Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell are, together, some of the most impressive art collectors in the region, a distinction that comes at a price. Pictures take up space, and at the Bidwell home, it was getting to the point where the couple's new acquisitions would pile up in spare bedrooms, or go straight into storage.
The Bidwell's overabundance is the city's gain with the opening of Transformer Station, an expansive display space for their own collection and future exhibitions from the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Foundation will open the space to use by the Museum for six months out of the year, with CMA's first project scheduled for September this year. The Bidwells have made a gift promise to transfer the Station over to the museum by the end of the next two decades.
The gallery's two inaugural exhibits, Light of Day and Bridging Cleveland, both test the possibilities of the display space, and in the latter case, pay tribute to the city which hosts them.
Fred Bidwell said The Light of Day is meant to give visitors an idea of the breadth of their collection, hinting at possible routes for future shows. The exhibit does not show off the complete range of technologies and styles of contemporary photography—no single exhibit could—but it is ambitious in its diversity, showcasing nearly 20 artists.
Penelope Umbrico aggregated 120 of the 8.3 million user-generated images of sunsets available on Flickr on November 20, 2010, and arranged them into a mosaic of orange, blue, purple and gray squares with white dots.
Hiroshi Sugimoto ran electrical current directly through blank film, creating a white bolt of lightning crackling with tendrils on a stark black background.
Charlotte Dumas' images of horses and sheep carry all the infinite dignity Chuck Close's portrait of composer Philip Glass, an unforgiving close-up that could have been a high-resolution mug shot, lacks.
Vaughn Wascovich, a Youngstown native now teaching at Texas A&M University, Commerce, was commissioned to shoot Bridging Cleveland especially for Transformer Station's opening. Using a pinhole camera and anarchic darkroom techniques, he rendered gray and black images of seven of Cleveland's most iconic bridges swarmed with flecks and hazy effects. The ghostliness of the works is meant to memorialize the structures' noble manufacturing histories, while at the same time presenting their contemporary reality.
Appropriately, the show is hung in a room containing a crane installed during the building's first career, from which dangle chains and hooks reminding visitors of the spaces' original industrial purpose.
Powerful or intriguing as many of two exhibit's images are, viewers might have to work a little harder to interpret them. Throughout the museum, items are not paired with title cards. Laura Bidwell said that this was meant to create a more direct engagement with the artwork, one unburdened by questions about who produced an image or how.
For many, the images' silence on their context will produce the opposite effect and inflame curiosity. For those viewers who are more inquisitive than intuitive, the Station has help. Visitors can borrow folders from the front desk containing concise expositions on each artist's methods and stated intentions. They can also download the same information onto select smartphones and tablets, or borrow one of the museum's three specialized Kindle readers.
The variety of artistic purposes at work in the first two exhibits makes it impossible to generalize, except to say it piques interest for future shows with a tighter focus, like the collection of Todd Hido's work scheduled for later this year. In the meantime, the artists on display now offer a museum-quality range of aesthetic visions.