Leah Ollman suggested we meet at a Hillcrest café and as we sat on the garden patio on a sunny, warm afternoon, I could picture it as the perfect place to think and write. Ollman began with the self-reflective comment that “writing is the way I process the world”.
|Art Critic and Writer, Leah Ollman|
Ollman grew up in San Diego with a father who was an architect and a mother who was a businesswoman. Having been exposed to the arts at an early age, she was a member of youth group at the Museum of Fine Art where she took a variety of studio art classes. It was at Patrick Henry High School in AP Art History where Ollman first became excited about the subject. She described her teacher Margaret Maple as fresh and dynamic and who first introduced Ollman to European art history by taking the class on a tour of the major capitals of Europe. She was able to experience “in person”, all the art history she learned in the classroom.
Ollman went on to Scripps College in Claremont California where she majored in both Art History and Philosophy. She talked about David Rubin, a college professor and curator who ignited her interests in art by taking classes to visit Los Angeles artist studios and collectors’ homes. Ollman described these visits as an “expansive experience” giving her a greater understanding of the “ecology of the art scene”. She went on to say how important it was to see art in differing contexts and that she began to process and flush out what she had been reading and learning about in the classroom with what she saw with these “in person” visits.
Ollman described several experiences that set the stage for her art writing career. As a high school student, Ollman spent a summer in New York City where she attended Parsons School of Art where she took Communication Design classes learning about book and graphic design. During college she began writing for Images and Issues Magazine, where she learned the mechanics of how magazines function. Ollman also did an internship at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art where she did research and worked in the registrar’s office.
During college, Ollman spent her senior year semester abroad at Oxford University in the UK where she studied Aesthetics, Philosophy of Art, and the History of Photography. There, Ollman met instructor Mike Weaver who had an impact on the development of her interest in photography. Weaver was a curator and writer, who had the distinction of being the first to teach American Literature at this British university. Her Oxford experience sparked more of Ollman’s interest in writing about the history of both American and British photography.
Returning from Oxford and after graduating from Scripps College, Ollman returned to San Diego where she volunteered for one year at the Museum of Photographic Arts which had recently opened its doors. There Ollman focused on membership. She created a member’s publication and member’s newsletter, as well as learning about the inner workings of an art museum. After this experience, Ollman went back to school attending the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in New York City, where she earned an MA in Art History. During that time, Ollman also worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an intern in their Education department, where she gave public tours of the institution.
At NYU, Ollman focused her studies on her continued interest in 20th century photography. There she began a project on political photography that took place between World Wars I and II. She received the Reva and Logan Grant while in school, helping her to develop an anthologized essay later published entitled “The Worker Photography Movement: Camera as Weapon”. Also during this time, Ollman was the Editor for the Museum of Photographic Arts’ Quarterly magazine.
Upon completion of her MA degree, Ollman began writing for Art News and became art critic and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, local edition. Simultaneously, she went back to work for the Museum of Photographic Arts where she received an NEA grant to help curate a show “Camera as Weapon: Worker Photography Between the Wars”. This 1991 exhibition which included over a hundred photographs, also traveled for two years to cities including Kansas City, Boston and New York.
Leah Ollman has been writing for over 25 years, and continues to write for the LA Times. She also writes articles and exhibition reviews for Art in America, and has written for Artweek, Sculpture magazine, American Ceramics, Art Nexus, History of Photography and San Diego Magazine.
Ollman describes herself as not interested in academic writing and views her purpose as a mediator between art and the audience – making art accessible and understandable to the general public. She also sees herself as most drawn to “unannounced, unheralded art”. We talked about the San Diego art scene. Ollman views San Diego as a place with many good artists, a few museums and a small mix of galleries, but is disappointed in the diminished critical discourse and dialogue about contemporary art. Though this is in large part due to the dwindling list of newspapers and online art presence,to support art writers and critics, lack of opportunity remains a problem.
When asked about advice for artists, Ollman suggests they keep in contact with writers, introducing themselves and their work in the form of emailing images and information about their exhibitions.
Leah Ollman lives and works in San Diego with her husband Arthur Ollman and their two children.