Raphaela Platow, who recently announced her departure after 14 years as director of the Contemporary Arts Center to lead Louisville’s Speed Art Museum, did some of her finest work during the coronavirus pandemic.
This may sound a little strange, as the CAC — like all museums — struggled during 2020 and into this year with the pandemic. It closed for several months when COVID-19 first arrived, and then again for several weeks in December and early January when there were fears of a resurgence. That upended public awareness for an interest in the CAC’s exhibits, including at least one show that was a big deal: the first major U.S. exhibition of work by the Portuguese street artist Vhils. I wish I could tell people what they missed, but I was more or less staying home, too.
During that time, Platow began writing her “Director’s Dispatch,” a column delivered via email to museum members. Platow’s missives not only were good, but also unusual. They were deeply personal, sometimes viscerally so, in communicating how she was processing the challenges of 2020-21 and in how contemporary art could help her with that. I found them enlightening and often moving.
An example is from her April 2021 Director’s Dispatch, about her participation in one of the events at CAC’s performance festival “This Time Tomorrow,” which returned in truncated form this year after a 2020 cancellation. She had attended artist Kate McIntosh’s installation Worktable, which encouraged visitors to smash and break objects and then try to mend them. Platow noted that she chose a small yellow porcelain bird on a white tray, slammed it with a hammer and then worked to repair the harm.
“Destruction and renewal are at the core of McIntosh’s work, and last year epitomized mourning and catharsis for me as we are now one year into the devastating COVID pandemic, racial tensions and social upheaval,” Platow wrote.
“Worktable powerfully shed light for me on how little it takes to destroy and how much time, effort, creativity and resources it takes to build anew,” she continued. “However, the process of rebuilding offers space and opportunity, not just for fixing what has been broken, but to tap into our imagination to envision something better and more useful for our future world. To imagine something not just as it was, or ‘normally’ is, but as it might be — that is the path of true change and the only pathway to a better tomorrow.”
Even the way Platow started this particular newsletter seemed surprisingly forthcoming: “We are back — with caution, we are back. In spite of an incredible loss in revenue, the CAC is back, coming off our performance festival, This Time Tomorrow, and a building full of new exhibitions.”
Being able to get these dispatches made CAC membership worth having during the roughly one-and-a-half years I’ve gone without visiting the building (The CAC is putting the collection of newsletters up on its website soon).
Platow arrived at the CAC after serving as chief curator and acting director of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum and as international curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina. She also has held museum positions in Munich and Berlin in her native country Germany. Her résumé states that she has written extensively about contemporary art, too.
The CAC’s Zaha Hadid-designed building was but four years old when Platow arrived, and figuring out how to use it best was part of her job. During her tenure here there was a 400% increase in attendance and a doubling of the museum’s annual operating budget, The Art Newspaper reports.
As the CAC’s director (officially the Alice & Harris Weston Director), Platow presided over some wonderful shows, sometimes working with now-departed curators Justine Ludwig and Steven Matijcio (I retired as CityBeat Arts Editor in 2018 and am not familiar with the input of current senior curator Amora Antilla).
Some of these exhibits brought to town the work of larger-than-art-world celebrities like Patti Smith, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, JR, Mark Mothersbaugh and the late Keith Haring. The CAC also hosted powerful exhibits by artists who were known within the contemporary art world but not so much outside of it — Tara Donovan, Ugo Rondinone, Glenn Brown, Do Ho Suh, Maria Lassnig, Daniel Arsham, Glenn Kaino, Anne Lindberg and more.
If I had to pick the most important show presented under Platow’s leadership, it would be 2019-20’s Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. It gave a timely overview as well as an understanding of the demanding work of this Black painter, who died in 2009. Platow organized this traveling retrospective that had its first stop at the CAC, and she should be proud of the national attention it received.
The CAC under Platow championed local artists, and at least two of them had especially impactful shows. One, Mark de Jong’s Swing House, highlighted an already existing re-invention of a Camp Washington house into a kind of indoor playground. And Shinji Turner-Yamamoto’s Hanging Garden at Mount Adams’ then-abandoned Holy Cross Church featured a live tree surviving atop a dead one, their balancing act seeming to defy nature even while being part of it.
It will be interesting to see how the CAC evolves after Platow. Its current deputy director, Marcus Margerum, will serve as interim director.
At the Speed, Platow will move to an encyclopedic collecting museum which, in recent years, has completed a multi-year project that included renovation of its 1927 Neoclassical building and construction of a new, Modernist North Building. The Speed, too, has shown dedication to presenting politically, socially and environmentally relevant Contemporary art (including cinema). Earlier this year, it presented a show of Black artists responding to last year’s police killing of Louisville medical worker Breonna Taylor. Additionally, it will share ownership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture of a portrait of Taylor by Amy Sherald, who also painted First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery.
Looking ahead, the Speed has an August show featuring a recently acquired portfolio by the late Ralph Eugene Meatyard — one of Kentucky’s most important photographers — which includes images taken at Red River Gorge in 1967 to raise support for its then-threatened preservation. And coming in October is an exhibit called Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art. It sounds like quite an interesting museum.
Platow’s last day at CAC will be July 9. She will start in Louisville on Aug. 30.
Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, contemporaryartscenter.org.