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Published: Monday, 4/21/2003

UT graduate back in area world of art

Ulmer: Art history class was pivotal. Ulmer: Art history class was pivotal.
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Toledo's art scene sometimes spins off young talent to the wider world, adding creative currents to the so-called “brain drain.”

Sean Ulmer is one of these bright local products. His career trajectory took him only as far south as Columbus and eastward to Ithaca, N.Y. But today, he's back in the area, happily curating at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor - when he's not jetting off to contemporary art shows in Venice, Istanbul, or Frankfurt.

“My parents are from Sylvania, and we moved there when I was 9 years old, to be near my grandparents,” he said. “I was number five of a family of seven kids. I had a really big support network.”

He was a good student in his years at Sylvania Southview High. He decided to become a doctor, and tackled a lineup of tough chemistry and pre-med biology classes in his first terms at the University of Toledo.

“But then I took an art history class to fulfill a humanities requirement,” he said. “It was very, very appealing to me. And then I took some more and I realized, this is for me! But by then, I was a junior, so I had to really scramble to make the switch and graduate on time.”

He took five art history courses in a single term, he said, and spent hours at the Toledo Museum of Art, poring over paintings and sculptures, writing papers on Renaissance sculpture and downtown skyscrapers, enjoying the wisdom of professors Richard and Caroline Putney, who also work at the museum.

“Sean is one of a number of our students who've emerged as an art history professional,” Mr. Putney said. “It's really exciting to see him succeeding.”

“The Putneys were great influences,” Mr. Ulmer said, “a couple of real Toledo assets. It was my experience at the Toledo Museum of Art that created my ongoing love affair with art objects - how art is presented, how to best introduce it to people.”

He graduated from UT in 1985, and did graduate studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Ohio State University. Grad school taught him all the chatter and politics of “discourse on objects,” but did not divert him from his goal. Mr. Ulmer wanted to be an art curator at a museum.

While he was there, Ohio State opened Wexner Center, a shiny new museum dedicated to contemporary art. Mr. Ulmer signed on for the following five years, working his way up from graduate assistant to exhibits coordinator. He learned French, German, Dutch, and Italian. He tasted the travel that comes with many museum jobs.

He did a stint at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, tending to collections that stretch from ancient Egypt to Central America to contemporary New York.

“And after five years there, I was lured away to the University of Michigan!” Mr. Ulmer said. “This is a newly created post. It allows me to focus again on what I'm most passionate about: modern and contemporary art. It's so challenging, full of social and political themes. It operates on multiple levels.”

He's been in Ann Arbor for just over a year now, and has coordinated eight art shows since. He comes to Toledo to visit family members, and proudly tells art-scene cosmopolitans he's a Toledo native, that this city is cradle to plenty of artistic sensibility.

“There's a lot of respect for the arts in Toledo,” he said. “The schools. The university. And that museum! My real love of art came from working and reading and writing about objects in that collection. ... I've traveled and seen hundreds of museums since, and that's just strengthened my appreciation for the strength and depth of Toledo's art.”

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