Art and Design in Columbus, IN – an Update

Photography by Tad Fruits

Somewhere in Issue No. 4 of PATTERN, published in 2014, is an article about the unusual city of Columbus, Indiana and its architecture. The article details the city’s history, in which J. Irwin Miller brought renowned mid-century architects to Columbus to design its community buildings. The article also talks about hope for the future. Specifically, there was a hope that something would happen in Columbus to make its buildings visible to the rest of the world and to help inspire art from within the city. In 2014, it wasn’t completely known how that might happen.

In short, it felt like time to take a trip back to Columbus for the recent Exhibit Columbus Symposium and see what has changed. For a city known for its history and unchanging buildings, there was a lot.

The biggest change has been the creation of Exhibit Columbus, an annual exploration of design and architecture. In 2014, there was no conference or larger conversation occurring alongside Columbus’ historic buildings. Now, EC includes an exhibition, where artists and architects are invited to create outdoor installations inspired by Columbus, and a symposium with speakers from around the country. The first symposium was in 2016, and the first exhibition was in 2017. This year’s symposium included lectures in historic Columbus buildings, a documentary screening and Q&A, tours at both Newfields and Columbus sites, and a presentation of this year’s Miller prize winners.

Exhibit Columbus has brought many people to Columbus for its two weekends of events, but it has also helped spur a larger conversation about Columbus. In 2017, there was even a movie titled “Columbus” that was shot in the city. It follows the friendship of the son of a world renowned architect who finds himself stranded in Columbus, and a local woman who is an architecture enthusiast.

Another change within the city’s design and architecture community is the creation of Indiana University’s J. Irwin Miller Architecture program. This is a master’s degree program that is based in Columbus, and it is only a few weeks old. Before it, there was no residential architecture program in the city, only a part-time art and design center. There are 22 students enrolled in the program’s inaugural semester, and it will only continue to grow. T. Kelly Wilson, who previously taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is leading the program. He believes bringing designers to Columbus will help reinvigorate a sense of creation.

“I was determined to make the artists and designers who were here feel like there was a forum of discussion here for artists. But also bringing outsiders in to animate the discussion again, and create things, is important,” he said.

He stressed that while it’s good to honor the historic landmarks that are already there, what Columbus is missing is the creation of new things from within the city. “In Brooklyn, for example, you can feel that people are constantly making stuff, because the evidence tends to bleach the sidewalk. There are so many cool, unanticipated ways in which a lot of people are making a lot of stuff– junk spills out the windows.”

Thanks to past Exhibit Columbus events, there is already increasing publicity for the city. Now it needs to be capitalized on in order to bring in more artists. Columbus Area Arts Council is one organization that is working on this. The arts council provides what artists need most: opportunity and exposure. They also aim to integrate art and design into the lives of everyday community members.

For many of these community members who have grown up in Columbus, Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church is just a church, I.M Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library is just a library, and Eero Saarinen’s famous Miller house is just an unusual house. Curator Christopher West, who was the first to suggest a biannual conference of sorts in Columbus, hopes that increasing awareness for design in the city will teach people to appreciate what is already there.

“I think it’s probably best, especially downtown, for people to spend some time walking around and being with the buildings and seeing how they talk to each other,” he said. “The architects weren’t trying to be flashy or compete, they were trying to be really respectful of the city.”

West maintains that Columbus already has a distinct design identity, and it has since J. Irwin Miller established it as a landmark for mid-century architecture 75 years ago. But its distinction can continue to grow and inspire next generations of designers.

T. Kelly Wilson agrees that the best is yet to come. His Miller M.Arch program is only beginning, but along with Exhibit Columbus and an increased conversation about design, it feels like something new is happening. When he walks around Columbus, he says he feels hope. Even more now than last time.

Wilson describes this hope through a metaphor about a 13th century Italian architect named Arnolfo di Cambio. And though it seems random, it’s a nice sentiment. Cambio designed a massive church foundation in Florence, but it was so big that no one could figure out how to build its roof. For 206 years, Florentines worshipped under an open sky. Later, another architect created the giant dome roof that is now a characteristic landmark in Florence: the “Duomo.” He was the one who received all the acclaim.

Wilson, and the members of the design community who have dedicated their lives to believing in Columbus, are the Cambios of this story. It’s funny to think that a city famous for its 75-year old buildings is still building its foundation. But the work and change that’s happening in Columbus now will soon bring a bustling arts community to match its buildings. Until then, Columbus artists and designers will continue to work under an open sky.