Cincinnati Arts Nonprofit FotoFocus Breaks Ground on Multi-Million-Dollar Exhibition Space in Over-the-Rhine

FotoFocus's new event and exhibition space is set to open in 2024.

click to enlarge Artistic rendering of FotoFocus’s new building - PHOTO: JOSE GARCIA DESIGN + CONSTRUCTION
Photo: Jose Garcia Design + Construction
Artistic rendering of FotoFocus’s new building

The future’s looking brighter than ever for FotoFocus, the Cincinnati-based nonprofit that celebrates the art and history of photography, film and lens-based media.

For the past 12 years, the organization has been relying on partnerships with local venues to present its own curated events. But come 2024, it will have a home of its own called FotoFocus Center at the corner of Liberty and Sycamore streets in historic Over-the-Rhine.

“I’ve wanted us to have our own building from the beginning,” FotoFocus artistic director and curator Kevin Moore tells CityBeat. “When you collaborate with other institutions, you’re meeting their expectations or parameters a lot of the time. Sometimes that’s great — it sends you off in unexpected directions. But for us, it’s going to be a chance to do, creatively, anything we want.”

Founded in 2010 in Cincinnati, FotoFocus provides programming and support for projects that make lens-based media accessible to the public. Signature programming includes the Biennial, which is held every two years in October and offers a month-long series of events relevant to photography, film and lens-based art.

Unified by a single theme, Biennial events are held at galleries, museums and other venues throughout Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Dayton and Columbus. It represents the largest gathering of its kind in America, according to FotoFocus’s website.

Other signature programming includes day-long symposiums about art in the current social climate, in-person talks, virtual conversations and film and video screenings.

The organization describes the soon-to-be-built FotoFocus Center as “a world-class venue purpose-built to present a wide range of curated exhibitions, educational events and film screenings each year, furthering FotoFocus’s mission of enriching our understanding of photography.”

It will include 4,500 square feet of gallery space, an 835-square-foot outdoor terrace on the upper level and 2,200 square feet of office space. The project is estimated to cost $6 million-$7 million.

click to enlarge Artistic rendering of the lobby in FotoFocus’s new building - PHOTO: JOSE GARCIA DESIGN + CONSTRUCTION
Photo: Jose Garcia Design + Construction
Artistic rendering of the lobby in FotoFocus’s new building

FotoFocus is collaborating with Jose García Design + Construction to bring the new venue to life. The design company was founded by architect Jose García and boasts a visually stunning portfolio of projects, including the sleek studio space at Lightborne Communications in Over-the-Rhine, where FotoFocus staff have been operating.

Moore says the FotoFocus Center will have a flexible, open-plan space that can convert to accommodate different shows and functions.

“The space is tailor-made to exactly what we think about and what we see of the future of an exhibition space for photography and lens-based art and what it will look like and how it will need to function,” Moore says.

He says the center is designed to accommodate a social component, too.

“You don’t show art as only a solitary, contemplative experience. You show it to have a conversation. So people being there, talking about it, talking with each other in response to it, that’s really the ethos of FotoFocus, I’d say,” Moore says.

“We think of ourselves as a kind of conversation-generating organization. It’s sort of like exploring the world through photography — it’s not necessarily about photography, per se,” he continues.

FotoFocus executive director Mary E. Goeke says the organization and its board began discussions about a new building roughly two years ago.

They were given the green light to explore properties and determined Over-the-Rhine as the most ideal location because of its proximity to other arts and cultural institutions like the Taft Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati Art Museum, the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning.

“As a nonprofit dedicated to the education of fine art photography — both its history and its contemporary practitioners — we felt that we wanted it to be community-based,” Goeke tells CityBeat. “We find that our partnerships with universities and with the regional arts organizations are really the significant identifier, I believe, for FotoFocus’s mission. We are collaborators. I think that’s how we view our work.”

One such collaboration, Goeke says, is with The Carnegie in Covington. FotoFocus held a symposium and regional juried exhibition there in the past, and she envisions partnering with them again on future projects.

Another collaboration could also be with BLINK, the sprawling festival of light and art that takes place downtown every few years (as of press time, BLINK is slated to take place Oct. 13-16). FotoFocus has partnered with the Contemporary Arts Center for previous BLINK festivals, supporting light installations seen at the space.

“I do think that, for us, this is a really pivotal time. We were founded 12 years ago in a very organic way, in terms of working directly with gallerists and institutions in the city,” Goeke says. “We’ve built up really good partnerships with many venues. We look at the facility as a place that’s meant to be very open and as a community gathering spot for photographers and people interested in lens-based art.”

click to enlarge Artistic rendering of FotoFocus's new building - PHOTO: JOSE GARCIA DESIGN + CONSTRUCTION
Photo: Jose Garcia Design + Construction
Artistic rendering of FotoFocus's new building

Aesthetically, the FotoFocus Center will feature contemporary design sensibilities with homages to Over-the-Rhine’s historic architecture. The corbeling pattern of the brick (in which bricks stick out further from the wall to create a sort of ledge) is a nod to the 19th-century masonry that’s prominent in many buildings throughout the neighborhood. Large glass windows refer to factory buildings as well as an historical, open-forum style of architecture that was popular in the 19th century, Moore says.

The building design integrates artistic details that are specific to lens-based media, too.

Custom-gridded steel window frames reference a camera’s viewfinder to allow light to enter the building’s common spaces. White exterior marble (which will be backlit during the evenings) references black-and-white photography. Wood materials in the interior have a visual sepia effect.

“We wanted it to represent the idea of photography in a way,” Moore says. “When we chose Jose García, we knew that he was a materials guy. We knew we weren’t going to get a glass and steel cube.”

“You can take the building as an indirect metaphor,” García said during a reception after the FotoFocus Center’s groundbreaking on April 8. “It’s a very quiet building, and yet I hope it’s interesting enough for you to start looking at details and, in your own mind, make whatever references you want to make.

“Do I see a viewfinder, or do I see a hallway turned inside out? Is that a beacon in the night that is trying to say, ‘I’m here?’ Or is it trying to pay homage to a material that you find inside the 19th-century building? Is it too showy?…Is it flat? Is it deep? Or is it all of the above? That’s a continuing metaphor that has no end.”

Find out more about FotoFocus, its new building and future programming at fotofocus.org.

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