Article originally appeared in Artdependence Magazine
For more than 20 years Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell have been gathering an extensive collection of contemporary photography. Their main concept is not to support big names but concentrate on young and mid-career artists. When the Bidwell Foundation made a decision to acquire the Transformer Station (built in 1924), restore and expand it with a contemporary addition to make a new space for contemporary art in Cleveland, Ohio (USA) it might have seemed an unmanageable task for anyone, but not for the Bidwells. Now the Transformer Station is a private museum located in a historical building combined with a contemporary minimalist addition, having an extensive and ambitious art agenda and owned and managed by a beautiful couple. How can dreams come true?
Mr. Bidwell, when did your collection start and how did it bring you to the idea of establishing your own museum?
My wife Laura and I started collecting photography the year we got married, 1991. Like most collectors, our pace of acquisitions started slowly, but gradually we became “addicted” and our collection started to grow. About five years ago we realized that something had to change. Most of the things we were buying were being shipped straight into storage. A number of the things we had acquired were too big to display in our house in any case. Inspired by private museums we had visited in Europe and in Miami, we started to think of how we might establish our own space to show and share our collection.
You have an extensive photo collection. Please, tell us about it and how you select works for your collection. What are the criteria?
Laura and I started by buying individual pictures by photographers that we admired. Rather than buying iconic “trophy” images, we have sought out pictures that we responded to personally. Laura and I agree on every purchase, but we have different tastes and preferences and that helps keep the collection diverse and surprising. Laura has a high sense of design and looks for beauty and a sense of strangeness in many of the images that she selects. My taste leans towards more conceptual work. Over time we began to move from buying individual works to acquiring multiple images or even whole bodies of work from artists. We now look only for contemporary work and we have recently been active in funding or commissioning new work from artists that we have established relationships with. Now that we are managing an exhibition space and planning shows, most of our collecting is planned for specific exhibition concepts.
Initially your choice was to concentrate on artists at the beginning or mid-point of their careers. Did it turn out to be a correct decision? Do you still follow the same concept?
Only time will tell if our choices are “correct”! So far, we think we have supported important work. Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled has become the definitive book about the change in America’s “Rust Belt”. Brian Ulrich’s Copia and the accompanying book, Is This Place Great or What?, are important documents of the rise and fall of materialism in the United States. Todd Hido’s Excerpts from Silver Meadows and Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood have redefined the possibilities of storytelling with books and images. We have supported each of these projects by making publications and/or exhibitions possible. Although it is hard to know how the future will value this work, there is no doubt that it is already influencing a younger generation of artists.
What can young artists count on when sending their portfolios and proposals to Bidwell Projects?
Because we plan exhibitions far in advance, we do not accept exhibition proposals. We love to look at new work when we can, but it is impossible to find the time to see everything.
In your exhibitions you combine different media, for example in the exhibition Unknown: pictures of strangers you also included the video installation Transit Byzantium by Tim Davis. Do you like to mix media and what does it bring to the show? Does it mean that you are going to expand your collection as well?
Video is certainly an area that many photographers are exploring in interesting ways. Our definition of photography is very broad. We collect work from artists who may not consider themselves “photographers” but are using photographs or photographic materials as a vehicle for expression. Today, photography has become such an important medium that virtually every artist is using it. The lines between photography, painting, sculpture, print making and video will become less and less clear in the future. That’s a good thing because those distinctions have always been arbitrary.
Video installation Transit Byzantium by Tim Davis
Your Museum has a wonderful historical building, previously a transformer station built in 1924, which you restored and expanded with an innovative contemporary addition. Why did you decide to do so? What does this combination of historical venue and brand new addition mean to you?
One of the great things about cities like Cleveland is that they have beautiful industrial-era buildings that can now be converted to new purposes. Preserving this gorgeous old building and linking it to new architecture brings new energy to both and reflects what all contemporary art does: borrow from the old and connect to the new.
Your museum is very well known in Ohio, as well as in the USA. Do you have the ambition of getting the world’s recognition?
It is satisfying that people are noticing what we are doing in Cleveland. We hope that the example of Transformer Station will inspire similar projects in other cities.
What message are you trying to convey through what you are doing?
Our purpose is to inspire creativity and innovation and to show how the arts can improve lives through economic development and social change. When we began the Transformer Station project, the neighbourhood was challenged with crime and neglect. In just two years it has become the anchor for a newly revitalized community with new residential construction, retail shops and a lively street scene. Transformer Station is showing how the arts can change cities.
Mr. Bidwell, when, at the end of 2013, David Franklin unexpectedly left the Cleveland Museum of Art you were asked to become its interim director. Did you manage to implement any initiatives in the work of the museum during this transition period? What is your relation to the museum now?
I was (and still am) on the Board of Trustees of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was a rare privilege to be asked by the board to take on the leadership of one of the world’s great museums. Thanks to the museum’s talented and dedicated staff, we completed the $325 million dollar renovation and expansion of the museum that has been praised as one of the most successful major museum projects of our generation. During the past year we have enjoyed record attendance, membership and patron support and we have introduced innovative new programmes that engage our community and enhance the visitor experience. Our new Director, Dr. Bill Griswold (who is terrific, by the way), is taking over the museum at a time when it has the potential to define for the world what the future of museums will be. I have learned a great deal from the staff from this experience and I will continue to be an advocate for them and their work as a board member.
For some art lovers it might be the ultimate dream: to make a wonderful collection, open your own museum, curate and show exhibitions and be in contact with the best artists. Is it a “dream came true” for you? What are you dreaming about now and what goals have you set for the future?
This certainly has been a fantastic experience. Laura and I have learned much and we have had a lot of fun. We have also discovered that this is hard work! We are planning new shows and new initiatives that we hope will continue to challenge and inspire our audiences. If we can keep up the momentum that we have started, we will be very happy.
Please name one of your favourite artworks (in a museum or public collection) and explain to us why you love it.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Henry VIII (1999) in the collection of the Guggenheim (and commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin) is a great example of how photography today stretches the boundaries of the medium. This hyper-realistic large format photograph of a wax figure at Madame Tussauds is a meditation by the artist on the painting the figure was based on… the portrait of the king by Hans Holbein. Sugimoto’s impeccable craft and technique make this a ravishing object but that is only the surface of a multi-layered conceptual construct that questions time, history, truth and the role of the artist as both as “maker” and “observer”.
Henry VIII, 1999. Gelatin silver print, frame: 71 5/8 x 59 7/8 x 2 15/16 inches (181.9 x 152.1 x 7.5 cm); image: 58 1/2 x 46 7/8 inches (148.6 x 119.1 cm), edition 1/5. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin 2005.113 © 1999 Hiroshi Sugimoto