Changes to artists’ exhibit draw criticism

460 apply, but only 28 selected under museum’s new rules

Last year’s Toledo Area Artists’ Exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art contained the work of 60 local artists, including the painting, right, by Bowling Green artist Kelsey Scharf. Because of new rules imposed by the museum, only 11 local artists were included in this year’s show.
Last year’s Toledo Area Artists’ Exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art contained the work of 60 local artists, including the painting, right, by Bowling Green artist Kelsey Scharf. Because of new rules imposed by the museum, only 11 local artists were included in this year’s show.

The Toledo Area Artists’ Exhibition set to open Nov. 21 at the Toledo Museum of Art has undergone some changes, drawing criticism to the event now in its 95th year.

More than 460 artists submitted entries, but only 28 have been selected. Some of the artists chosen have more than one object in the show; closer to 50 works will be on exhibit, including some that are quite large in scale.

The show’s rules were changed substantially this year by museum staff with hopes the exhibit will have an overall higher quality. In the past, local artists submitted up to three individual pieces; this year, they were told to submit portfolios.

But that change also means that scores of local artists who regularly had a chance to exhibit their work at the museum — a career highlight for many — were shut out.

Last year, more than 60 local artists were in the exhibition. This year there are 11.

The other 17 hail from Indiana, Michigan, and elsewhere in Ohio, including Akron, Cleveland, and Columbus.

Local artists and art supporters say the change has left many area artists out in the cold. Some artists suggest the museum could host an additional show to attract a larger audience, but not to the exclusion of “our very own hometown show. The museum shows that they’re community-minded by engaging their own regional artists in competition with one another and then abandon us and our one shining collective event,” Penny Gentieu said.

Other local artists chimed in on social media, saying they agree with her, too. The name — Toledo Area Artists’ Exhibition — seems at odds with the tri-state artists selected for the event, they said.

“It’s one of the oldest regional competitions in the country. It’s very, very helpful to our community and cultural history,” said Ms. Gentieu, a Toledo resident and award-winning photographer. “Now they’re reaching out to Akron, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and even Muncie, Indiana. These places have their own thriving arts communities. This is ours, and it’s being broken down.”

Ms. Gentieu’s photographs have been published worldwide, including on more than 200 magazine covers; she has written 13 books, and her work is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes a blog on the art history of Toledo,

At least six of the Toledo-area artists selected for the upcoming exhibit have or had ties to the museum at some point. Jefferson Nelson and Timothy Gaewsky are museum employees and David Eichenberg is a museum ex-employee. Ben Grazzini is married to the museum’s head librarian, while Michael Arrigo and Ken Thompson are former presidents of the Toledo Federation of Art Societies.

The federation turned over the artists’ exhibition to the museum in 2011.

“They’re all great artists,” Ms. Gentieu said of the contestants selected. “But we have more than 11 great artists, and they don’t all have a connection to the museum.”

Ms. Gentieu’s work was shown in exhibits in 1978, 1980, and 2011. She was not selected to participate this year. Her daughter, Anna Friemoth, participated in last year’s show and won a prize.

“She had just graduated college, and she was able to launch her career after that show,” Ms. Gentieu said. “That is what we want for other artists in our area — our 17-county regional area. We need it.”

Format change

Museum officials defended the change.

“This year we chose a more curated format. Rather than jurying individual works, we look at portfolios of artists,” Brian Kennedy, museum director, said. “It’s a greater concentration of a smaller selection.”

The whole idea of changes this year was designed to help work more closely with the artists and promote the careers of artists selected, said Kelly Garrow, the museum’s director of communications. More involvement from the artists is expected compared to other years because there were too many people, she said.

Pamela Hollenbeck is a longtime Toledo resident and arts supporter and has attended the show for more than 30 years. She said she’s disappointed by the changes.

“It has this incredible legacy, and all of the people who’ve been accepted over the 95 years just got smacked right in the face,” Mrs. Hollenbeck said. “I didn’t personally get cut out, but I feel like my community did.”

The curator this year selected a certain set of artists and does not mean other artists not selected were unworthy, Ms. Garrow said. Any competition is subjective, she said, adding that the format is evolving and probably will continue to do so.

The museum funded the exhibition until the 2011 show, but the prize money was paid by the Toledo Federation of Art Societies, Ms. Garrow said. The federation received entry fees and then would use the funds to pay out the prize money. The federation was running the exhibition and was in charge of it, but most of the operation of the exhibit was run by the museum, she added.

In 2010, the museum made a proposal to the federation to change the nature of the relationship to give control of the exhibition itself to the museum and the museum would run it, but the federation would continue to do the local awards and the juror dinner as it does now, Ms. Garrow said, and the federation hosts workshops, such as on how to market your art and run a business.

Taking over

The proposal was accepted by the federation, and with that, the museum took over operation of the Toledo Area Artists’ Show in 2011. The biggest change was that former Toledoans no longer were eligible to enter the exhibit. It was a long-standing rule that if you were born in Toledo, you could enter the TAA show, and some artists entered every year, Ms. Garrow said.

With the show in 2012, the region was changed. The 17-county region was removed and the 150-mile radius, an objective standard, was established. That change resulted in “no issue presented to us at all,” Ms. Garrow said.

“This year, the same 150-mile rule was in place, but we had decided that we would curate the show, and with that came a big difference ... instead of selecting objects, the artists were selected based on merit and based on artists we would work with to put the show together,” Ms. Garrow said. “We are trying to come up with a show that challenges artists and interests the public and really shines a light on the great art being made in and around Toledo. The exhibit showcases what the museum does best, and that is to curate and put on quality exhibitions.”

Submitted works were reviewed by Amy Gilman, the museum’s associate director, and curator Halona Norton-Westbrook, who’s serving a three-year fellowship at the museum. As the show’s curator, her first such experience, Ms. Norton-Westbrook of California will visit studios of the 28 artists and decide which pieces to include.

Prize money comes totally from the museum; the institution absorbs costs for the exhibit that are expected to exceed $80,000, Mr. Kennedy said.

Erin Palmer Szavuly, president of the Toledo Federation of Art Societies, said some are having trouble with change, but she said the exhibit is a great opportunity for artists. The selection for the exhibition, she said, is exciting to artists whose works will be featured, but she acknowledged that not being selected can be threatening for some.

“The museum is very open to change,” Ms. Palmer Szavuly said. ”If the show is allowed to stagnate, it does not say very much about our community for that to occur.”

She recommends walking into the art show with an open mind.

Ms. Gentieu said her perception of the changes differs. “I think the museum demanded the change. I perceive it that way. The museum just said they were going to take it over.”

Staff writer RoNeisha Mullen contributed to this report.

Contact Janet Romaker at: or 419-724-6006.