Of Leibovitz and Lear

On a bright winter day last February, I had the pleasure of hosting Annie Leibovitz in my office at Ohio State. Here was the most iconic photographer of our time, wearing her signature black ensemble. I must admit I was a little awestruck. But she put me at ease with her demure warmth and good humor. We spoke at length about life on a university campus, about the rich cultural landscape that exists for students. We also discussed the possibility of Annie bringing her work to the Wexner Center for the Arts, a remarkable art center at the heart of our campus.

After months of detailed preparations, Annie Leibovitz opened Sept. 22 at the Wexner Center -- a singularly important moment for our campus and for our city. In allowing her Master Set, a collection of 156 images she selected, to be displayed for the first time, Annie has given our students, our community, and art lovers everywhere an extraordinary gift -- access to a visual history of the last four decades.

Some of the images are familiar: President Nixon leaving the White House on his last day in office. Yoko Ono and John Lennon embracing, hours before his untimely death. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, their faces painted blue. I was particularly struck, however, by the selection of a black and white portrait Annie had taken of her mother in 1997. Its presence in the gallery speaks to Annie's ethos, about the common value of family that all of us share.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the pastoral town of Vernal, Utah, in the shadows of the Book Cliffs and the Uinta Mountains. While this setting did not allow much for firsthand exposure to the arts, my parents instilled in me a great appreciation for artistic expression, insisting that I study piano and listen to opera. Before long, I was thoroughly enamored.

The arts, quite simply, nourish the soul. They sustain, comfort, inspire. There is nothing like that exquisite moment when you first discover the beauty of connecting with others in celebration of larger ideals and shared wisdom. I relish those moments as the house lights dim and the orchestra swells. And, as a university president, I feel an inherent responsibility to ensure that our students experience these moments during their time at Ohio State.

The Ohio State University has a rich -- if quiet -- heritage of the arts. This is the University of James Thurber and Roy Lichtenstein, of choreographer Bebe Miller and visual artist Ann Hamilton. And this is the University that will bring the UK's Royal Shakespeare Company to campus in November for the RSC's Young People's Shakespeare production of King Lear.

A truly great university is a nucleus of artistic expression. It fosters creative, critical thought, and serves as a platform for civil discourse. And the arts are at the heart of this; they teach us to celebrate the abstract and the diverse, to seek connectedness with others. I firmly believe that, whether studying molecular engineering or medieval poetry, our students gain unique insight and global understanding through the arts and culture. And for our young people -- the world leaders of tomorrow -- nothing is more essential.