When Opportunity Knocks

At the helm of the local visual arts scene, Matt Distel explores new positions at Cincinnati Art Museum and The Carnegie

click to enlarge Matt Distel with artwork by Visionaries & Voices artist Victor Dambowsky
Matt Distel with artwork by Visionaries & Voices artist Victor Dambowsky


att Distel, an almost constant presence in the Cincinnati art scene for the last couple of decades, suddenly seems to be everywhere at once. But no, he’ll not be working three jobs. He’ll combine his part-time appointment as adjunct curator of contemporary art at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) with the ostensibly full-time position as exhibitions director at The Carnegie in Covington and give up, with regret, his post of executive director at Visionaries & Voices (V&V), the center for artists with disabilities.

“Aaron (Betsky) and Katie (Brass) already have talked about how this can work,” he says, referring to the directors of the two institutions for which he’ll be dividing his time. The CAM stint is already underway, with his exhibition Cincinnati Everyday set to open May 25 and run through Sept. 22. The Carnegie position doesn’t start until early June, when an orderly transition at V&V can have been accomplished.

“I was very happy here at V&V and not seeking anything out when these two things happened to land on top of each other,” Distel says. They presented challenges he couldn’t not pursue. 

“Adjunct is a new position at the Museum,” he says. The departure in February of James Crump, CAM’s chief curator and photography curator, to pursue his own projects left the museum with certain “priority projects and positions to work through,” Distel says. “I’m helping to bridge a gap, to make sure some projects don’t fall through the cracks. They need someone to see them through certain spots on the calendar.”

When asked why the museum looked to him, Distel makes a practical response: “I live in town,” he says, meaning he was an easier appointment than bringing someone in from elsewhere. “And also I can connect with the contemporary scene here.” 

Betsky expands on this to say, “We liked the fact that he comes from three perspectives: museums [the Contemporary Arts Center], commercial [Country Club Gallery] and community involvement [Visionaries & Voices]. The combination is important.”

“Matt has a wealth of experience [coupled with] broad local knowledge,” Betsky continues. 

The experience and knowledge have been accumulated on the ground, so to speak. Distel, a Cincinnati Westsider (Colerain, White Oak), enrolled as a business major at Miami University (Oxford) but quickly realized he “didn’t want to hang out there” and turned to art history, graduating in 1994. 

“Art history was brand new at Miami. We were the first or second graduating class. The university now has a weird divide between those who make art and those who study it, but didn’t then,” he says. 

That lack of divide led to a working partnership with Kristin Rogers, a fine arts graduate student, in Cincinnati after college. “I’ve spent a formative part of my career thinking of myself as a guy who organizes shows. First, we did them in people’s houses. We’d find a friend with a decent house, take down their artwork, reinstall, have a party. It would be one night or weekend or maybe a week. We wanted to build a conversation about art, and found it easier in homes than in sterile gallery spaces. Now, I love those spaces, but didn’t then. I came into this not understanding what it is but that it was interesting to me. I still have that desire, to make exhibitions happen for artists,” Distel says.

He has continued making exhibitions happen for artists in one way or another, here and elsewhere. Curatorial roles at the Contemporary Arts Center from 2002-2007 were briefly interrupted by a stint out of town as executive director at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, N.Y., in 2006-2007, followed by the establishment of Country Club, a Cincinnati-based gallery that expanded to Los Angeles. 

“I was the director, Christian Strike the owner,” Distel says. Strike eventually “wanted to focus on a project-model rather than a brick-and-mortar operation,” he says. “Prior to that shift I decided to get back into more curatorial and community-minded activities, less art sales driven.” In 2011 he became executive director at Visionaries & Voices and last year folded in the position of project manager for FotoFocus 2012.

Distel says leaving V&V is “the hardest decision.” 

“The artists I’ve encountered here give me a whole lot of other things to think about contemporary art,” he says. “The work is poised to have impact. It’s increasingly relevant in the art world.” 

Cincinnati Everyday at the Art Museum will make that point, a joint exhibition of paintings by well-established, classically trained Cincinnati artist Cole Carothers and the drawings — large-scale aerial view “maps” of Cincinnati — by V&V artist Courttney Cooper. “They are radically different artists but both look at the city as it changes,” Distel says.

The Art Museum, he says, necessarily has “a national/international focus, but keeps in mind Cincinnati work. The Carnegie is the opposite, almost inverted, with a regional focus.” Katie Brass, director at The Carnegie, says, “We’re thrilled to have Distel, and glad to see him back in curatorial work.” She expects him “to bring our galleries to the next level.” 

The exhibition schedule there is set through December of this year, Distel says, but “2014 is still pretty open. By early to mid-summer I hope to have this worked out, although that might be too ambitious.” He expects the Carnegie position to be “a pretty easy transition.”

Distel finds Cincinnati continually interesting in the young people who establish offbeat, if sometimes short-lived, galleries, contributing to making Cincinnati “a really fabulous place for art.” He will tap into all that for The Carnegie and is thinking about “how to get those people engaged, and how to pull in interesting things from outside that make sense in the region.” For the immediate future Distel will be working a job and a half, but he’s enjoying the challenge. 

MATT DISTEL’s Cincinnati Art Museum adjunct curatorial debut, Cincinnati Everyday, opens at the CAM on May 25 and continues through Sept. 22. More information: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

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