Cover Story: State of the Arts: New Directors New Direction

Roundtable discussion with Cincinnati Art Museum's Aaron Betsky, Taft Museum's Eric Lee and CAC's Raphaela Platow

Aug 29, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Scott Beseler

Aaron Betsky

Eric Lee

Raphaela Platow

During the past year, the three major Cincinnati arts institutions have appointed new directors: Eric Lee at the Taft Museum of Art, Aaron Betsky at the Cincinnati Art Museum and Raphaela Platow at the Contemporary Arts Center. Each comes from a different place and brings distinct interests and expertise. For this year's State of the Arts issue, CityBeat sat down with Betsky, Lee and Platow at the Taft to hear from the newly-minted Cincinnatians about the city's art world — from the inside and the outside.

Getting 'the call'
Eric Lee: I'm from North Carolina originally. I've been here since Jan. 1. We've all been here for less than a year.

Aaron Betsky: I'm the senior! I've been here two months longer than (Lee).

EL: That's right! I was most recently the director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma.

We had done quite a bit to expand in terms of the collection (and) the building. We opened a new building in 2005, so I think I contributed as much as I could contribute to that museum. I got a call about the Taft, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring. Here I am, a year and a half later.

AB: I was actually (in Cincinnati) 22 years ago. My first job out of architecture school ... was teaching at DAAP at the University of Cincinnati. I did that for two years and then moved on to California. I was in California for 16 years, and then I moved to the Netherlands and was there for five and a half years. I was the director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute. I was ready to come back to America and then, as happened with Eric, these headhunters start getting your number and ...

Raphaela Platow: Same here.

AB: They call you about various things ... one of them was Cincinnati, and I said, "Oh, I wonder whatever happened." It's like a traveling salesman: As soon as they get a bite, they're like, "Well, let me tell you!"

EL: I was being interviewed at the Queen City Club, and at the same time on the same floor the Art Museum was interviewing (Betsky).

AB: That's right!

RP: But they didn't confuse the rooms?

EL: Right, Aaron was supposed to be director of the Taft.

AB: I was born in Missoula, Montana, but I grew up in the Netherlands. ... (I) went to college on the East Coast and then came here and then to California, and now I'm back here. I'm from Cincinnati right now.

RP: I'm originally from Munich (Germany). I've moved around a lot. I was in Boston for the last six years working at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, which is a university museum of modern and contemporary art. It has a very cool collection and a very nice building ... and I basically did everything I could do there. I was interim director for a while. I was chief curator, expanded the collection, taught, put a really interesting special exhibition program together and put the museum back on the cultural landscape. And then I got a call.

EL: These calls!

RP: These calls! One of the interesting things about the CAC in Cincinnati is that it's part of an urban environment. ... Brandeis is obviously a little bit tucked away, surrounded by walls, (a) much more isolated community. The Rose is a place that is very comparable to other institutes of contemporary art ... but I really wanted to be part of the downtown feeling again. I also like the idea of not having a collection. I mean, I love working with those collections, but I think not having a collection gives you a lot more flexibility, and your focus and energy can be directed toward different things. I've always been interested in creating experiences through art and through opening up the creative process to the people ­ not just focusing on objects. So I think it will be an interesting opportunity for me as a next step.

CityBeat: Your role is chief curator as well as director.

RP: Yes.

CB: Do you two take part in the curatorial aspects as well?

EL: Well, we have a curatorial staff, and as director you do participate to some extent ­ some directors more so than others. ... (The Taft has) a chief curator. That's her primary responsibility. But I'm an art historian and I'm interested in the issues, so I'm sure that I will contribute to some extent.

'Just park your car' and other, er, holdups
CB: Back to what you were saying about the urban environment and coming from Waltham (Mass.) to Cincinnati, what was your impression of Cincinnati? Does it seem urban to you?

RP: Yeah, it does. I think it's pretty much alive, and it has a good energy in the air. It has a tremendous willingness and desire to be more interesting and to be more alive. So many (Cincinnatians) have moved to downtown. There are great institutions downtown, all the corporations that have their headquarters downtown. I think it's not a desolate, depressed downtown. I was actually pretty impressed — I'm quite inspired by it. It has a lot of room to grow and to define itself. There are efforts in all different pockets of the city to invigorate it and to make it interesting, to make it flourish. Of course there are a lot of problems. I think we are all aware of them — more hyper-aware than other places are. But there's great opportunity, too. I think the CAC has played a big part of it from the beginning. Just simply by building this incredible building and by defining that street corner — 44 East Sixth — and hopefully we'll also be engaged much more, all of us, in future downtown development and discussions about urban development. We've talked about it informally already, so hopefully we'll all have a chance to participate and to support what's going on.

EL: It's been wonderful seeing the condominiums being developed around the Taft here — The Edge just behind us and Park Place just next door — and it's bringing back so many people.

RP: I'm running into my neighbors from my condominium on the street now. It's a really good feeling, you know, that downtown neighborhood. It's growing and changing and establishing itself.

EL: When the Taft (family) decided to open their house as a museum, one of the reasons was that they wanted to help stabilize this part of downtown Cincinnati. During their lifetimes, they saw this area change from a residential neighborhood to primarily an industrial neighborhood. They went to Europe one summer and came back and there was a factory essentially next door.

AB: Oh, you're kidding.

EL: The photographs are amazing. (It shows the Taft family's) commitment to downtown, when you think that all their friends were moving out to Hyde Park or wherever, and here they were with this factory next door. They also wanted to save what they thought was a very historic house. So much of Cincinnati's history has taken place in this house.

CB: I know (the CAM is) kind of up on the hill, which is not really separate from downtown, but in a way it is.

AB: It's difficult because we have this gorgeous setting, and it's wonderful to be in this sylvan, idyllic environment. But at the same time, it makes it difficult for people to find (us). It's very strange because, on the one hand, we get comments from people saying that they like coming to the museum because it's where it is, and then we either get people who say it's too difficult to find or people who say that we're downtown and they don't come downtown because it's too dangerous. ... It's a double-edged sword. I think a lot of what we have been trying to do in the last decade or so is to make ourselves more accessible and open and more visible, and that means doing a lot to make the museum more open, like being free (no admission charge). ... Raphaela is absolutely right: Cincinnati, more than any other Midwestern city of its size, has a real downtown that still exists, that is still vibrant and still feels like a coherent place. But at the same time, it is also one of the most sprawling cities in the Midwest. You can kvetch about it, but I think you have to realize that's what it is. What we're trying to figure out is how do you remain an asset, a cultural institution, for a community that's becoming more and more widespread and sprawling?

CB: More so than just location, do you feel that there is an issue regarding the people you'd like to see coming to your institutions not coming because they feel intimidated? I hear a lot of people say that they don't want to go to the CAC. They think, "I don't want to go there, it'll just make me feel stupid."

AB: That is so interesting.

RP: I've heard about it. I think we are — like Aaron — tackling all kinds of different issues. There is a certain hesitation in the minds of a few people about downtown in general, and they just don't come. I think (the CAC) can be found, but a lot of people don't like to come because parking is not readily available, despite the fact that there are like 10 parking lots just right around us!

EL: People complain about no parking at the Taft, and we have a parking garage and it's free.

RP: It seems like (parking is the) common denominator. I wanted go back to the fact that the CAM is free to the public, because I think it's wonderful. Of course it's something I'm asking myself: If the general museum is free, shouldn't the contemporary art museum be free? Because so many people have a special accessibility issue with contemporary art. On the one hand, I believe that everything in our society is valued monetarily. So if people come to the museum, I think they should pay, because somehow they have to recognize how much effort and how much money it takes to put the exhibitions together. But then in a city like Cincinnati maybe (being free) would help because, yes, we are in the middle of downtown, we have a lot of business people walking around. I don't know if they want to spend 6 or 8 dollars during their lunch hour to look at a work of art. (But) they might just zoom in for 20 minutes if we were for free.

AB: Right.

RP: I think also there is a need to figure out how we can successfully communicate to people that art in general is not something that you always understand. We have to open ourselves up to ambiguity and complexity and to the fact that you might not understand everything you see. You might not like it. And that it's also OK to have different emotional responses. I think generally people have this urge to understand it, and art is never something that can be understood. We are coming up with all kinds of different tools that we can put in place that will help people feel empowered to look for themselves and to feel comfortable about their emotional responses, their psychological responses. Another issue that I've heard a lot of people bringing up is the fact that our lobby is not very welcoming. It's just a cold space. I find it beautiful because I'm a big architecture fan, and because I can just enjoy the space in its own right.

EL: It's ironic with the ... what's the name for it?

RP: The Urban Carpet. Zaha (Hadid)'s idea was to bring in the flow of people and the energy of the street into the lobby. It's a wonderful metaphor and a great idea, but it hasn't successfully worked. I think that whenever you think of a public space, you have to at least provide certain parameters — how to define it and how to make it function — and it has not happened yet. We are working on that, too. (The lobby) will probably incorporate different components from possibly a bar or a café to an area where certain artistic happenings can happen. It's going to be a space where people feel comfortable to socialize and where people feel much more welcome. I think the issue of hospitality is important to institutions.

AB: We obviously spend a lot of time (focusing on hospitality), and I must say I shared some of Raphaela's ambivalence about being free. But on the other hand, the fact that our art museum is free has opened us up to an incredibly more diverse and also more relaxed audience, exactly because they feel like they can come in for lunch and to get something at the store or to meet someone or even just to get out from the heat. And if along the way they see one work of art, so be it. Maybe they'll come back and see another. It's taking away barriers. But to us that's just a start, because we also have the sense of being this big old temple on the hill, which I think makes it a place of value and worth, but (it's also) something that people find intimidating. What we've tried to do is preserve that sense of being an oasis and a place where you can concentrate on something and make it enjoyable and something that you want to do.

RP: Nowadays when you go to a museum and you pay a pretty substantial entrance fee, you feel almost a pressure to see everything, which is almost impossible. It's against everything that art is about! Art can be a very intimate encounter with just one piece that you really truly enjoy, and nowadays people just zoom through, look at labels and very often they have to because it's something they do once or twice a year.

EL: It's certainly a long-term goal of the Taft to be free every day. Unfortunately financially we can't do it at the moment. We are free, however, on Wednesdays.

RP: (The CAC is) free on Mondays!

A new identity
EL: We are trying at the Taft to break down barriers. People perceive certain barriers that the staff at least had no idea were there. Like the issue of parking. We have free parking downstairs, and parking was repeatedly listed as one of the barriers. And, of course, (downtown) is (considered) dangerous. People were a bit turned off by the formality of the Taft. People believed that you needed to dress up to come to the Taft, which is absurd. We've been trying to break down those perceptions. Part of that has been through our creating a new logo. ... It's much cleaner and more contemporary. Younger, fresher, I think.

CB: The advertising that CAM has done I've actually noticed a lot.

EL: It's terrific.

RP: So did you work with an outside...

AB: Cindy Fink is our director of marketing, who has done a fantastic job. Our first step was to get a new logo, and then we started redoing all our publications. I have fairly definite ideas about that. And then we did the institutional marketing campaign, which I think has really been fun. And then I called in an old UC graduate to do the signage. It seems sometimes like they're trivial things that you're spending a lot of attention on, but it turns out that so much of how people look at painting is set by the first time they look at a logo. It sounds completely silly, but the more you talk to people the more you get the sense that the frame by which they look at a work of art is also made by the museum.

RP: For us, I think it's really important to make a clear institutional identity — something that literally seeps through everything we are doing: our graphic identity, our shows, how we communicate to the people, the kinds of programs and events we're offering. I think there's a little bit of a fracturing going on right now in the institution in how that works. It will take a little bit of time to change, but we're working on that.

AB: Well, (Eric's) got the toughest (job) of all of us, because you have something that was a house and now it's a museum. I wonder how you make that into a place where people feel comfortable, because I assume that the house is also one of your strong suits.

EL: I didn't realize how historic the house was for Cincinnati from the very beginning, when it was built in 1820. But also with the house, it's fairly static. We have an extraordinary collection, but we are not a collecting museum. There are also challenges about how to make this fairly static museum more interesting for repeat viewers. It's wonderful with the expansion now to have the galleries upstairs to have exhibitions that we were unable to do before.

Building hype
RP: I wouldn't say (the CAC building is) established (the way the Taft building is), which is exactly what interested me about it. Every institution has an organic history and when you come in as a new director you have to make sure that you come in at the right moment for yourself. ... But what is fascinating to me is that (the CAC) has a new building and it's a very old institution. I think it's the second oldest of its kind in the United States. And here's this wonderful building that everybody knows about, but not everybody has very clear ideas about the identity of the institution. I think my effort is going to be to link these two entities ­ the building together with who we are as an institution, what we stand for, what we want to do, what kind of experience we want to provide ­ and to bring these two things together because the past efforts have all been about the building, the building, the building. Everywhere I go, people know about the building, and that's great. But it also gets a little bit tiring after a while. So for me, it's a great opportunity to make sure that we align ourselves in a really interesting way with the building.

AB: It's interesting because the spaces are not that difficult. I mean, they are fairly standard spaces, but the ...

RP: I don't know about that.

AB: But the transitions between them are abrupt.

RP: There are different spaces that have a very different feel. (One is a) very tall space, and (another is) very narrow.

AB: But that could be a strength as well.

RP: I'm going to turn it into a strength. It has not been used as a strength in the past, and I want the building to enable the projects that we are doing and vice versa. It hasn't really worked so well, and people feel it. Intuitively it doesn't feel right. It doesn't feel natural.

CB: This conversation makes me think of Tony Luensman's exhibition at the CAM (earlier this year) and how it worked so well with the collection.

AB: That is something we discovered and made us re-think how we are doing some of our installations. We are beginning to work on — I can't tell you what it is yet — we are going to have a painting in the museum in 2008 that will be worth coming just to see that one work. So we are going to put it not in one of our changing exhibition galleries but mixed in with our other paintings ... and draw people through our galleries to see that one painting. It's made me excited about trying to find other ways that we can engage people, mix new things in with old.

CB: It seems like recently at the CAC there was the Charley Harper and now there's the Charley and Edie Harper at the CAM, and there's so much about the Taft that's related to Cincinnati. I'm wondering if you all are planning to work with local artists in the future.

AB: However much we work with local artists, I bet you local artists will complain that they don't get shows in Cincinnati. But it's not just Cincinnati. When I was in San Francisco, we could do show after show after show of San Francisco/Bay Area artists and still the No. 1 complaint in the arts community was that we were ignoring the Bay Area artists. Everywhere people complain about that.

EL: And if you acquire a work by an area artist, you alienate quite a few other area artists.

AB: Oh, absolutely. But we're certainly committed to this area, plus there are also great artists, both living and dead, from Cincinnati.

EL: The Taft occasionally does contemporary shows. We did a Michael Scott show last fall, and he is a Cincinnati artist even though he now lives in Santa Fe. The Taft does not typically do contemporary shows, however, but we do occasionally.

CB: But it's not just an issue with contemporary art.

EL: Oh, no! I was actually chuckling to myself when Raphaela was talking about some of the issues she was facing, because we deal with those issues with some masterworks.

RP: I thought about that, too. It just seems to be an issue with art in this country.

AB: What's strange is that because you get, on the one hand, people saying that contemporary art is incomprehensible and old-fashioned, old-master painting (is easier), and then you get people saying, "Contemporary art, oh yeah, that's my life, I can understand that. And the old masters, you know, those guys and their frou-frou and funny hats."

EL: I'd also say that the old masters are contemporary as well because they relate to us today. They speak to us just as they spoke to past generations, in different ways.

Impressions of Cincinnati
AB: For me both (the Taft and the CAC) were attraction(s). I obviously knew the Taft as this wonderful oasis in the city. When I was here, it was still this little cramped place, which I actually liked about it. So to see it so gloriously opened up was quite fantastic. From my expertise, which is in architecture, it was exciting to see what was going on at UC as well, just with this city that's alive and kickin' and going places.

EL: The other institutions were definitely a draw for me, and when I came to Cincinnati for interviews I came to both museums. It was such a great pleasure going to the Art Museum. I had forgotten that certain paintings were there, and it's like, wow, to turn around the corner and think, "That's here in Cincinnati. I forgot." How great it would be to visit it often. The same with the CAC — the building, of course, you know I had heard so much about the building, but I had never actually seen it. The shows they've put on have been really great, great shows. I think of the museums as if they compliment one another.

RP: The same is true for me. I have to say that I was really amazed at how many cultural institutions are in Cincinnati. I mean, there's obviously the Taft, and I have to say that (today) is my first time here. There is (also) the symphony, the opera, the ballet, there are some really interesting theater companies as well as the art museum.

AB: And galleries.

RP: Yes, some great galleries. Some great nonprofit art spaces like Publico and Semantics and other places that speak to the fact that there is an interesting artist community in Cincinnati that's alive and well and doing things. What's wonderful here is that we are all playing a very different role. And we all supplement and complement each other in an amazing way.

AB: I think that's really important. People who have been around for a long time are now amazed that it is happening. There is now this joint effort that is bringing these institutions together and really beginning to say that we need to make a stronger, more forceful argument for the importance of culture for this community. And we can help each other do that, and as we help each other do things, I mean, we aren't just loaning each other pictures. We are doing shows together, doing activities together.

RP: And it's also a really important signal that we need to send to the corporate community here, because obviously we provide an incredible incentive to people they want to hire in an area.

EL: Absolutely.

RP: We are a big part of that, and everybody has to realize that. I think the word is not out there enough quite yet.

EL: I wanted to emphasize what Aaron just mentioned, and that's how well the arts organizations in Cincinnati work together to an unusually large extent. In many cities it's not like that. It's one of Cincinnati's strengths. I've also been so impressed since I've been here with Cincinnati's artistic heritage. It's amazing the number of major artists who came out of Cincinnati.

RP: Theater, performance, art, music ...

AB: We have to keep that going. To be a vibrant community, we have to keep that going. And I think that Raphaela's absolutely right: Part of the reason that we've all come together is to point out that, look, we moved here because we came to Cincinnati and looked around and said, "Hey, this is a good place to be because there are all these other institutions, all these other things going on." What does Cincinnati have going for it? As far as I'm concerned, two things: landscape and cultural institutions. It's got losing sports teams right now, but I'm hoping that can be a third. But those are the two things that really distinguish it, that really make it worth visiting Cincinnati and being in Cincinnati. And I think we have to make it clear. Yes, we have to make sure that it's a safe city. Yes, we have to make sure that there are good schools and there's a lot of work that needs to be done there. But when you really talk about what makes Cincinnati Cincinnati, what distinguishes it, it's landscape, it's physical setting — and I mean also the human-made landscape — and it's the cultural institutions.

CB: Before you all had ever come to Cincinnati, what did you think? We have such a reputation of being, you know, almost backwards in culture and thinking.

RP: Mark Twain is everywhere. First of all, yes, there is prejudice, especially in the United States, against everything between the coasts, but (in) Cincinnati in particular because of the riots and Mapplethorpe. And nobody has ever really gotten over that. I mean, people are still talking about it. Just get over it and move on! Make an effort. And then there's also the European factor, where everything again between the coasts is red. It's this territory that you don't touch. And so I was really positively impressed when I came and looked around, you know. Enough to live a part of my life here.

EL: Cincinnati has so much to be proud of.

AB: Had you been here before, when you got the call?

EL: No, actually, I hadn't. Of course I knew of the Taft and the collection, but I didn't know the history of the Taft until I looked into the connections in Cincinnati's history. Cincinnati has aspects of many of the places that I've lived. I'm Southern. I spent a lot of time in the Northeast, and Oklahoma (is) sort of Southwest or Midwest. (Cincinnati) was very familiar when I moved here. I felt very much at home here since day one.

CB: Were you ever put off by the stigma attached to the city, because of Mapplethorpe and other things that have happened?

EL: Well, I think Cincinnati has done so much to get beyond that.

RP: Really? I don't think so.

EL: As far as Mapplethorpe goes, it also involved other institutions, but I also believe that that could have happened anywhere in the United States. Look at the Sensation scandal at the Brooklyn Museum several years ago. Who would have thought that would have happened in New York of all places?

RP: Yeah, it could have happened everywhere, and this is why I think it's so surprising that it is still part of people's mindset, especially when it comes to (the CAC). Everyone tells me about it.

AB: I know, it's hard to believe, but there is that sense. This city has changed a huge amount. Because there are actually — I have found — fewer prejudices, and they are more spread out. Let's not forget it: It's a city a lot of whose wealth is gained through international corporations that bring people in and out at a great rate, so it's a much more open downtown community than a lot of other places. It's a very, very open place. (My partner and I) were obviously very concerned about this. But we've had nothing but good experiences here.

EL: It's important to step through the door at any of these institutions, and if you do it once, odds are you're going to come back.

RP: Open your mind and give it a try. That's all you can do.

EL: You won't regret it.

RP: And parking is available! ©