A Room with a View

Not many libraries can claim to be a room with a view. The Mary R. Schiff Library of the Cincinnati Art Museum, now in its new space and again open to the public, has a spectacular one.

Not many libraries can claim to be a room with a view. The Mary R. Schiff Library of the Cincinnati Art Museum, now in its new space and again open to the public, has a spectacular one. Books line either side of the long walls, unbroken by windows, but the far end is all glass and looks west, across the downtown basin, with hills to the right and a glimpse of river to the left — a panorama of the heart of the city. 

Glass doors in this west wall open to a generous semi-circle of terrace. Atop the space that once was the Art Academy of Cincinnati (now in Over-the-Rhine), the library occupies an odd thrust of new building that is a surprise above the old Academy’s Romanesque walls. There being no Romanesque concept for such an addition, the architects (AEC Emersion Joint Venture) apparently chose “contrast” over “blending in.” 

Galina Lewandowicz, CAM librarian, likes the easier public access to the new library space and welcomes improved shelving, natural light and better furniture. “The feel and flow of a library space is important,” she says in an email about the new accommodations. “They make a difference in people’s attitudes toward a library, especially a research library.” She expects increased use in this more user-friendly installation, entered from the museum’s second floor, Gallery 204 (Spanish and Northern Renaissance paintings), and open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Wifi is in place. 

The original plan to do only necessary remodeling of the 1887 building for use as offices and the museum library had to be jettisoned, Museum Director Aaron Betsky says in an impromptu interview in one of the several glass-walled conference rooms on the floor below the library. 

The original third floor had been decimated in a 1940 fire and the rest of the interior could not be salvaged, he said, so the decision was made to preserve the walls. A very current open space design was chosen over individual offices for the staff, a decision he says “makes me happy to go to work every morning. That big corner office was cut off from everyone.” About the furnishings: “We did get new desks and new chairs, but were guided by re-use and re-think before buying new for everything else.” 

Wainscoting, once in the painting galleries, is in place in the new office space, second-hand furniture looks fine in the conference rooms and contrasting carpet remnants work well. The project came in under budget. “There are more seats in the conference rooms than at the desks,” Betsky says, and adds that small phone rooms make private conversations possible and even function as workspace. Windows can be opened. The building now is known as the Longworth Wing, in memory of the family who once owned the land it sits on and who helped to fund the original building. Entrance from the north side exterior is by the new Castellini Foundation doorway at ground level.

The open floor office plan, almost like a newspaper city room, is dramatically different from the old accommodations, with staff tucked here and there about the building. I emailed a few experienced staffers for their response to the new working quarters.  

Julie Aronson, curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings, said she’s been told her new desk occupies the space formerly occupied by Arthur Helwig’s studio. “For me, as a student and scholar of the history of art in Cincinnati, the history of the building in which I work has special resonance,” she says. She also likes the large windows, “further connecting us to the city and that history.”

Anita Ellis, deputy director for curatorial affairs, says, “It provides a new format for productivity that quickens the time frame for communication.” Chief Curator and Curator of Fashion Arts and Textiles Cynthia Amneus explains, “It is so much easier to interface with colleagues … the open office fosters a genuine sense of camaraderie and teamwork.”

Librarian Lewandowicz sums up her own response: “In contrast to the old space, our new space feels great!”

THE CINCINNATI ART MUSEUM, 953 Eden Park Dr., Mount Adams, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

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