Richard (Rick) Widmer '91

Art Through Documentary: Richard Widmer ’91, an Agent for Change

April 14, 2014

Hartwick College alumnus Richard Widmer '91 recently showed his documentary film The Venice Interviews: 20 Years of Chinese Art at Venice at the 55th Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibit that takes place every two years in Venice, Italy. Widmer's project consisted of more than 80 conversations with prominent artists, curators, and critics from China during the past 20 years, a video installation, and an exhibition of related artifacts.

"The project is a dynamic collection of the thoughts, images, and experiences of artists that presents contemporary Chinese art history, a process of cultural transformation, and a spectrum of cultural values that we simply call 'China,'" explained Widmer.

"If art is the act of creating beauty, my work is the act of documenting that creative process -- the birth of beauty," he said, also noting that documentary filmmaking and photography are creative processes that he uses to "create [his] own version of beauty." He created this project to "study the relationship between contemporary Chinese art and the world's pre-eminent art biennale, but also to illustrate how Chinese artistic and cultural values have changed during this period of increased economic interaction between China and the West." Widmer investigated how capitalism has influenced China and its people; how wealth has influenced Chinese art practice; and explored the question: what influence will the re-emergence of Chinese culture have upon the world?

"The Venice Interviews is a means for me to listen to the artists, to learn from their experience, to initiate self-reflection, and through the use of their own words and ideas, to shape a broader understanding of Chinese cultural values among Western audiences," he said.

Widmer, who has now spent the majority of his adult life in China, followed a winding path to get there. While at Hartwick, Widmer split his time between the college's art and history departments.

"The Hartwick College art department gave me a supportive environment in which to explore ways to develop and express my personal creativity," he explained. He noted that Professor of Art and Art History Terry Slade's sculpture program allowed him to experiment with video installation and performance art. "The methods and practices involved in making a photograph, constructing an object, or producing a film have much in common: how to take an idea and give it form," he said.

In his current work, he draws upon his Hartwick studio experience because it serves as a common language with which he can communicate with artists.

"As a student, Rick was always passionate about the world around us, expressing his ideas with hard work, enthusiasm, and energy," said Slade. "This has not changed, but only intensified as he has become a professional artist. He is a driven soul needing to make an impact on the world through his art.  With many years of dedication and hard work he is finally achieving much deserved recognition for his efforts.  I am very proud to have had a small part in his artistic development."

About the history department, Widmer said, "With Professor Emeritus of History Richard Haan, I became more deeply interested in Native American history. The program gave me insight into the injustices borne upon the native peoples of the Americas at the hands of European settlement and westward US expansion." Hartwick's history program helped to shape the lens through which Widmer currently views the political activity, nation-building, and economic development of today's world.

After graduating from Hartwick in 1991, Widmer drove across the country in the hopes of working with Native American communities. He stopped in Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, and the Dakotas, and after a brief detour to San Francisco, he followed the Yukon Highway up to Fairbanks, AK. In Fairbanks, he studied with highly respected documentary filmmaker Len Kamerling, and it was there that he made his first documentary project: Women and their Role-models.

From Alaska, Widmer travelled to China, where he intended to take still photographs.  A few years later, in 2007, the Today Art Museum in Beijing offered him the opportunity to create a documentary film center within their contemporary art space. "I did not choose the Chinese art world as much as it chose me," said Widmer.

For him, working with the Chinese art community was simply a way to learn more about China, its society, and its culture. "With China's recent cultural and economic re-ascendance, the relationship between China and the USA may be the single most important bi-lateral relationship of the 21st century. I want to understand more and make a contribution to this process. The Chinese art community is a window into the cultural values of this place - a record of both tradition and change."

For the next six years, Widmer worked within the art system in China. He worked closely with museums, galleries, collectors, and state-run cultural institutions. He also met with several artists who emigrated from China to France in the late 1980s. The conversations that ensued, between Widmer and men such as Yag Jiechang, Wang Du, and Yan Peiming, became the highlight of The Venice Interviews project for Widmer. "The men spoke of purity, freedom, and independence in artistic thought and practice. These conversations renewed my personal sense of purpose-social justice and cultural tolerance," he said.

"I wish to be an agent for change. I am committed to making a contribution to my community on both a local and global level," Widmer said about his work and mission. "We have to create a conversation that leads to peaceful co-existence between humans and the planet. The power of art is to create beauty, and the power of film is to share these messages with the broadest audience possible.  Together, art and film can be a tool for bridging cultures, bridging human consciousness, even bridging our souls."

In addition to his work as a documentary filmmaker, Widmer is a lecturer in Western New Media Art at Communication University of China.

For more information about Widmer and The Venice Interviews, visit his website,

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Hartwick College is a private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,500 students, located in Oneonta, NY, in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Hartwick's expansive curriculum emphasizes an experiential approach to the liberal arts. Through personalized teaching, collaborative research, a distinctive January Term, a wide range of internships, and vast study-abroad opportunities, Hartwick ensures that students are prepared for not just their first jobs, but for the world ahead. A Three-Year Bachelor's Degree Program and strong financial aid and scholarship offerings keep a Hartwick education affordable.

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