Art: Meet Your Director

Contemporary Arts Center makes bold move by hiring Raphaela Platow

May 9, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Raphaela Platow, the charismatic new 34-year old director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), returns my phone call as she's "sitting in the sun" in Waltham, Mass., where she is still senior curator at the Rose Art Museum.

"I've been working like 70-hour days!" she says in a delightful German accent. "But it's been a really interesting time, and I'm excited about the possibilities."

Platow is talking about the possibilities in Cincinnati and specifically in her new leadership position at the CAC. She's right: There's so much opportunity here.

We Cincinnatians have known it — and apologized for not capitalizing on it — for years. But for Platow there is also much to be leery of, walking as she is into an institution plagued by controversy and quick departures.

"I don't like to think about the challenges," Platow says. "You can lock yourself into believing (that they will be overwhelming), but then you deal with it and realize it's not so big."

The controversy that surrounds the CAC generally focuses on the board and the apparent hostility it has for its directors and senior curators.

With the recent departure of two major contemporary art figures — Director Linda Shearer and Curator Toby Kamps — the center has been looking even worse to the art world.

"I know enough about the gossip," Platow says. "But I'm not going to get too weighed down by it. ... I know Linda and Toby really well. We all talk. Of course I knew about it, but I never would have taken the job if I believed (the gossip) were prohibitive."

Platow laughs.

"I'm also a bit of a risk-taker," she says. "And I'm hoping for the best ... there are enough positive things (about the CAC) that make it such a great place with great supporters."

In the end, it came down to just two candidates: Platow and Acting Director Cynthia Goodman. There was much speculation, but no one really knew which way it would go.

Goodman held the center together during an amazingly precarious time. But for the sake of the CAC, for Cincinnati and for our international reputation (perceived as anti-art ever since the Mapplethorpe trial in the early 1990s), Platow was the better choice. Her vision is decidedly international in scope and at the same time focused on the Cincinnati community.

Platow received a masters in art history and in business administration (a combination that is a huge plus for a director of a major institution) from Humboldt University in Berlin; she is currently a candidate for her Ph.D. in art history there as well.

Platow is aware that some feel there is a block between the center and its audience, the people of Cincinnati.

"There are always accessibility issues for institutions," Platow says. "It's not just contemporary art centers. ... (But everyone) can relate to one or two things everywhere. We just have to put the tools and bridges in place."

Her first step in bridging the gap between the center and the city at large?

"The lobby," she says. "I want to put in place what the architect envisioned (when she designed the building)."

Platow sees the lobby as a place where people can sit with a cup of coffee, read the paper and enjoy the space. Her thinking is European in that sense: beautiful buildings with public piazzas for everyone to enjoy.

"I want to bring people in the right way," Platow says. No "cookie-cutter" exhibitions allowed.

"Contemporary art deals with the world around us," she continues. "It's related to so many different subjects ... you don't have to know everything about its history and social meaning to relate to it. People need to learn to trust their own emotions, to trust their own eyes."

Vision and intelligence go hand in hand in today's image-based society. Platow understands that all of us, just by looking at things every day, build up what she calls a way of "decoding" the images. Or a visual literacy.

Platow has been chief curator at the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University for the past five years. They have a permanent collection. The CAC doesn't. The Rose is in a university setting. Not so for the CAC.

There is no built-in audience as there is at a university museum. In fact, membership at the center has declined steadily since the boom in 2002 during the grand opening of Zaha Hadid's building. But it sounds like Platow is ready for the challenge.

The university setting is true to her heart, she says, as is maintaining a public collection. But what's most important is the art itself and being involved in a place that "has supported contemporary art ... and made it for the public."

"I am excited about the incredible opportunity to newly envision and define what a center of contemporary art can be in a city that has avidly supported innovative and provocative contemporary expression for almost 70 years," Platow says. "It is important to keep in mind the history of the CAC and its roots as the Modern Art Society while rearticulating its mission for the future."

As the announcement came, people in Cincinnati have been buzzing with excitement. We have been desperate for a new arts leader — someone who is willing to help us figure out who we are as a city.

I tell Platow about the gleeful buzz that the announcement has generated. She's happy but doesn't seem too surprised.

"I'm glad," she says. "(Excitement) is what Cincinnati needs."

The good kind of excitement — not the kind that comes from having censorship trials and fleeing directors — is what Platow is about.

And she's confident in her decision, but that confidence can't keep her from being a little wistful.

"It's hard to leave friends behind," she says. "I think after two years you really get acclimated to a place. I've been (in Waltham) for five ... I just need to get immersed in the (Cincinnati) community. Meeting artists will help, going to studios."

Our only hope is that she gets just as attached to her new city. ©