Even With Bad Economy, Art Museum Has Progressive Plans

Museums have not been immune to the nations economic meltdown Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Arts endowment has calamitously plunged and Cincinnatis Contemporary Arts Center had to lay off five people, including its public relations director.

Museums have not been immune to the nation’s economic meltdown — Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art’s endowment has calamitously plunged and Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center had to lay off five people, including its public relations director.

It would seem a time for museums to be very cautious and conservative. Yet, it’s also a time when the Cincinnati Art Museum, under Director Aaron Betsky, is trying hard to be progressive. Things could change on a moment’s notice, of course — anything is possible these days — but for now it’s looking forward with optimism and being sensitive to its patrons’ pocketbook pain.

It had booked — as a ticketed show, with a top price of $8 — the cutting-edge and artfully installed China Design Now from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, hoping there would be enough post-Olympics interest to draw at least 12,000 people during its Oct. 18-Jan. 11 run. Because of endowments from the Richard and Lois Rosenthal Foundation and the Thomas J. Emery Free Day Endowment, the rest of the museum is free and will continue to be in 2009.

Realizing the economic slowdown could well affect the ability of large families to attend China Design Now, the museum made it free for teens during Thanksgiving weekend. As a result, through November the show had 6,429 guests — roughly one-fourth of all art museum visits during that time.

And now the museum is extending that special offer. From this Saturday through Jan. 4, China Design Now will be free to children 17 and under.

Meanwhile, the art museum’s plans for 2009 hardly speak of retrenchment. For instance, it just announced the 4th Floor Award, sponsored by the 4th Floor support group for contemporary art. Artists living within 125 miles of Cincinnati are invited to electronically submit images of work by Jan. 31. Four will be selected to receive a $500 prize; one will receive $1,000 and get a solo exhibition in the fall. Additionally, one piece from that show will become part of the permanent collection. For information about rules and regulations, visit www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

And two important new shows — both presenting art to the left of traditionalism — are coming early in 2009. The first, Isn’t It Great to Be an Artist: Insider/Outsider Art from the Robert A. Lewis Collection, runs Jan. 24-April 26 and debuts a promised gift, first revealed in CityBeat back in April, of “contemporary, folk and funk” art from a Florida collector. Eventually, the museum hopes to have a permanent gallery dedicated to Lewis’ collection.

The second, Surrealism and Beyond: In the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, will be the only U.S. appearance for this show, which contains among its 200 objects work by Picasso, Dali, Miro and Duchamp. That ticketed show runs Feb. 15-May 17.

The elephant in the room is the art museum addition. Earlier this year, Betsky presented a preliminary model for an $84 million addition to its Eden Park campus, designed by the Dutch firm Neutelings Riedijk, which showed a windowless tower with a gracefully curved “belly.”

One would understand if the museum called the whole thing off. But it hasn’t. It is continuing to do feasibility studies and ask staff to consider how art should be displayed in the future. But it hasn’t yet decided when to begin fund-raising. One suspects the museum, like the rest of us, will be looking for a sign that the economy is improving before doing that.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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