Developing FotoFocus

Tom Schiff dreamed of an international photography biennial

It was 2010, and Tom Schiff thought that what Cincinnati really needed was a photography biennial. A huge one, one that had the potential to put Cincinnati on the map of international photography and lens-based hotspots. Today, we recognize that far-fetched dream as the seeds of FotoFocus, which returns this October. But back then, the casual listener would have been forgiven for regarding Schiff’s idea as more pipedream than plan. 

Former FotoFocus staff member Nancy Glier, FotoFocus patron Paul Kreft, FotoFocus Executive Director Mary Ellen Goeke and FotoFocus founder Tom Schiff
Former FotoFocus staff member Nancy Glier, FotoFocus patron Paul Kreft, FotoFocus Executive Director Mary Ellen Goeke and FotoFocus founder Tom Schiff

Or, it would have been were it not for two major factors.

First, Schiff was – and is – a guy with an exceptional track record for turning good ideas into reality. Now, his is not a name you may come across often. You won’t find “Thomas R. Schiff” adorning any of the arts community’s architectural monuments. He’s not that sort of man. He’s a quiet guy. An insurance man, by trade.

But beyond insurance, he’s the guy who, nearly 40 years ago, brought us Lightborne, an ambitious little film production house. Today, it is a vast business with a client list that runs the gamut, from Procter & Gamble and Jim Beam to Amazon Music and Jennifer Lopez. A decade later, Schiff and a pair of collaborators gave Cincinnati an edgy, informative alternative weekly named CityBeat.

The second factor in turning FotoFocus into a reality was James Crump, who was the Cincinnati Art Museum’s chief curator at the time. Schiff had supported what Crump describes as “a very robust program of exhibitions, acquisitions and a visiting artist series” at the museum. Despite that good working relationship, he was less than enamored with Schiff’s idea of FotoFocus being built on a network of venues that ranged from established museums to smaller community arts centers.

“Coming from New York, I was not particularly interested in regionality or the homespun support of photography,” Crump wrote in a recent email. “My chief concern about a festival was the quality of content across organizations. In other words, would FotoFocus be able to establish and sustain an international reputation with world class artists and exhibitions?”

But Schiff persevered. And, in 2012, Greater Cincinnati hosted its first FotoFocus. Even Crump was won over.

“Despite my early concerns about the quality of content, most if not all of the 70+ venues truly rose to the occasion in 2012 with meaningful and thought-provoking exhibitions, some quite memorable,” he wrote. “In retrospect, it seems this broad participation has contributed greatly to the success of FotoFocus.”

There is something quite liberating about the way FotoFocus is pieced together. Artistic director Kevin Moore and his staff create a theme meant to inspire and loosely connect all the various exhibits and peripheral activities. This year, the theme is “World Record.” It’s purposely ambiguous. 

“I think the pandemic made people realize how interconnected we are,” said FotoFocus executive director Mary Ellen Goeke. “So the notion of providing a record of what is happening in the world seemed to make great sense.”

And with nearly 100 separate projects, the combined scope of the curators, photographers and speakers is likely to be as revealing as it is varied.

The centerpiece of FotoFocus 2022 is what they call the “Biennial Program Week.” This year it runs Sept. 29-Oct. 8. That’s when the bulk of the exhibitions make their debuts, though many will continue to be on display for several months. 

But at the heart of Schiff’s goals for FotoFocus was building a photographic community, of encouraging collaboration and understanding about one another’s work. Yes, those are very idealistic ambitions. But you have to remember that Schiff, now in his mid-70s, came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when young people – and a few others – set their sights on lofty societal goals. Working together was one of them.

FotoFocus patron Paul Kreft talking with Tom Schiff in 2018
FotoFocus patron Paul Kreft talking with Tom Schiff in 2018

“I’ve been on boards of museums and arts organizations going back 20-30 years,” said Schiff. “And they always talk about how they feel a little isolated from the world and isolated from the community. They’re always trying to figure out ways to bring people in and partner with other organizations. But it’s hard to do that.”

Large visual arts institutions tend to have lead times of several years for their exhibitions. And finding ways to mesh differing institutional philosophies can prove fraught. But Schiff’s hope was that a smaller, more nimble organization might prove an ideal umbrella under which to gather arts groups that might have wildly divergent artistic goals.

That’s one of the reasons that, from the beginning, FotoFocus has included a generous slate of panel discussions, artist talks and appearances by distinguished keynote speakers.

So while that week in October – 11 days, actually – will offer an abundance of opportunities to look at art, it will also feature a hefty roster of occasions to talk about it.

On the weekend of Oct. 1-2, for instance, FotoFocus 2022 will present its Biennial Daytime Symposium, featuring keynote lectures by curator Makeda Best and director, producer and cinematographer Jeff Orlowski-Yang, along with conversations and panel discussions by a number of participating artists, art historians, curators and scholars, including JEB (Joan E. Biren), Mitch Epstein, Adama Delphine Fawundu, Ariel Goldberg and others. Other programs are highlighted by artist talks with Myra Greene, Ian Strange and poet and scholar Jason Allen-Paisant.

“Personally, these are the days I like the most,” said Goeke. “The people who attend get so energized by hearing the ideas that come from these artists and curators. There is something very exciting about all of it. These aren’t academic talks, in the sense that they’re not associated with an academic paper. They tend to be highly accessible, like a hybrid of a TED talk and a curatorial talk.”

The list of activities is staggering, including weekend tours – Neighborhood Spotlights, they are called – to Dayton, where the Dayton Art Institute and several local galleries are participants – and Columbus, where the Wexner Center for the Arts has signed on as a first-time collaborator. Other Neighborhood Spotlights focus on Camp Washington/Clifton, Cincinnati’s East Side and another on Northern Kentucky.

“Based on our budgeting and our staff – we only have 10 full-time people – I think we are probably at our peak this year,” said Goeke. “This is the largest FotoFocus yet, in terms of the number of projects and artists. I think this year has really been a challenge for us. Not only to do all of it, but to be sure that we do it well.”

So if adding more artists and venues is not a practical consideration, where does FotoFocus go from here?

“The building,” said Schiff.

Rendering of the FotoFocus Center, designed by Jose Garcia, to be built on the northwest corner of East Liberty and Sycamore streets, at the foot of Mount Auburn.
Rendering of the FotoFocus Center, designed by Jose Garcia, to be built on the northwest corner of East Liberty and Sycamore streets, at the foot of Mount Auburn. The goal is to have it completed by October 2024.

By that, he means the home that FotoFocus is constructing for itself at the northwest corner of East Liberty and Sycamore streets, at the foot of Mount Auburn. In April, FotoFocus announced its intention to build the FotoFocus Center, a 15,000 square-foot building, budgeted at $6 million to $7 million. Ground has not been broken yet. But the goal is to have it completed by October 2024, said Schiff.

“When we started FotoFocus, building a structure like this wasn’t considered part of the long-term plan,” said Schiff. “We didn’t really have a long-term plan other than try to get it all together for the first biennial.”

But sometime after the third biennial, in 2016, the idea of a permanent home cropped up. 

“Things were going pretty well and we realized that FotoFocus probably had a healthy future ahead of it,” said Schiff. “Maybe we should have a home, we thought, a place where we could expand our timeframe to 12 months a year and have it be a home for photo-interested people to congregate and work together and compare photographs and . . .” Suddenly, he stops talking. It’s not that he has run out of ideas. Rather, it’s that he rarely gives voice to his dreams for the future. Not in interviews, at least.

“We just thought we could do more if we had a home,” he finally said.

Will this building be his legacy to the city? Part of it, at least?

“My legacy to Cincinnati,” he said, clearly uncomfortable with making such pronouncements. “That is for other people to try to figure out. Once I die, I’m gone. People can make up their own stories then.” After another long silence, he added, “Yes, I think FotoFocus is fundamentally exactly what we thought it would be when we started it. It just grew to a point that we wouldn’t have believed it would when we started. And now we’ll have a home.”

FotoFocus 2022 Biennial Program Week

‘World Record’

Approximately 100 regional venues are participating throughout October and beyond with exhibits in Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus. See our Visual Art listings for Greater Cincinnati exhibits. NOTE: Some of the following are open to the public, while others require a FotoFocus Passport or museum membership.

Sept. 29, Thursday

  • 4-7 p.m. Taft Museum of Art: reception, “Craft and Camera: The Art of Nancy Ford Cones”
  • 5-8 p.m. Cincinnati Art Museum: reception, “Natural World”

Sept. 30, Friday

  • 5-7 p.m. Michael Lowe Gallery: reception, “Tony Oursler: Crossing Neptune”
  • 6 p.m-midnight. Contemporary Arts Center: reception, “On the Line: Documents of Risk and Faith;” “Images on which to build, 1970s–1990s;” and “Baseera Khan: Weight on History”

Oct. 1, Saturday

  • 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Memorial Hall: symposium
  • 6-10 p.m. Art Academy of Cincinnati: reception/street party, Ian Strange: “Disturbed Home” and “Annex”

Oct. 2, Sunday

  • 1-5 p.m. Freedom Center: symposium
  • 5-6 p.m. Freedom Center: reception, “Free as they want to be:” Artist Committed to Memory

Oct. 4, Tuesday

  • 5:30-8 p.m. Downtown Main Library: reception/panel, “City Under Exposure”
  • 7-8 p.m. Weston Art Gallery: gallery talk, Michael Coppage: “American+”

Oct. 5, Wednesday

  • 3-5 p.m. Cincinnati Zoo: reception/artist talk/photo walking tour, i.imagine: “Wildest Dream”
  • 7-8 p.m. Wave Pool: curator talk, Eliza Gregory and Lorena Molina: “Photography and Tenderness”

Oct. 6, Thursday

  • 6:30-8 p.m. Taft Museum of Art: curator talk,
    “Craft and Camera: The Art of Nancy Ford Cones”
  • 7-10 p.m. Garfield Theatre: film screening, “Landfall & Conversation” from “Jurakán: A Film Series”

Oct. 7, Friday

  • 6-7 p.m. FLAG Studio: reception/gallery talk, “Collecting and Receiving”
  • 6:30-8:30 p.m. Xavier University Art Gallery: reception, “Searching for Life: Re-growth & Display”

Oct. 8, Saturday

  • Noon-2 p.m. Kennedy Heights Arts Center: curator/artist talk, “What’s Left Behind”
  • 3:30-5 p.m. The Carnegie: panel, “These Things Are Connected”
  • 5-7 p.m. The Carnegie: reception, “These Things Are Connected”
  • 7-9 p.m. CampSITE Sculpture Park: artist talk/reception, Liz Roberts: “Post Blonde”

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