CAM's New, Offbeat Collection

Galleries, Artists, Etc.

For a 127-year-old institution, the Cincinnati Art Museum isn't resting on its laurels or on dated 19th-century notions of what constitutes fine art. If you've been there lately and seen the red Jaguar E-type racer in a front gallery or the bizarre collection of plastic coffee-cup lids briefly displayed in the Cincinnati Wing, you probably realize that.

But one upcoming addition sure to challenge and engage — and hopefully delight — viewers who think they know all about art is a gift from Chicago collector Robert A. Lewis of some 400 "contemporary, folk and funk works" from the 20th century, to quote from the museum's announcement.

It's especially strong in the type of folk art known variously as self-taught, outsider, naïve and visionary. The work is often mysterious and sometimes even creepy.

That's right, the Cincinnati Art Museum is getting funky and venturing into the offbeat and (for it) unknown.

"We're branching out into this area with a big enough group of things to give us substantial holdings right off the bat," says Julie Aronson, the museum's curator of American art and painting and an expert on 19th-century folk art. (The museum has an older, more traditional folk-art collection, as well as an important 1945 painting by the self-taught artist Horace Pippin, "Christmas Morning Breakfast.")

This collection is a promised bequest. The 81-year-old Lewis lives in Florida, where he retired after a career as a Chicago investment banker who worked with top Windy City dealer Phyllis Kind to collect his art. He previously gave a portion of his paintings by trained Chicago Imagist figurative painters to the Art Institute of Chicago.

He then bequeathed the remainder — much by self-taught folk artists, but also paintings by trained West Coast artists like Roy De Forest — to Washington's Corcoran Gallery in the mid-1990s. Corcoran even did a show, From Folk to Funk, in 2004. But he took it back after a change in leadership set new priorities and requested it.

He looked for new museums willing to take his gift in its entirety and chose Cincinnati over the other contender, Savannah's Telfair Museum.

"It's a very high-quality museum of longevity," Lewis says of CAM.

Cincinnati will take possession and feature a show of its new gift beginning Jan. 24, 2009. Eventually, there should be a permanent gallery devoted to Lewis' — and related — work.

The collection's work by self-taught artists is quite inclusive of African-American and/or Southern artists. Minnie Evans, who drew dream-world visions based on her imagined communications with God, is represented. So, too, is the Rev. Howard Finster, known for his art on album covers by R.E.M. and Talking Heads.

"There are a number of reasons the collection appealed to us," Aronson says. "The quality is very high. Another is that among the work by folk artists, a significant number are by African-American artists, and we've been trying very hard to strengthen our holdings (there).

"And work by self-taught artists has a very strong appeal to the public," she says. "There's something very engaging about it and also validating — the idea you can make art if you have something unusual to say or feel compelled to for one reason or another."

Contact Steve Rosen: [email protected]

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