CAM Blockbuster

I parked on Eden Park Drive and walked up the hillside steps to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) parking lot. It didn't matter if it was early in the morning or late afternoon. The place was filled

I parked on Eden Park Drive and walked up the hillside steps to the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) parking lot. It didn't matter if it was early in the morning or late afternoon. The place was filled with visitors attending the popular exhibit European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings from the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and every nearby parking spot was taken.

The crowds snaking through the museum were impressive. Granted, there are only so many ways you can describe a large crowd. Additional visiting hours helped to handle the people, culminating in 6,661 passing through CAM's doors on the exhibit's final day, Jan. 14.

But this column isn't about the European Masterpieces crowds, per se. It's about the impact the impressive attendance will have on a reinvigorated CAM.

Timothy Rub, CAM director since September 1999, says the blockbuster crowds confirm the museum is expanding upon its limited resources and realizing its ultimate potential. For CAM visitors, European Masterpieces was a taste of things to come.

"I inherited a situation where people expected a change," Rub says during a break from talking with visitors waiting to enter the exhibit. "They wanted to see growth, and they had enhanced expectations."

It helps that the excitement was about a noteworthy exhibit. European Masterpieces presented 88 paintings, including works by J.M.W. Turner, Manet, Picasso and Hockney, many away from Australia for the first time. Most likely, this National Gallery collection is never to do so again.

The final numbers for European Masterpieces are 62,284, placing it third only to 1982's Treasures from the Tower of London (143,713) and 1997's Women in Ancient Egypt (63,147).

Beyond the statistics, there is the artistic experience itself, the opportunity to see a painting you normally wouldn't see. For me, it was Turner's "A Mountain Scene, Val d'Aosta" And to see it next to his earlier landscape, "Walton Bridges" ... well, that was truly momentous.

The exhibition's precise lighting and vibrant wall colors heightened its impact. Though some of the reconfigured rooms in the special exhibitions area were small, the packed galleries only heightened the big-city experience of a crowded museum. Inside European Masterpieces, one felt newfound cultural excitement for a long-time, sleeping giant like the CAM.

I've seen large crowds at the CAM before: the recent Ansel Adams exhibit and Women in Ancient Egypt. In 1997, local critics questioned the success of the Egyptian exhibit, saying it was too little bang after the CAM's own blockbuster hype. My guess is that there will be no cynicism surrounding European Masterpieces. This exhibit was too successful for nay-sayers.

Questions about the need to expand the CAM's 10,000 sq. ft. of special exhibitions galleries take on greater importance. Artistic priorities and programming decisions will continue to impact the museum's financial challenges. Still, Rub is clear that he's pointing the CAM toward a more ambitious special-exhibit schedule. The ramifications of European Masterpieces on the museum's long-range plans should be dramatic.

"You do it (special exhibitions) well, and you do it consistently, and it will pay back handsomely," Rub says. "This exhibit is an example of that."

There's a profile boost that comes from housing a traveling exhibition's premiere. An immediate spike in CAM membership is expected. More importantly, the museum is counting on the long-term effects of European Masterpieces to carry it to new levels of awareness.

European Masterpieces confirms that the CAM is experiencing an upward trend. Its ardent support of the Big Pig Gig and free admission during the summer also had a positive impact. The hope is that the success will continue through the upcoming Gordon Parks exhibit to the 2003 opening of the new Cincinnati Galleries.

Cincinnati wants to be a big city, culturally speaking. The recent crowds at the CAM point to the city's potential. It points to the museum's potential, too. This sleeping giant, the first art museum established west of the Allegheny Mountains, has awakened. This time, it looks like the renaissance is for good.

CONTACT STEVE RAMOS: [email protected]

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