The city's newest arts leader also has ideas about how The Wex could be transformed physically.

Just as the Wexner Center for the Arts offers a lively mix of contemporary mediums including visual, performance and film, its new director’s path has included varied art disciplines. Johanna Burton has been an aspiring actor, professor, curator and now museum director. Over about a dozen years, Burton pursued more education every time she felt she needed just a bit extra to really master something—from an art history degree at University of Nevada Reno, to graduate degrees from Stony Brook University, New York University and Princeton University. She went on to teach and lead at Princeton, Columbia University, Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s independent study program. Although initially trained as an art historian, Burton has found herself in roles that deviate from that path, calling them “left-of-center,” which is the way she feels she’s done most everything in her life. There is one common thread running through Burton’s professional career, though—academia. Her new gig at the Wexner Center is no exception.

From waiting tables to the Ivy League to New York—and Columbus

Burton didn’t grow up in New York City, the place she lived before moving to Columbus. Her hometown of Lemmon Valley, Nevada, a suburb of Reno, couldn’t have been more different. Burton describes the town as a “non-art context.” But her household was filled with art. Both her parents were artists, her dad being a musician and her mom a painter. “They are not famous. You will never find their names anywhere—but they were really free spirits,” she says. “They prioritized [art] in the home. That was especially important because I didn’t grow up with a lot of means, so it wasn’t associated with wealth for me. It was just about being.” She also grew up with a very supportive—albeit pushy at times, she says—grandmother, who cared deeply about education. After Burton got her undergraduate degree in Reno, she set her sights elsewhere, intending to go to grad school.

“At a certain point I realized that all of the freeing of the mind that is associated with the [art] background I have wasn’t available more widely,” she says.

Because Burton didn’t grow up with wealth, she relied on scholarships to help pay for school and worked full-time as a waitress for the entirety of her undergraduate degree. She says she was lucky to go to state schools for the first part of her formal education that offered lower tuition and good financial support. But she worries about how students will be able to get an education without incurring huge amounts of debt in today’s collegiate landscape.

“I think I entered a little window and wriggled up through,” Burton says. “I see kids coming out of degrees, particularly master’s degrees in art—you’re taking such a gamble to get those degrees—and people are frequently coming out with $100,000 worth of debt.” That doesn’t mean, however, that she totally avoided debt after graduation. “I am still paying it off, actually, to this day,” she says.

Burton feels strongly about access and equity in the art world. She has found she is deeply committed to artists who are women and people of color. She thinks education in the arts is the perfect place to prioritize these types of considerations, particularly because there isn’t the same guarantee of a fat paycheck post-education. “Art students and even art history students are often doing stuff because they love it, not because they think they are going to get a big paycheck at the end,” she says. “And they mostly don’t.”

During her drawn-out education, Burton learned many things she didn’t anticipate. Some of her lessons were of what not to pursue. As she moved on to a doctoral program in performance studies at NYU, she discovered it was “too free” for her taste and without a specific canon to follow.

Eventually, she moved into a teaching position at Princeton, where Burton felt as if she was “learning on the job,” not being much older than the students. “I probably was way under-qualified—but also underpaid,” she says. Her teaching appointment at Bard began her education in curatorial studies. There she taught a master’s program for curators, though her training was as an art historian. However, Burton says some of her greatest leadership lessons were learned as the Keith Haring director and curator of education and public engagement at the New Museum, a 40-year-old contemporary art museum in Manhattan, and a “really unwieldy and really exciting place to work.” There she curated big shows, did residencies, public programs, youth and outreach, and oversaw the publishing of four Critical Anthologies in Art and Culture with MIT Press, which serve as textbooks.

There Burton picked up the invaluable understanding of how not to make it about herself and how to delegate. “I had never been a big manager before and suddenly I learned how to manage. At first it was super scary,” she says. “Curators and academics are very independent beings in a way, and it’s all about you. In this role, it’s not all about me—or it shouldn’t be all about me.” She also says she learned how to train, mentor, trust and build strong teams.

Burton has come away from all these experiences with the understanding that no one program or experience she entered into was exactly the right fit, but that when cobbled together, they built “an amazing trajectory of study” that has led her right to the Wexner Center and her unique role that encompasses curating, leading and education all in one. Abigail Wexner, Wexner Center board member, says that’s exactly the kind of person the center needs.

“What’s so unique about this role and about the center is that it really is of two worlds—it’s both of the university world and of the community,” Wexner says. “So it’s important we make sure we’re really connecting to both of those.”

“I sort of backed my way into curating and it wasn’t even on purpose,” says Burton. “I considered myself more of a writer and an educator, but somehow I was never in the box that fit that mold. I was never teaching in an art history department—I was always teaching in some kind of hybrid space.”

 ‘I’m going to go for this one’

When she got the call about the Wexner Center position, Burton knew right away she’d entertain it. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to go for this 
one,’” she says, although the transition would be huge—moving her spouse and 7-year-old son to Columbus and leaving a job she loved. The Wexner Center was no stranger to her. She had flown in a few times over the years to see exhibits and knew the center as a hub for experimental practice and curating. She was interviewed a few times by the board, faculty members and Wexner Center staff members.

“When she came in after she spoke for a while, I kind of was holding my breath because I had no idea how the other people in the room would react,” says Wexner. “But I felt 100 percent certain that she was far and above the most exciting candidate we’d seen.”

After one particularly nerve-wracking interview, Burton says she allowed herself a beer at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport when her flight was delayed. As she walked to her gate she noticed Bill Lambert, one of the Wexner Center board members who had just interviewed her. She thought, “Am I going to sit with this guy, or am I going to pretend that I don’t see him?” She sat with him for the next five hours. In New York, it turned out he didn’t live far from her so they shared an Uber. “I did take that as a good sign,” she says.

The choice to offer Burton the job “was absolutely unanimous as it turned out,” says Wexner. “That’s saying a lot.”

Burton says what she loves about the Wex is “it’s got a history but it’s not old enough to have a ton of baggage. It’s been cared for.” The center, which turns 30 this year, was the only one of its kind affiliated with a university such as Ohio State when it was conceived. It sits just off High Street and 15th Avenue, in place of the Armory, a hulking, castle-like building (hence the brick towers erected as part of the center to pay homage) that was torn down in 1959 after suffering severe damage from a fire. The center was designed by architect Peter Eisenman of New York, who also designed the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Like the unconventional architecture of the building that houses it, the Wexner Center has always been committed to showcasing daring and innovative art that meshes different approaches. Burton is fascinated by the idea that something as visionary as a cultural institution dedicated to multidisciplinary art popped up in Columbus.

“The focus has really been on bringing a variety of media together,” says university Provost Bruce McPheron. “It’s hard to distinguish which is cause and which is effect,” he adds. “But the growth of the Wexner Center and its reputation through this visionary programming has really been simultaneous with the growth and appreciation of the impact of arts in the central Ohio community.”

Reorienting the Wexner Center

On her third day in the role, Burton shared thoughts about how she will lead the center during a March 5 interview with Columbus CEO. “I’m thinking [about] how to make two parallel speeds happen,” she says. “One is to make some big, visible changes and then the other is to not mess with stuff that isn’t broken until I know what’s actually wrong with it.” There isn’t a lot broken at the Wexner Center, she says. “I’m one of the few people to inherit an institution that somebody didn’t burn down on their way out the door.”

In her new role as a big-picture thinker about the center as a whole (and not so much about its individual offerings), Burton says one thing she sees strengthening is accessibility. After all, she says, the place is called a “center,” and she wants to figure out how to help it behave more like one. “I’d love to get 100,000 people walking to the stadium to notice The Wex on their way to a football game,” she says. She thinks there can always be more student engagement, though her sense is that students are already engaged.

Along with accessibility and engagement, Burton is thoughtful about what the center will offer inside its walls. “Not everything has to get hit out of the park or be a popular success,” she says. “Figuring out how to balance some of the rawness that made this place get started and having that be a safe place where people can really experiment. I think that’s in the spirit of being a university.” Burton is no stranger to experimental, conversation-provoking programs, such as the “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” show she curated at the New Museum.

She will focus on refinement, rather than on “exploding to get bigger.” The sense she’s gotten about Columbus is that there is a lot of energy here to harness. She’s come at a good time—right as the university is building an arts district adjacent to the Wexner Center. It includes renovating the School of Music and moving the Department of Theater. Sullivant Hall was remodeled a few years ago for use by the Department of Dance, and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library is nearby.

Burton’s eager to be part of all the change.

“I think there are things architecturally that I’m interested in exploring. There are things conceptually—the idea of reorienting this building,” she says. “That said, I am certainly not in control of this building project. But I would love to be a voice at that table.” Burton also says she’d like to serve in other leadership roles within the university, but that it’s too early to go into detail. Wexner board member Ron Pizzuti, CEO of Pizzuti Cos. and an art collector, says he’s already gotten to know Burton pretty well. “She’s a whole new set of eyes coming in,” he says. “I am Sherri [Geldin’s] biggest fan—she’s fabulous. But I think the timing is perfect for new leadership.”

Thoughts about what to do and how to do it will continue to gel, Burton says. There is another thing on her plate—getting acclimated to Columbus. She has come to the city ahead of her spouse and son, who is finishing out his school year.

“I’m calling it ‘directorial boot camp,’ ” she says. One thing that delights her is being able to drive a car again. Right now, she lives Downtown and has enjoyed going on runs by the Scioto River. She is scouting neighborhoods to find a new home for her family, and she is using a lot of GPS navigation, though she says her GPS recently failed her and took her to the Wexner Medical Center instead of the Wexner Center for the Arts. Still, she likes Columbus. “I kind of love that it’s a small city but not a tiny city,” she says. “It feels really energized. It feels like it’s looking at itself and really thinking about its capacities as it moves into this rapid expansion.”

And the Wexner Center will be part of that future. Burton sees the center as a place where someone can come for one thing and find something else—she also feels her whole life has worked that way. Though she is no longer a curator and is now a director, she is ready to take on this “curatorial” project. “My new curatorial project is not a curatorial project at all,’ she says. “But it is still about making shape.”

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Q&A

Is Columbus on the map in the art world?
Columbus comes up because a lot of people are from Ohio—I’m not making it up. Many artists are from here. There are a lot of artists for whom Columbus is important, and I think even more [artists] who come and spend time. I won’t say that Columbus comes up immediately, but I think it’s kind of like the dark horse that people talk about.

What do you think about Columbus as an artistic community?
I think we have to, as part of the art community, think about ourselves outside of the big cities and remember that there are incredibly—sometimes even more energized—audiences outside of the cities that we would immediately name like Los Angeles and New York. [Columbus is] a community that’s just as engaged and excited about these conversations as the ones in New York.

What do you think about the architecture of the Wexner Center?
This is a quirky space, as everyone knows. I have worked in quirky spaces pretty much always. It’s better than big generic shopping mall-looking museums in my opinion, but I think there are ways to make it work towards whatever our new articulation of the mission is.

Can you draw?
I am the worst drawer ever. I do write, but it’s not creative writing. I wouldn’t call what I do art, I would call it support platforms. It’s actually sort of crazy how inept I am at producing anything aesthetic.