Last week, three artists from the exhibition “Past as Present: Capturing and Archiving the Female Experience” headlined its opening reception. The event offered the pleasures one would expect from a FotoFocus-affiliated production: astonishing art, tasty refreshments, and a lively panel discussion featuring the artists themselves. But there was one twist. The event didn’t occur at the Contemporary Arts Center or a similar venue. Instead, it took place in the heart of the University of Cincinnati’s Clifton campus, at the DAAP Reed Gallery.
FotoFocus has cultivated a rich relationship with higher education, even if that relationship sometimes gets overlooked. “Consistently, since the first Biennial in 2012,” says FotoFocus Executive Director Mary Ellen Goeke, “we’ve tried to partner with the universities in the region.”
That partnership has produced wonderful results. This year’s Biennial boasts not just 80-plus locations (and 450-plus artists) but exhibitions at nine local universities, including Xavier University, Northern Kentucky University, and Miami University. According to Kate Bonansinga, the UC professor who curated “Past as Present,” FotoFocus’s substantial support makes these exhibitions possible. More than 150 UC students listened to last week’s panel discussion, and, says Bonansinga, “It would not have existed without FotoFocus’s help.” (“Past as Present,” which pairs the work of three Ohio-based artists with other artists who are internationally known, runs through December 2. The Reed Gallery’s hours are Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it is free to the public. )
FotoFocus provides local universities with more than just financial support. The Biennial’s theme—this year it’s “Open Archive”—can offer inspiration. “It was the universities in particular that really came across with some of the strongest and boldest responses,” says Goeke. She points to the “Nuclear Fallout” exhibition at Antioch College’s Herndon Gallery, an exhibition that draws on three different archives to explore the aftershocks of atomic war. “Nuclear Fallout” relied on student voices to come together, and it also gives students a glimpse at history that remains all too relevant. (The exhibition runs through December 7; the Herndon Gallery’s hours are Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m., and Saturday 1 p.m. to 4 p.m, and it is free to the public.)
In addition to thematic encouragement, FotoFocus shares marketing and public relations tools with its partners in higher education. Sometimes it takes an even more active role. When FotoFocus finished its map and venue guide a couple of weeks before the Biennial, it arranged for copies to go inside CityBeat and the regional New York Times. But FotoFocus also got the map inside The News Record, UC’s student newspaper, which ensured that thousands of copies circulated on campus. That kind of promotion helps bring attention to campus galleries, which are sometimes overlooked on their own campuses. “In some instances the students themselves don’t always make it to the galleries,” says Goeke. But the Biennial’s promotional push can help.
It’s a relationship, in other words, that’s good for FotoFocus and good for the universities. And that makes sense given their overlapping values and vision. “Fundamentally,” Goeke says, “our organization’s mission is education with regard to the art of photography.”