The Taft Goes Public

This year is the Taft Museum’s 80th anniversary — it opened in 1932, five years after Charles Phelps Taft and Anna Sinton Taft deeded their historic 1820 mansion and its 690 works of art to Cincinnati.

Jan 10, 2012 at 6:16 pm
click to enlarge Taft Museum Art Director Deborah Emont
Taft Museum Art Director Deborah Emont

This year is the Taft Museum’s 80th anniversary — it opened in 1932, five years after Charles Phelps Taft and Anna Sinton Taft deeded their historic 1820 mansion and its 690 works of art to Cincinnati.  

As a house museum and boutique art museum, it’s long been accepted as an integral part of the city’s cultural landscape, as are its masterpieces by the likes of Turner, Sargent, Goya, Rembrandt, Hals, Whistler and Robert Duncanson, among others. But what does that really mean in a time when many consider reality television, social media and video games far more “culturally” important than the traditional fine arts?

“As an art historian, I certainly knew about Taft and thought everyone did. But there are so many people I run into around here who never have heard of it,” says Deborah Emont Scott, Taft’s director for the past two years. 

Among those who do know, she says, there are misconceptions that affect attendance. 

“One is that it’s very fancy and ‘I wouldn’t know what to do or how to dress when I go in,’ ” she says. 

The Taft, mind you, does OK considering it can only accommodate 875 people at a time. Its attendance for the recently concluded fiscal year (through August) was just under 57,000. That’s an increase of 6.6 percent from the previous year. (The Taft shows temporary exhibitions, in addition to its permanent collection.)

But the Taft wants to reinforce the fact that it exists as a gift to residents. It is using its 80th anniversary to launch a new Art for All program that begins in May and runs through summer. Eighty high-quality, almost-exact-size framed reproductions of its paintings will be installed in public areas — outdoors and indoors — throughout Cincinnati, adjacent Ohio counties and Northern Kentucky. The reprints will be placed everywhere from libraries to parks and beyond; two places under consideration are dog parks at Mt. Airy Forest and Otto Armleder Park. 

“By bringing our collection forward and outside of our doors into people’s communities, neighborhoods and in some cases backyards, people will want to know about the Taft Museum and then come and see the real thing,” Scott says. 

The Taft has received a $225,000 grant from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./US Bank Foundation, which covers not just the cost of the reproductions but also follow-up activities. 

“We’re working with community arts centers in various neighborhoods and working with community curators who will direct us to the best places to site work,” Scott says. “And then we’ll have community days at the museum. So if we put one in Mount Lookout Square, then you have Mount Lookout Day at the museum and get to stand in front of the real work. That’s a really comfortable way to go to a museum you may have driven by but never gone into before.”

The museum has identified three areas that it believes would especially benefit because research shows their museum patronage is low — Over-the-Rhine, Ohio’s Clermont County and Northern Kentucky’s Campbell County. There’s a possibility a reproduction of Whistler’s “At the Piano” will wind up in Over-the-Rhine’s renovated Washington Park across from Music Hall. 

The idea has been tried elsewhere, notably at Detroit Institute of Arts. In fact, Detroit sent down one of its reproductions for Taft employees to see. 

“We had a sample in our office that had been outdoors for four months,” Scott says. “Lynne Ambrosini (chief curator) had to get within two inches of it to say, ‘This isn’t real.’ ”

A “digital capture” of a painting in the Taft’s collection will be created from new photos of the collection of such quality as to show the visible brushstrokes, then

placed on a durable non-canvas backing, framed, varnished and weatherproofed. The size differs a little from the original work, so nobody tries to sell one to an unsuspecting collector. 

As the Taft moves forward with this program, it raises a question: Are arts organizations putting too much stuff on our streets and walls and in our parks for people to notice anymore? Is it becoming clutter? Big Pig Gig is being reprised this year, while ArtWorks continues with its murals (including two for Art for All). Contemporary Arts Center has sponsored photo posters envisioned by French artist JR as well as Shepard Fairey’s controversial murals. And in 2010 artist Luke Jerram placed 35 street pianos around town. Plus, billboards — often now digital — keep cropping up everywhere.

Enough, already? 

“There is a lot of noise out there,” Scott acknowledges. “But you don’t stumble across a Rembrandt anywhere, or a Whistler or a Duveneck.”

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]