Cover Story: Taking You Aback

CAC's new leader plans to improve our relationship with contemporary art

Sean Hughes/

Linda Shearer

She thinks quickly and speaks slowly. She divides equally her curiosity, speculation and certainty, interweaving them with her language, which unfolds gradually like a brightly colored brochure. She giggles and grins often, and she just happens to be brilliant. She's quirky, off-beat, funny and down-to-earth, so she'll fit in perfectly in Cincinnati.

Meet Linda Shearer, the new director of the Contemporary Arts Center.

Most recently she served as director of the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts. Before that, she was the painting and sculpture curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

"It's exciting to be part of a downtown resurgence," she says. "I come from a very rural area, but before that I spent many years in New York City, so this seems like a nice combination, a balance."

Landing in a mid-sized city, especially one that grapples with its urban identity, seems to suit Shearer, a no-nonsense art theorist whose lofty ideas and streetwise sensibilities blend seamlessly without a shred of pretense or haughtiness.

She knows contemporary art can be intimidating, but she refuses to believe it's inaccessible. And she's going to prove it to you.

Shearer joins the CAC at a pivotal point in its history. Propelled into public consciousness with its new building and expanded programming, the CAC has carved out a space as one of the most important contemporary art institutions in the Midwest. With its newly-minted national image and global reach, the CAC's exhibits are now on an international stage.

"I think what's important for the CAC is for us now to build on the momentum that started when it reopened," Shearer insists.

Shearer also understands the CAC's role within the city that supports it. She admits she was surprised and excited to find that "there was the support and the enthusiasm for a building like this. That something as radical as a building like this is here in Cincinnati." Her mission will now be to capitalize on all that good will and community support to leverage her educational efforts.

Battling the skepticism and bewilderment many people seem to have toward contemporary and conceptual art, Shearer will help program and present future seasons, introducing exhibits to Cincinnati audiences with context and background, not backing down on presenting cutting edge, challenging work.

"Even in a place like New York, there are many people who remain intimidated and resistant to contemporary art," Shearer says. "So it's a challenge that all contemporary museums face. As they gain in profile and identity and there's this excitement attached to the institution, people want to know, and rightly so, 'Well, what's it all about?'

"There is a kind of skepticism, and that's very healthy. We've been talking about ways to help people enter into the realm of contemporary art. (Education) is a really critical part of this process."

Shearer acknowledges that the challenge in educating the community about contemporary or conceptual art is a potential sacrifice of the effect of the art. "It's a clear mandate that the CAC — and it's not a collecting institution, it's exhibiting — is to exhibit work that's on the cutting edge, and the challenge is: How do you present that with the information that helps people get a handle on it in some way without compromising the impact?"

An educator at heart, Shearer plans to work with the CAC to contextualize exhibits selectively. Visitors to the center should have enough information to place a work within its historical context without the exposure of the art's mystery.

The CAC's upcoming fall exhibit, Nothing Compares to This, presents a challenge contextually — especially since the exhibit itself essentially is context.

"The premise is that art can be almost invisible, that it's so much a part of our everyday surroundings and environment," she says. "It's taking a much subtler approach to the idea of art, and just ever so slightly transforming something. That gets us to look more carefully at what it is in the first place. One of the roles of the artist is to make us rethink that, or re-see that, in some way. And it can be completely formal or visual, and it doesn't have to have a social or political point to it. Radical works can take the form of something that's very blatant and outward, or (they) can be something completely subtle and almost invisible."

And speaking of radical works of art, how does Shearer approach the possibility of community disapproval — or worse? Is she prepared to take on a position that has a long tradition of battling Hamilton County's conservative attitudes?

"This is an institution with a long history, and that has to be honored and celebrated and not forgotten, and I don't think anyone intends to (forget)," Shearer says, referring to the indictment and acquittal of former CAC Director Dennis Barrie on obscenity charges stemming from the 1990 exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography. "We wouldn't be doing our job if we were self-censoring. If there's an idea or a particular artist, you have a responsibility as an institution to make sure that the work that's shown is representative of the theme or the artist's work as a whole."

Shearer plans to infuse her tenure at the CAC with her knowledge of art as well as her evaluative authority on what's good. She takes her role seriously, and she hopes her focus on "promoting, interpreting and educating" will enhance the CAC's outreach.

"To me," she says, "work that's important and lasting is work that perhaps takes you aback. You can look at it initially, and you may not immediately understand it. It may not look appealing. But there are layers and levels of comprehension, or perception. What counts is work that makes you wonder. Our talent is to find ways to engage people in that process." ©

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