Pondering a Post-Betsky Cincinnati Art Museum

Overall, I really enjoyed the Cincinnati Art Museum under Aaron Betsky, the director who announced his resignation Jan. 2 and will stay until a replacement is found. But there were a couple weaknesses that ought to be addressed by a successor, with the s

click to enlarge Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

Overall, I really enjoyed the Cincinnati Art Museum under Aaron Betsky, the director who announced his resignation Jan. 2 and will stay until a replacement is found. But there were a couple weaknesses that ought to be addressed by a successor, with the support of the trustees. 

Betsky’s curators presented smartly researched shows — most of them small or mid-sized and beautifully installed — that provided insight about the collection and the history of Cincinnati art. And the museum’s staff seemed encouraged to try new ideas, such as pairing contemporary crafts with paintings or displaying classic automobiles as art objects. 

Even when some Betsky administration ideas seemed strange, such as the “greatest hits” Icons corridor between the main entrance and the Great Hall, they did try to shake things up and address problems. And Betsky’s plan for Dutch firm Neutelings Riedijk to build the much-needed major expansion was itself bold; the shelving of that when the recession hit was a crushing blow.

I personally love it when an urban art museum like Cincinnati’s takes a lead in teaching about its region’s art history as well as the development and variety of its collection. I know some people decry “regionalism” in art, or equate it with provincialism, but it’s not a dirty word in music or literature. As long as we don’t get so enamored of our past we stop realizing that there’s more to art than Cincinnati. 

But to draw visitors and members, having a preponderance of such shows can pose challenges. This is especially true when some are at least partially drawn from collections not seen to be fundamentally “fine art” (musical instruments, circus posters). 

You need, in a city this size, “blockbusters.” In a Dec. 25 interview with CityBeat, Betsky explained the reasons why the museum had financial problems in offering such shows. In that interview, Betsky also revealed a sizeable attendance drop for the most recent fiscal year.

The problem, as a friend pointed out to me, is that another local museum, the Cincinnati Museum Center, does present and promote “blockbusters” with national/international angles, thus conditioning people here to expect such shows as big museum events. Shows such as A Day in Pompeii, Cleopatra, Dead Sea Scrolls and the upcoming Diana: A Celebration aren’t straight art exhibitions — some certainly have fine-art components, but they also have historical artifacts and a certain show-biz pizzazz out-of-place within the contemplative experience that is supposed to be an art museum. But those do define what a “big” museum show is in Cincinnati. 

(The European painting, drawing and sculpture curator who departed the art museum in 2012, Benedict Leca, had a feel for how to make his small-to-moderate-size shows resonate with a sense of international importance — his Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman was a milestone.)

Post-Betsky, there is also the issue of what to collect and how to display it. During Betsky’s tenure (he arrived in 2006), the museum was lucky in that Cynthia Amneus, the curator of costume and textiles, combined her contemporary art/avant-garde sensibilities with a populist streak that resulted in 2010’s Wedded Perfection at the very moment when audiences began to flock to art museums for fashion shows. 

Amy Dehan — decorative arts and design curator — seems to be making that collection more daring by narrowing the distinction between contemporary crafts and art. And James Crump — the photography curator who left last year — brought in shows devoted to important names and trends in contemporary photography, such as Herb Ritts and James Welling. And he shepherded Doug and Mike Starn’s spectacular FotoFocus-related Gravity of Light at Mount Adams’ former Holy Cross Church (a place the museum should buy for site-related projects). 

If you notice, I repeatedly used the word “contemporary” in the above two paragraphs. That brings up a question. Where does building and powerfully displaying a Contemporary Art collection fit into the museum’s plans? 

Betsky seemed to champion that at first — he made Jim Dine’s “Pinocchio (Emotional)” a signature outdoor sculpture. And in one of our earliest conversations, he emphasized how much he needed to bring the museum’s collections into the 20th and 21st centuries. But toward the end, in our last interview, he wasn’t sure how the museum would be displaying what it already has, much less how aggressively it would acquire new works.

But how can the museum attract more people, especially younger art-aware people, if it doesn’t make this a priority?

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN : [email protected]

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