Building a Better Museum Through Dialogue

A place like the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) often looks its most ominous right before visiting hours. Outside the museum's doors, the world surrounding Eden Park and Mount Adams is one of warm suns

A place like the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) often looks its most ominous right before visiting hours. Outside the museum's doors, the world surrounding Eden Park and Mount Adams is one of warm sunshine and bright skies. Inside the vacant CAM galleries, dark stairwells and shadows give the place a ghost-story feeling.

It's not the kind of atmosphere CAM wants to project to the early morning visitors who have been participating in a series of dialogues led by CAM Director Timothy Rub. Still, by the time people file into Rub's airy office, any sensation of gloom and stuffiness is left far behind. There's nothing like engaged conversation to brush away the solemnity.

Rub and the CAM staff are busy updating the museum's long-range plan, and they've invited members of the Greater Cincinnati community to share their thoughts at a summer-long series of breakfast meetings.

Rub's idea is both simple and brilliant: Before he finalizes the CAM's goals, he'll talk to various people, both dedicated museum supporters and others, listening to their viewpoints about the CAM's role in the community.

In an old-fashioned town where institutions like to keep all matters private, the CAM's open-door approach to long-range planning is welcomed news. Can you imagine folks at the Cincinnati Arts Association inviting people to share their thoughts about the Aronoff Center?

Based on the June 26 meeting I attended, it's safe to say Rub is going to receive more than his share of criticisms. Then again, as I've often said in the past, people only take the time to criticize things they care about.

For every survey filled out by a CAM member, Rub and his staff need to listen to 10 people who have never been to the museum. Building a bridge to the community also means reaching out to people who are disinterested in the arts.

Listening to the June 26 discussions confirmed that there are plenty of ways for the CAM to better integrate itself with Greater Cincinnati and beyond. Topics ranged from enhancing the museum's resources to providing greater access to the facility for everyone in the community.

Still, there was one universal theme that connected the discussion I heard: Rub's visitors were sincerely interested in making the CAM a better place.

Representatives from various business and media concerns comprised the June 26 group. Made up of voices not directly linked to other arts institutions, the discussion veered in the Average Joe direction. Listening to the matter-of-fact answers, it's safe to say there might not be a doable solution for taxi drivers who don't know how to get their passengers to the CAM.

Yet much of what this group had to say about diversity and the CAM's role in the community was thoughtful and articulate. Not every response was positive when it came to perceptions about the museum's overall image — it's clear the CAM continues to struggle with an elitist and stuffy image — but I'd argue that Rub and his staff will benefit from hearing everything this group had to say.

I hope other area arts institutions will take notice of these summer dialogues. Soliciting viewpoints from people outside one's organization is a practice that should be shared by all Cincinnati arts organizations.

I have no doubt that these meetings will make a real impact on CAM planning. It's clear that good advice comes from all walks of life — especially those people who don't qualify as members of the cultural elite. Nothing about these summer dialogues feels contrived or artificial.

When it comes to planning for the CAM's future as well as improving the programming, Rub appears genuinely interested in what people have to say. Luckily, there are plenty of people who care enough about the CAM to share their opinion.

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