The "kids table" at the May 30 gala party celebrating the opening of the new Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) was located on the second floor of London-based architect Zaha Hadid's nonlinear building. That's where CAC Assistant Curator Matt Distel poured wine into plastic cups, passed out bottles of beer and served homemade spanakopita from a tinfoil tray. Artists who have work in the new museum, including Chico MacMurtie and Tony Luensman, joined Distle in the party.
The CAC's movers and shakers enjoyed a more formal dinner at an outdoor tent a floor below, but Distel and his pack of artists didn't seem to mind the slight. They laughed, talked and gossiped among themselves. They were full of life, and the building came alive thanks to their artwork and their enthusiasm for the space.
The best way to sum up the citywide welcoming of the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art this past weekend is this: It's alive, and Cincinnati has come alive with it. Hadid's sleek temple of art is alive with the various sculptures, video installations and photographs that make up its inaugural exhibition, Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art.
The surrounding block came alive the following day, May 31, when approximately 11,000 people streamed into a members party celebrating the opening. It was a big deal for the CAC, and its opening was a big-deal success.
It was also a time to reevaluate the space as a functioning museum. My report card is more balanced as a result.
Earlier this spring, I visited the mostly unfinished museum on a hard hat tour and it was impossible not to emphasize the negatives. The ceilings are too low in many galleries to contain massive works of contemporary art. In other rooms, the columns are located too close to the wall and situated too close together to view large works without interruption.
I left the construction site convinced the new CAC would be a tough space for displaying contemporary art.
The tangible flaws are still there. In fact, large crowds bring out the beast in the building. Noise travels haphazardly through the museum's irregular spaces. Video installations battle each other for viewers' attention. Only Lorna Simpson's video projection "Easy to Remember" enjoys the level of solitude that electronic art needs to be successfully viewed.
Yet with its art in place, its walls painted and its floors scrubbed, the new CAC has pockets of beauty equal to its design limitations. It really is alive because, after a number of recent visits, I've come to see the space as a hulking human body.
Look in the mirror and you can point to your best features. You can also poke and pull at those bulges and blemishes that never fade away. The new CAC has its blemishes, and they won't change. But there's beauty in the space, a relationship between visitors and artwork that could only be experienced once the artworks were in place.
Early reviews of the new CAC are glowing, and it's safe to predict that the professional consensus on the architecture will be positive. The buzz among CAC staff on May 30 was an impending review in The New York Times declaring the facility the "best American building since the Cold War." The review didn't appear in the June 1 paper, but it'll likely run this Sunday — hopefully, for the CAC's sake, with more space and a bigger photo.
In the June 1 arts section — in space the CAC review might have appeared — The Times ran a story about the history of mortuary photographs, singling out local photographer Thomas Condon, his conviction on gross abuse of a corpse, his months in an Ohio prison and his current appeal to the Ohio State Supreme Court. In a weekend of non-stop backslapping and congratulations over what a cool city Cincinnati has become, it's worth noting that the good guys don't always win here. It's worth remembering that art can still come under attack, whether in a packed museum or a Walnut Hills studio.
Thousands of people flocked to the new CAC this past weekend, and I know for a fact there were plenty of influential folks in the crowd. Perhaps one of them will prove his or her newfound love for contemporary art by helping contemporary artist Thomas Condon stay out of prison.