Are Billboards Right for Showing Artwork?

To some, the very notion of billboards (or outdoor signage in general) being artwork or hosting artful images instead of give-us-your-money advertising is confusing. But it’s getting more common.

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click to enlarge A Sara Cwynar photo in Big Pictures
A Sara Cwynar photo in Big Pictures

Unlike other exhibitions, the Cincinnati Art Museum isn’t using billboard advertisements to lure visitors to come see its current Big Pictures photography show. That’s because Big Pictures occurs on billboards, not in a gallery at the museum’s brick-and-mortar Eden Park site.

Every six weeks, two different contemporary photographers display their digitally repurposed or reformatted work — two images each — on leased billboards around the area.

If that sounds like an abstract, obtuse distinction, it means everything to Brian Sholis, the museum’s associate curator of photography. The yearlong Big Pictures show, which began on June 1 and is now in its second rotation of presenters, is his idea.

“This is an exhibition and is being treated as an exhibition,” says Sholis, who was appointed to his position last fall. “The money for it is coming from the people we usually seek money from for exhibitions.” (Sholis chooses the photographers, who receive an honorarium.)

To emphasize the difference, Sholis does not plan to use billboards to market his upcoming FotoFocus-related exhibition at the museum, Eyes on the Street. (It opens Oct. 11.) “I don’t want confusion,” he says.

The two young photographers currently featured on Big Pictures billboards are Sara Cwynar, a Brooklyn-based Canadian, and Lorenzo Vitturi, a London-based Italian. Both artists create work that is collage-like, but in different ways. Vitturi pieces together bright, surreal still lifes using unusual objects — like desiccated fruit and plastic; Cwynar starts with a found image, digitally enlarges and prints it out in sections, and then sticks on other images or bits of other objects (Post-It notes) to those prints as part of the “analog/digital”(Sholis’ term) process of getting to a final work. Of the four photographs on display now, my favorite is her “Gold – NYT April 22, 1979 (Alphabet Stickers),” which adds some glitter to its site in Newtown. (Visit for more information and to find billboard locations.)

To some, the very notion of billboards (or outdoor signage in general) being artwork or hosting artful images instead of give-us-your-money advertising is confusing. But it’s getting more common. Sholis based his idea on programs in New York and Los Angeles and along Interstate 10. (His project and others were featured recently in The New York Times’ T magazine.)

Sholis, like so many people, sees billboards in general as blight. “My natural inclination is to wish them away, a little bit,” he says. “But if you can’t beat them, you can put them to better and more appropriate purposes — to show something that’s not necessarily a fattening, processed food or that lawyer with boxing gloves that’s everywhere. If there’s a way to use them to add a little bit of serendipity to people’s lives, that’s a good a thing.”

And at the very time Sholis has launched Big Pictures here, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America has included Cincinnati in its nationwide Art Everywhere: A Very, Very Big Art Show.

Based on a similar project in Great Britain, online voters selected their favorite works from the collections of five major art museums — Art Institute of Chicago, Dallas Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum. Some 58 images are being reproduced on static and digital billboards and other advertising media around the country. (Visit for information.)

You should now be able to see the work of Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, Mary Cassatt, Willem de Kooning and more driving around the Cincinnati area.

Art Everywhere has a drawback — of the billboards I saw, only about two-thirds of the space was given over to the image while the rest promoted the program. And it has its ironies — one of the selected artworks for national exposure is a Margaret Bourke-White 1937 photograph that is less than complimentary to the billboard industry. It shows black victims of an Ohio River flood lined up at a bread line, under a billboard of a happy white family in a car that proclaims, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.”

“When I first saw the article in The Times announcing (Art Everywhere), I thought, ‘Competition,’” Sholis says. “But the more the merrier. I think there’s enough distinction between what they’re doing — reproducing art history — and what I’m doing, asking contemporary artists to reimagine art for public spaces, that there’s not that much overlap.”

CONTACT Steven Rosen: [email protected]

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