Contemporary Arts Center’s New Executive Director is Proud to Be Part of Female-Centric History of Museum

“A lot to do with this generation of museum directors that I am currently part of, it is overwhelmingly comprised of women leaders,” Christina Vassallo said.

Jul 12, 2023 at 5:10 am
click to enlarge Christina Vassallo is the new executive director of the Contemporary Arts Center. - Photo: Katie Griffith
Photo: Katie Griffith
Christina Vassallo is the new executive director of the Contemporary Arts Center.

This story is featured in CityBeat's July 12 print edition.

The stairs on the north side of the Contemporary Arts Center snake their way throughout all six floors of the museum. Beginning at the main floor, the steps blend away from the Urban Carpet wall, merging moments of narrow concrete and sky-lit landings. Shallow stairs force small, intentional steps.

To climb, you must be mindful of your stride and remain focused on the moment. This was a deliberate element of world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid’s design. The careful stroll up or down the stairway is a part of the CAC experience and it’s one that correlates with new executive director Christina Vassallo’s leadership style and plans for the future.

While the urge to skip a step is strong, Vassallo is intent on not missing details. She tells CityBeat that since her start at the CAC in March, she’s been meeting with each staff member individually to refine direction and begin forming a new strategic plan for the museum’s future.

“I’ve really been spending my time on a listening tour,” Vassallo says. “Speaking to every single staff member, every board member one-on-one, just to understand what their connection is to the CAC, what should we lean into more, what do we need to refine. And this is all in preparation not only to understand how this place functions but also to start to dive into a strategic planning process.”

She says the formation of the strategic plan is underway and its three main components are sustainability, storytelling and artistic direction. The plan will debut in December and take effect immediately, infiltrating all aspects of the CAC through a collaborative team effort. Along with formulating the strategic plan, Vassallo says a large portion of her time will also be spent on fundraising efforts.

Vassallo previously served as the executive director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Prior to that, she was the executive and artistic director at SPACES in Cleveland. 

Vassallo says one of the most effective ways to execute intentions is to make sure that exhibitions embody the spirit of the vision. Ecologies of Elsewhere is on view through Aug. 6 and explores “ecological interconnectedness, healing and spirituality from Black, Indigenous and diasporic perspectives,” according to CAC’s website.

A self-described artist enabler, Vassallo is indulgent in the endless methods of storytelling through curated exhibitions as a means to communicate with all kinds of people. 

“I'm not really meant to be an artist, I’m meant to be an artist enabler,” Vassallo tells CityBeat. “I am meant to be a nonprofit professional. I really do see this as civic service. And for me, I’m lucky enough to have the overlay of art and culture – that's how I care to serve the public. What drew me [to the CAC] is our ability to be something to so many different people. So how can we communicate to all those different people?”

This year is also the 20-year anniversary of CAC’s residence at Sixth and Walnut Streets downtown. Known widely as a female standout in a predominantly male-dominated field, Hadid became the first woman to design an American museum building with her CAC design, according to CAC’s website. Programming that celebrates Hadid will occur throughout the year including A Permanent Nostalgia for Departure: A Rehearsal on Legacy with Zaha Hadid, which will commission a handful of artists to respond to the building and culminating in an Annual Gala, “20 Years at the Center.” The gala will take place Oct. 7 from 5-9 p.m.

Before the CAC existed downtown, it operated out of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s basement. Three women — Betty Pollak Rauh, Peggy Frank Crawford and Rita Rentschler Cushman — founded it originally as The Modern Art Society in 1939. 

In April, The New York Times reported that women are taking over leadership roles in the museum world. “From the Louvre to the Vatican Museums and the National Gallery of Art, female directors are taking over from men,” the article reads. Vassallo is honored to be part of the movement as well as the female-centric history of the CAC.

“A lot to do with this generation of museum directors that I am currently part of, it is overwhelmingly comprised of women leaders,” Vassallo tells CityBeat. “We are coming for those top jobs at the larger museums, we are here to support each other and create new vibes as leaders in these organizations.”

Vassallo’s leadership style exudes a collaborative vibe. One that aims to “unite the staff to work toward a common purpose,” she says. Before Vassallo started at the CAC, a development assessment conducted by an outside firm revealed how fundraising practices related to the budget. Vassallo says the staff structure is being revised accordingly, beginning with a new curator.

“[Selecting a curator] starts with the most exacting job description. It was almost a staff-wide exercise,” Vassallo says. “There’s been some incredible dialogue over the past years about placing people above objects. We don't have a permanent collection, that isn't to say we’re not concerned with objects, but we are here to serve people. This is an educational environment, we want to work with curators who are interested in empathy, compassion, artists and artworks that address human needs.”

Earlier this year, CAC employees sought to unionize in an effort to gain wage increases. On January 17, employees officially requested voluntary recognition from the institution of their union, Contemporary Art Center Workers United (CACWU). The CACWU met with the then interim executive director to discuss structural change and wage increase, according to Ohio’s chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“The vote happened and the eligible staff decided to become a bargaining unit,” Vassallo tells CityBeat. “This happened before my arrival and we respect the ability for staff to organize. We are going to do our best to negotiate quickly. Nobody wants it to go on for longer than it has to and we have given the union the information that it asked of us, so now fairly soon we will begin the negotiation process.”

Vassallo insists on a leadership style that reflects the needs of the entire team. She wants to break free of outdated or tired structures within museum organizations, she says, by ensuring that everyone has a voice and a genuine understanding of the internal culture and communication.

Director of public relations and communications Katie Elliott says she appreciates Vassallo’s careful process in learning about the CAC, which includes insightful questions that come from a unique angle and are often “revelatory” or as simple as, “Why is this happening the way it’s happening?”

Elliott says she hasn’t encountered a leader like Vassallo in her professional career and that she has a way of being an effective communicator without typical negative qualities of a demanding director.

“In the nonprofit world in general, things can get so hectic,” Elliott tells CityBeat. “It’s always go go go, trying so hard to serve everything that you often don't pause and ask a question. And so it's a very exciting moment here. I think she has a very unique way of being very precise and to the point with a genuine quality.”

Director of interpretive learning and visitor experience, Shawnee Turner, agreed adding that Vassallo boasts a “radical candor,” that’s direct and honest but kind, with a knack for bold thinking.  

“We’re a contemporary art organization and we want to be on the bleeding edge, not the cutting edge, which is something we've said here in the past,” Vassallo says. “And it changes every day. We are really responding to artists, who are in turn responding to society. We are constantly chasing that conversation.”

To learn more about the Contemporary Arts Center, visit

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