9 Artsy Things to Do in Columbus, OH

CMA Margaret M. Walter Wing DuskCMA Margaret M. Walter Wing Dusk

In the heart of it all, this Midwest market offers more than meets the eye.

Thanks to a notoriously rabid college-football fanbase, Ohio’s capital city is perhaps best known for its athletics, but there’s way more to Columbus than Buckeye Nation would have you believe. With no fewer than 80 arts-oriented organizations around town, indoor kids young and old will find more than enough here to stimulate their creativity, from world-class museums to art-school fashion shows to hands-on crafts to venues centered around popular interests like comic books and dinosaurs. Explore the contemporary galleries in the Short North Arts District, do some museum-hopping, or settle in for an outdoor movie—no matter what you do, this fertile community offers no shortage of inspiration.

1. Take a Crash Course In Comic-Book History

Billy-Ireland-Museum-Library-Calvin_hobbs.jpg?mtime=20180531112643#asset:101969The work of native son Bill Watterson greets visitors to Ohio State's Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum & Library. (Courtesy Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum & Library)

Home to the largest collection of comic and cartoon-related material in the world, the archives of Ohio State's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (cartoons.osu.edu) boast more than 300,000 original cartoons and 2.5 million comic-strip clippings, a small portion of which are on display here. A gem of a museum, it features the work of renowned print artists such as The Legend of Wonder Woman’s Trina Robbins, Ohio’s own Will Rannells, whose dog portraits covered highly regarded midcentury magazines such as Life and McCall’s, and my personal favorite, native son and Calvin and Hobbes auteur Bill Watterson, as well as rarities and lesser-known treasures like the first African-American comic book, produced solely by Black writers and artists, and Roe v. Wade comics, both pro- and anti-choice. Tailor your visit to the annual city-wide Cartoon Crossroads Columbus festival in September, check out a rotating exhibit (recent examples include one devoted to the satire of MAD Magazine and one to Toronto-based small imprint Koyama Press), or just come in to spend some time in the reading room. The hours are tied to the university’s schedule, so appointments are highly recommended, but if you plan in advance, you can request off-site materials to use while you're there, or book a group tour for behind-the-scenes info and trivia. The cherry on the cake? It’s all free. 

2. Pay Homage to Master Artists Old and New

CMA-Walter-Wing-Dusk.jpg?mtime=20180531112647#asset:101972The Columbus Museum of Art's architecturally impressive Margaret M. Walter Wing serves as a  high-design backdrop for the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions alike. (Courtesy Columbus Museum of Art)

The Columbus Museum of Art (columbusmuseum.org) turns 140 years old in 2018, and the state’s first charter museum has plenty to celebrate. In addition to a permanent collection that includes works by Picasso, Cassatt, Degas, and other masters alongside pieces from more modern visionaries like Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Jerome Liebling, and Ahmed Alsoudani, rotating exhibits vary widely, focusing on everything from the power of Star Wars fandom to the 19th-century Parisian art scene (the latter a peripatetic partnership with the Guggenheim Bilbao that made its sole U.S. stop in Columbus). Admission is $14 for adults with discounts for students and seniors, and there's never a charge for kids 5 and under, but bargain-hunters would do well to visit on Sundays, when everyone gets in free, or Thursday evenings, when you can pay what you choose. Families will want to pop into the Center for Creativity and let the little ones loose in the textile-rich Wonder Room, where they can explore a next-level blanket fort and develop a signature style at an interactive fashion station, or dig into the concept of motion in the Big Idea Gallery, then make mobiles based on the pieces in the museum’s collection. But whatever you do, don’t miss the opulent, larger-than-life painting from presidential portraitist Kehinde Wiley on the museum's second floor. Before Barack and Michelle, there was Portrait of Andries Stilte II, a modern-day spin on a 17-century Dutch work, starring a Columbus local as the model. The original is placed nearby for reference, and though the two pieces couldn’t be more different in style and execution, the likeness is uncanny.

3. Keep Up With the Contemporary Crowd

Wexner-Drive-In-Courtesy-Wexner-Center-for-the-Arts.jpg?mtime=20180531112652#asset:101976

Movie buffs turn out for the annual Wex Drive-In, a free outdoor film festival screening classics and cult faves in 35mm. (Courtesy Wexner Center for the Arts)

Since it opened in 1989, the Wexner Center for the Arts (wexarts.org) has put artist residencies and the commission of new work front and center, and this commitment to contemporary creatives can't help but benefit the community. Expect elite-level programming, like a retrospective of photographer and director Cindy Sherman’s work that made its only appearance outside of Los Angeles here in Columbus. Upcoming highlights include a deep dive into the outré visual art of cult director John Waters, a 16-film series devoted to the work of Ingmar Bergman, and a live performance incorporating footage of a current-day house party into a reading of the unerring Joan Didion’s ‘60s-set essay The White Album. Entry is $8 for adults, but if you’re counting your pennies, visit for free on a Thursday after 4:00 p.m. or on the first Sunday of the month (college students and those under the age of 18 get in gratis anytime), or attend an open event like the Wex Drive-In, the annual outdoor film festival that screens classics, cult faves, and underappreciated masterpieces, all in 35mm, for true movie buffs. Try the on-site cafe for a light, locally sourced lunch, and be sure to allow time for the gift shop, where the generous selection of beautiful art tomes and fun knick-knacks just might put your suitcase over the weight limit. 

4. Support Next-Generation Talent

CCAD_Columbus-Art.JPG?mtime=20180531112646#asset:101971Taking it all in at Chroma: Best of CCAD, an annual campus-wide juried show featuring standout student work. (Ty Wright for Columbus College of Art & Design)

Local stalwarts like CMA and the Wex may get the lion's share of the love, but don’t sleep on the Columbus College of Art & Design (ccad.edu), a private, nonprofit art school that’s a never-ending font of boundary-pushing creative output, thanks to a revolving cast of students and a supportive circle of alumni. Swing by the college’s Beeler Gallery (beelergallery.org), a public exhibition space that hosts a roster of complimentary art and design exhibits in addition to a visiting artists and scholars series. Catch talks with makers of all kinds, as well as special programming involving painting, photography, sculpture, installations, and performances. To get a taste of the college aesthetic, stop by the semiannual art fair ($5 in advance, $7 at the door) held each semester, and shop for everything from paintings, prints, and sculptures to glassworks, housewares, and jewelry, all courtesy of CCAD students and grads. In the spring, catch the fashion show, the MFA thesis exhibition, or the campus-wide juried show, and you might just discover the next big thing. 

5. See Things From a Global Perspective

Pizzuti-Columbus-photography.JPG?mtime=20180531112650#asset:101974The Pizzuti Collection's Go Figure exhibit, on display through mid-August, features five pieces by photographer Deana Lawson, including “Wanda and Daughters,” 2009 (left), and “Cortez,” 2016 (right). (Courtesy the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery)

A tightly curated repository of contemporary art set inside an urbane, impeccably restored historic building in the Short North, the nonprofit Pizzuti Collection (pizzuticollection.org) makes its donors’ private holdings available to the Columbus community. The well-rooted sculpture garden aside, the gallery forgoes permanence in favor of rotation, deploying its 18,000 square feet in service of a fascinating lineup of exhibitions. During a recent visit, paintings, mixed-media pieces, eye-catching sculptures, and large-scale installations from 21st-century Indian luminaries such as Anish Kapoor and Dia Mehta Buhpal were on display. This summer, two completely different shows have moved in: one dedicated to well-known contemporary artists’ studies of the human form, and the other to the documentary-style imagery of photographer Alex Soth. With such a high rate of turnover, you could visit the Pizzuti every couple of months and have a different experience each time, and at $12 a pop for adults, $10 for seniors, and free entry for students and children, you’ll want to do just that.

6. Get Down With the Dinosaurs

Robb-McCormick-Photography-55-of-107.JPG?mtime=20180531112651#asset:101975(Courtesy Robb McCormick/COSI)

It’s not exactly Jurassic Park, but dino-fans should make the Center of Science and Industry’s new Dinosaur Gallery (cosi.org/exhibits/dinos) a top pick on their must-see list. Opened in late 2017 as a partnership between COSI and New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the 14,000-square-foot space gives aspiring paleontologists plenty of face time with these Mesozoic marvels, from full-size cast skeletons displayed alongside the latest theories and hypotheses about dinosaur biology and behavior to massive models like a 60-foot-long Apatosaurus, a six-foot-long T. rex that walks in place, and a true-to-size, climable replica of an Oviraptor nest discovered in China. Entrance to the gallery is included with admission to the museum ($25 for adults, $20 for kids ages 2-12), but if you want to make a full day of it, a Do-It-All ticket costs $15 more and offers unlimited access to COSI’s 3D movie theater, motion simulator, and planetarium. For the ultimate excursion, get handsy with the interactive exhibits, see how you measure up against the dinosaur of your choice, and settle in for a bit of star-gazing.

7. Sow Your Wild Oats

Wild-Goose_Improv-Night-7-8_AB-3-of-22.jpg?mtime=20180531112654#asset:101977An improv night at Wild Goose Creative, one of many wide-ranging events on offer at the nonprofit community-oriented arts space. (UA Creative Studios)

If you prefer your art a bit less polished, with a commitment to grassroots organizing and local artists and makers, the arts-for-all approach of Wild Goose Creative (wildgoosecreative.org) might just fit the bill. The venue serves the community, offering mentoring programs, software-development courses, and business-for-artists classes, but it’s also a destination for a deep slate of recurring events, from figure-drawing classes and improv nights to dance-party karaoke and open-mic storytelling. Keep an eye out for one-off happenings, like an Iron Chef-style cooking challenge or yoga for (and with!) your favorite canine companion, as well as monthly gallery exhibitions covering such diverse topics as the transgender body form and art inspired by Midwest literature. Costs vary depending on the occasion, so consult the Facebook page or website for detailed information.

8. Block Out Time for Independent Auteurs 

IMG_4839.PNG?mtime=20180531204802#asset:101983Illustrator and designer Sherleelah Jones displays her work at Blockfort, a collective that provides gallery and studio space to entrepreneurs, performers, and organizers as well as artists of various mediums. (@blockfort/Instagram)

On an industrial block in downtown Columbus’s Discovery District, a former auto-parts store now plays host to a cross-discipline congregation of entrepreneurs, performers, organizers, and artists of all stripes. In keeping with its independent ethos, Blockfort (blockfortcolumbus.com) doesn’t keep regular business hours, but the fledgling cooperative welcomes guests for monthly gallery openings, and for studio tours by appointment. To catch a glimpse of the artists in action, call ahead to arrange your visit (614-887-7162), then spend an enjoyable hour or two perusing the goods and making small talk with the creators. Look for hand-printed t-shirts from local favorite Alison Rose, whimsical paintings and mixed-media work from Jen Wrubleski, woodlands-inspired illustrated screen prints from Logan Schmitt, and vibrant, melancholy-tinged portraits courtesy of illustrator and designer Sherleelah Jones—the last three, all CCAD grads. To stay up to date on the latest happenings, visit the website to subscribe to the mailing list, and check social media for up-to-the-minute announcements. 

9. Burn the Candle at Both Ends

The Candle Lab
At The Candle Lab, choose from an array of aromas to create your own custom-scented candle. (Maya Stanton)

This one is more craftsy than artsy, but those without a painterly bone in their body should be relieved to hear that they don’t need so much as a soupçon of artistic talent to participate. A regional mini-chain founded right here in town, The Candle Lab (thecandlelab.com) could be a distant cousin of the paint-your-own-pottery studio, except here, customers create their own custom-scented soy-wax candles. With more than 120 aromas available, from bergamot and bubblegum to pine needles and pomegranate, fragrance hounds will delight in the variety on offer. However, those prone to indecision (ahem, yours truly) may find the sheer volume of options overwhelming. Not to fear: You’ll make an initial pass to note your favorites, then team up with an expert who will help you make sense of, well...your preferred scents. I eventually chose rosemary, hops, and amber musk, a combination that didn’t sound too promising, but my pro somehow managed to divine a cohesive, on-point blend from the hodgepodge I selected, and I wound up with a final product that suits me to a tee.

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