It was a Thursday night, early 2000s, in a back room of Xavier University’s art building. Nearly 20 people gathered, students and otherwise, for a weekly open-figure drawing session. Jason Franz, now the executive director of Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, was then a Xavier professor. And the open-figure sessions? His trial run in getting students engaged in art beyond standard class time and with practicing artists outside of their program, something that, in that era, hadn’t been asked of them before.
That back-room experiment not only proved successful, it grew into student-initiated early-morning art breakfasts at The Echo in Hyde Park, and, ultimately, originated the Drawing Center side of Manifest’s mission. The students, too, were at the heart of Manifest’s call to organizational arms. Unsatisfied with what venues they could find around town as far as quality and ability to show student work, they decided to make like artists and do it themselves, separate from any university. With Franz as a faculty guide, a group of students looked at spaces, landing at the spot they still inhabit in East Walnut Hills. A vacant former halfway house, it was, shall we say, not exactly gallery ready—but Franz and his wife, Brigid O’Kane, and the students spent all of their free moments finishing walls, installing and perfecting lighting, and sorting out programming. A gallery was born.
Manifest grew. And we mean grew. Not only beyond the small, original space on Woodburn Avenue to occupy the structure’s entire ground floor with five galleries of constantly changing shows, various offices, and two artist studios, but also to encompass a small press that puts out several annual juried art books; a drawing, painting, and darkroom photography educational center in Madisonville; and an artist-in-residence program, whose recipients occupy the in-gallery studios and instruct at the Drawing Center.
“My philosophy has always been if you expect mediocrity, you’re going to get it,” Jason Franz says. “If you expect excellence, you get excellence.”
As such, the organization occupies something of a particular niche, which can be a double-edged sword: They put out a caliber and consistency of work befitting a much larger and better-funded gallery or museum, but with staffing and finances more reminiscent of a community art center. This can be a funding challenge; after all, from the outside, it may hardly appear like they need it, with what they’re already accomplishing. And so they face questions moving forward—though, unsurprisingly, they also have big plans. But as the neighborhood that’s been home for a decade and a half develops its business district, and as Madisonville grows as well, will they be able to stay?
“It’s different than the other places around,” says Polly Hart, a graphic designer who has attended open-drawing since the very beginning and remains active at the Drawing Center today. “It feels different. It was the multigenerational thing—working alongside different age groups but everybody is passionate about the same thing—that was really intriguing to me. And it was very professional. The level of seriousness and commitment, again, you saw that right away…. They’re constantly trying to improve it; you feel that. It’s just constantly changing, it’s not a static situation.”
Franz holds a philosophy of excellence at the center of what he does. He used to encourage his students to see themselves as capable of more, and that’s what he has always held as the guiding attitude of Manifest, demonstrated in choices like having the space open 33 hours a week—a programming area where many small galleries fall short. “There’s a lot that excellence means,” Franz says. “It just doesn’t mean the quality of the individual work of art. It’s how the whole thing is done. The organization is itself like a work of art—or the organization is like the artist, and the programming is its art. So the excellence is imbued in everything, not just what we’re looking for to show.”
Trevor Ponder, one of the Xavier students and founding interns who went on to lead open-figure sessions for years while getting a graduate degree in architecture from DAAP, recalls an early show vividly—one that, for him, exemplifies Manifest’s M.O. “It was a salon-style exhibition,” he says. “Picture a French villa with artwork just plastered from floor to ceiling in different frames, different formats, but it’s filled to the max. It was probably hundreds of drawings pinned to the wall. And it was meant to imitate the wall in our studio, where we did open figure—at the end of the day, people would pin up their gesture drawings or their five-minute drawings or their two-hour drawings so that people could look and learn. It was all about learning from one another.”