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Art Museums Draw Crowds, Big Shows in ’09

By Steven Rosen · December 30th, 2009 · The Big Picture



In what was a tough year economically for the visual arts, Cincinnati museums managed to not only put on some excellent shows but to draw respectable crowds to see them.

The Cincinnati Art Museum may have had to put its expansion plans on hold as the recession grinded on, but it used 2009 to present some of the new gifts that would look great on permanent display if there was more space for them. It also found people happy to see a wider variety of modern and contemporary art, especially if they no longer had to pay for special exhibitions. In late 2008, the museum — which has free general admission — removed its price for special exhibitions. Instead, it instituted a parking fee.

The smash hit of the year was last winter’s Surrealism and Beyond in the Israeli Museum, Jerusalem, which brought work by such exciting Modernist names as Duchamp, Magritte, Dali and Max Ernst to the museum. Almost 40,000 turned out for that show — in its only U.S. stop — and 29,500 also visited the (largely) overlapping Isn’t It Great to Be an Artist: Insider/Outsider Art from the Robert A. Lewis Collection. The Lewis gift to the museum established Cincinnati as an important player in collecting “outsider” art; the turnout showed keen interest in it.

Isn’t It Great even outdrew the debut of the museum’s other major new gift, Outside the Ordinary: Contemporary Art in Glass, Wood and Ceramics from the Wolf Collection, which lured about 23,000.

But this show was spectacular in the breadth, depth and color of the displayed craftsmanship and will look good on permanent display somewhere in the museum.

There were other excellent shows, including one organized by photography curator James Crump of work by street photographer Garry Winogrand. However, I was disappointed by the first show featuring a winner of the museum’s new 4th Floor Award, Don Lambert’s conceptual Super Nova Terra Firma. Its heavy symbolism seemed overly intellectualized. But it was nevertheless good to see this award, selected by a group of museum contemporary-art supporters, get off the ground.

Overall, through mid-December, Cincinnati Art Museum’s attendance was 215,336 and it ended the year financially secure. And as of Friday, it is making parking free for many café diners, gift-shop patrons and attendees of paid programs.

Downtown’s Contemporary Arts Center, meanwhile, ended fiscal 2009 (through August) with a $250,000 deficit. That meant some belt-tightening — it cancelled one show for fall, Young Country, and pushed another planned for this current fiscal year, selections from Mexico City’s Jumex Collection, into fall 2010. An earlier delayed show, by the Brazilian conceptual/ installation artist Ernesto Neto, will open next May.

But what the CAC did show had a heck of an impact, especially Tara Donovan’s amazingly mysterious and fun sculptures made out of such mass-produced materials as straws, paper cups and toothpicks. The CAC reported 40,000 visitors in fiscal 2009, and more than half came during the three months her show was up.

The Taft Museum of Art doesn’t report attendance numbers, but said it had its best-attended exhibition to date, last winter’s traveling show Fashion in Film. Since it had a $12 ticket price, the turnout was doubly impressive. Since an addition opened in 2004, the Taft has been booking bigger shows.

The Taft also started a Keystone Contemporary Series, and it cut one 2009 exhibition to save on operating expenses. But it ended the year in the black and with a new director in place, Deborah Emont Scott from Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Art Museum. She replaced Eric Lee, who moved to Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum.

CONACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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