. I think that’s certainly the wrong attitude to take.”
The Weston recently presented a show by Emily Hanako Momohara, who until recently was a Cincinnati photographer, before moving this fall to Shanghai.
“She wanted to include these video pieces as part of her photography exhibition, but kind of in the same format as her photographs,” Harrington said. “In other words, they would be framed to the same dimensions. And in order to do that, we built video walls, or we built walls out from the existing walls to accommodate monitors that could be framed.
“We used our existing inventory that we had built up from previous exhibitions, so the monitors were all different sizes,” he said. When Harrington gave group tours of that show, “I would just be a little bit behind the scenes and you could open these doors and show people, ‘Well, this is how we did this.’
“And they would be kind of blown away, interested in this sort of stuff,” he said. “So that’s just an example of working to create what an artist wants. I mean, Emily had an idea of what she wanted to do. She wasn’t exactly sure how to accomplish it. We were able to do that for her.”
Viewers saw luscious, shimmering videos that seemed to hang on the wall along with her equally engaging still photographs.
O’Donnell described the effect: “It was magical.”
“I think some people would be amazed at what we do sometimes, in terms of changing the space, and offering the space to make it work with a show. Or, they might think we’re foolish,” Harrington added, with a laugh.
Hanako Momohara “was very happy,” he said. “And the people who came to see the show were very delighted by it. We were very pleased by that, of course.”
Taking Some Risks
Unlike a commercial gallery, whose goal is selling the works, the Weston, as a non-profit enterprise displays many without expectations of sales. When works sell, the gallery takes a 20-percent commission, with that money going for use in future programming.
As a non-profit enterprise, “It’s important to recognize that we’re not programming exhibitions based on whether we think something can sell or not, because obviously we wouldn’t be showing Tim Rietenbach upstairs, or John Kortlander, for that matter, because they’re pretty dark subjects, and again, it’s not to put anything that’s potentially saleable down or as not as significant or something, but that’s not our criteria.”
Joyce Phillips Young, on the other hand, has sold several of her lyrical, colorful paintings on display. All three exhibits close Feb. 22.
“We can facilitate sales and we can support it, but we’ve done shows like from collections or from installations like Tim’s piece The Man upstairs that’s not going to sell. There’s some remote possibility somebody might be interested in that, but it’s likely that is not going to sell, as a piece.”
Harrington lives in Clifton with his wife, Suzann Kokoefer, who also is a trained artist, now an assistant kindergarten teacher at the Fairview German Language School in Clifton. They are parents to Henry, 22; and Sophie, 18; and have a granddaughter, Josalyn.
He enjoys good films and reading, and wishes he spent more time with each. As for his painting?
“I won’t say I won’t ever make art again – I occasionally might,” he said. “But being in artists’ studios and working on projects like house projects and such provides a similar good feeling for me, personally.”
“I never had the commitment and dedication – almost an obsession, I think – that’s required sometimes to persist in the making of work. But it’s still back there somewhere: I could, maybe, possibly. I was asked to donate something a couple years ago, and I did create something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. But there’s no consistent making work.”
While creating art, he most enjoyed the physical aspects of working with materials and altering things. He also enjoyed the problem-solving, and conceptual thinking.
“There’s all those aspects in putting shows together and working in the space, too, so yeah, I think part of that is satisfied here, and this process can be exhausting,” he said. “It doesn’t leave much for pursuing other things.”