Installing Bo Bartlett’s “Civil War,” (1994) at the Bo Bartlett Center (all photos courtesy of the artist and the Bo Bartlett Center)

When asked “What was it like to attend the opening of the center that bears your name?” artist Bo Bartlett had to take moment to think about it. “Honestly,” he recounted after a pause, “It was pretty surreal. I guess I felt like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, what, with my mom standing there cutting the ribbon next to my sons and their children.” In total, some 500 people showed up to celebrate their hometown hero, serving up a very sweet moment for Bartlett whose career has more than recovered from some early drubbings by New York critics. Bartlett’s mythically infused Realism — which once looked out-of-step to certain New York critics — suddenly looks prescient.

Bo Bartlett (center) with his sons and grandchildren at the Bo Bartlett Center

Among the many friends and “angels” in the crowd were Bartlett’s sister Sandy and her husband Otis who have been scooping up major paintings during the lean years for “family prices,” i.e. pennies on the dollar. Now their trove of 14 epic canvases — many unseen for decades — has been unrolled and stretched to grace the walls of the center’s exhibition space. And a soaring space it is: an 18,000-square-foot converted textile mill that has 23-foot ceilings and a massive central skylight. Complimenting the installation of Bartlett’s work in the Visiting Artist Gallery is the smaller exhibition Peers and Influences, which features realist works that carry on a conversation with Bartlett’s aesthetic. The 30 artists in the show include Vincent Desiderio, Amy Sherald, and Eric Fischl.

With an ambitious and varied mission and planned programs that include exhibitions, concerts, lectures and film, the Bo Bartlett Center, which is attached to an arts institution (Columbus State University’s Corn Center), is meant to serve as a community and educational center that. It’s a model similar to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art which Bartlett once attended.

A view of the main gallery space; architect Tom Kundig

There is also the possibility — “Plans are being finalized,” Bartlett offers — for a true atelier, which would be the first such institution to be housed at an American University. Bartlett envisions the possible atelier as “a place to hone your craft” and hopes that it will attract students from all over the world, bringing new cultural variety and vitality to his much loved hometown.

Bartlett’s mother cuts the ribbon on opening day, Thursday, January 18th

Although the opening of the center’s new building is certainly a watershed moment, many of its activities and programs have been up and running for a few years. Bartlett, who has taken Suzi Gablik’s model of social engagement to heart, wants the center to operate in a holistic manner that reaches all members of the surrounding community. One program that has been active for a few years is “Home is Where the Art is,” which meets every Thursday morning at a local church to provide a safe and encouraging environment for the homeless to make art.

And there is more: a program called “Art Makes You Smart” is operating in Muscogee County public schools. “We teach fundamentals of drawing and self-expression,” Bartlett notes proudly. “It has been proven that exposure to art not only increases a child’s cognitive abilities, but also increases empathy.” A third program, “Art in Jails,” aims to serve by offering programs in penal institutions. Art from all of these programs will be exhibited — in local coffee shops, the Columbus Museum and the Bo Bartlett Center — and offered for sale. Participants will keep 100% of the proceeds.

Installation view of Peers and Influences (center image: Eric Fischl, “Corrida In Ronda No. 4”, [2008])

As a young man, before he decided to become an artist, Bo Bartlett had planned to become a Baptist minister, and there remains a kind of ministerial feeling in the intentions that underlie the mission of the Bo Bartlett Center. Bartlett puts it this way: “I believe in the power of art to transform lives. This is the philosophy the center will put into practice.”

John Seed is a professor emeritus of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. He is also the author of Disrupted Realism: Paintings for a Distracted World (2019) and More...