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Cincinnati Art Museum Wants You to See America

By Steven Rosen · June 16th, 2010 · The Big Picture

I had thought the Cincinnati Art Museum was counting on its exhibition Walker Evans: Decade by Decade — which opened Saturday and will be reviewed in next week’s CityBeat — as its summer draw. After all, the show has an ambitious thesis — that Evans is probably the greatest American photographer of the 20th century — and is the brainchild of James Crump, hired as the museum’s curator of photography and just named chief curator. It seems to be targeting national attention.

It turns out the museum has decided to package that show with a number of other, simultaneous exhibitions and events under the banner See America. This covers a lot of loosely defined Americana-related territory, from the display of “Star Quarters,” a newly acquired Robert Rauschenberg 1971 photo screen print on mirror-coated Plexiglas, to a Corn Hole competition that will be part of an Aug. 14-15 event called “Great American Cookout.” This Friday and Saturday, an event called “America Writes” will include a marathon public reading of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road along with a poetry slam and a writing workshop by Women Writing for (a) Change.

Other shows, all now open, include a 1956 Ford Thunderbird; panoramic color photos of Las Vegas by Thomas Schiff; a collection of contemporary prints depicting American subject matter; Charley Harper’s artwork for Ford Times magazine; and an unexpectedly big presentation called Cincinnati Collects America.

The point seems to be to increase attendance and community support — and maybe have some fun doing it.

Evans alone can’t do the trick, apparently.

“We need to figure out a way to get people to come to the museum in summer,” says Emily Holtrop, director of learning and interpretation. “It’s usually a sleepy time at the museum because people want to be outside. We also thought (that) the economic climate still isn’t wonderful. Not everybody can afford to take a vacation — we wanted to offer the opportunity for them to see America by just coming to the art museum.”

I went over on June 12, opening day for several shows, to see how this works. I found strengths and weaknesses. One exhibition space, the Schiff Gallery, has been partially turned into a hybrid adult reading lounge/children’s-art area, even while 28 artworks comprising Coast to Coast American Prints: 1960-2010 line the walls. Children can draw pictures of “What America means to me” that are immediately projected on a big screen for all to see. This struck me as a case of lessening the importance of the room’s real art — prints by the likes of Ed Ruscha, David Hockney, Red Grooms and Claes Oldenberg — in the interest of family-friendliness. (The gallery also hosts live performances daily at 12:30 p.m.)

On the other hand, an experiment for the show Cincinnati Collects America, curated by American Painting and Sculpture head Julie Aronson, works very well. Individual collectors lending work to the show provided short written statements about their choices. What often comes through is their passion for the art they acquired. It’s a great insight into the passion of collecting art and fascinating whatever you think of their individual pieces.

Incidentally, for aficionados of Cincinnati art, this show has a lovely one of Edward Hurley’s melancholy, wintry cityscapes, 1920’s “The Ohio.” And three key Frank Duveneck “boy” paintings of the 1870s are side by side: the museum’s own “Whistling Boy,” the Taft Museum’s on-loan “The Cobbler’s Apprentice,” and a private collector’s one from 1878, “He Lives By His Wits.” For more information, visit www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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