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Curating Community through Photography

Published November 15, 2023

Franklin Park and Franklin Park Conservatory have a deep history rooted in community. Thankfully, because of local photographer, Steve Harrison, this history and sense of community over the decades has been documented. Make sure to come visit The Peoples Park gallery exhibition and immerse yourself in the park’s history before the show closes on November 19.

As you walk through the Cardinal Health Gallery, you will see 50 black and white photographs lining the walls. Each photo tells its own story and displays a moment of history of Franklin Park and the Conservatory. 

The Peoples Park is a collection of carefully selected photographs of Franklin Park and Franklin Park Conservatory over four decades, documented by local Columbus photographer, Steve Harrison. 

Harrison began photographing these snapshots in history in the 1960’s when the park was a gathering place for young Black people; his photos depict historical moments, everyday occurrences and the growth and changes in the park.

A fair amount of Harrison’s photography of the Conservatory and park was taken before Franklin Park Conservatory was established as an organization in 1993; Pre-AmeriFlora, the Conservatory buildings: the Palm House and Showhouse, were owned by the city as part of Rec and Parks/Franklin Park.

The idea to curate the exhibition for the Conservatory and the community came about when Board Member and longtime Conservatory advocate, Barbara Brandt, saw some of Harrison’s photos of the park used in a May 2021 Columbus Monthly article titled ‘Sundays in Franklin Park’. She then connected with Steve and Franklin Park Conservatory and the idea of exhibiting the photographs took root. 

“We got together with Steve and started talking about what the possibility of an exhibition would look like. He had never exhibited before, so he didn’t even have any of the works printed, a lot were still in negatives,” Bonnie DeRubertis, Associate Director of Exhibitions shared. “And so over the next few years, he spent time going through his body of work and finding images for the show.”

The exhibition took around two years to curate and once Harrison solidified the pieces he wanted in the exhibition, DeRubertis and team began putting together the story and signage language, making sure to highlight photos that really showed and gave a feeling of community though the history of the park. 

Harrison himself is a very active member of the Columbus community, working for the State of Ohio for his entire professional career. Because of his involvement in the Columbus and Ohio cities, he was able to capture many historical events that took place in Franklin Park, which included protests and rallies, speeches and ceremonies such as AmeriFlora ’92 and President Obama’s campaign. 

The photos have a way of grabbing the emotions of those who visit The Peoples Park exhibition. 

“Even if it’s not you in the picture, I feel like viewers can connect to it. There’s that moment when you’re looking at them and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ve seen that, I’ve done that myself.’ There’s just that sense of connection,” DeRubertis explained. 

Connecting generations, community members who did experience what the park was like during these times, especially during the 60’s and 70’s, also see their experiences reflected on the walls.

“I love the 70’s shots. My husband and I found ourselves in the Bridge of Hope pic. Great memories,” one visitor wrote in The Peoples Park exhibition guest book. “It was like a walk down memory lane for me. I loved viewing all the candid photos in Franklin Park where I have so many fond memories. Thank you,” another guest wrote. 

Understanding Franklin Park’s history, where it’s been and where it is going is important, especially since the park gave rise to the Conservatory we know today, and with that innovations like unique exhibitions, Community Outreach and Education Programs, and community engagement opportunities. Both the park and the Conservatory reflect a true pillar and connecting point for the community.

Harrison’s ability to capture this sense of connectedness through his photos has a profound impact on those who have visited and provides the community with moments in the form of one big historical photo album

“Your work is a poignant and timeless ode to Columbus. Thank you for sharing your artistry with this community,” wrote a visitor in the The Peoples Park exhibition guest book.

All exhibition photos are for sale and can be purchased inside the Conservatory’s gift shop, Botanica, allowing you to take home a piece of Franklin Park history for yourself. 

The Peoples Park exhibition will come to a close November 19, but this is not the end of the show. Harrison, and this exhibit were nominated for and won the Greater Columbus Arts Council Dale E. Heydlauff Community Arts Innovation Award which “recognizes innovative projects or initiatives that have used the arts to address larger community issues of diversity, inclusion, equity or social justice.” He was recognized at the award event November 2, 2023. 

 “It is our hope that the guests who experience this exhibition are able to examine, explore and understand the park’s role in the history, evolution and spirit of our neighborhood,” DeRubertis emphasized.

*Franklin Park Conservatory wants to thank Steve Harrison and his dedication to capturing the history of Franklin Park. We also want to thank our supporting partners, who helped make this exhibition possible: Friends of the Conservatory Donors, Greater Columbus Arts Council, The Columbus Foundation and Ohio Arts Council. 

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