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Cincinnati Art Museum Chooses Its Greatest Hits

By Steven Rosen · June 15th, 2011 · The Big Picture

Even though the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Schmidlapp Gallery holds important Egyptian, Roman and Greek antiquities, it seems more a conduit than a destination. That’s because it functions as the thoroughfare between the main entrance and the Great Hall — and the café, Cincinnati Wing and more modern collections beyond. The display cases are no match for the determination of visitors to get where they’re going. As a result, the whole area itself has seemed antiquated.

But a big change is coming.

The Emma Louise Schmidlapp Gallery as we know it essentially will end right after July 4. And after an extensive renovation of a few months, it will reemerge with a new purpose — as the home of Cincinnati Art Museum’s Greatest Hits. (Many of the antiquities will move to the second floor.)

That’s not the official name for what’s happening, but it does describe what CAM Director Aaron Betsky is trying to do with the space. It will be dramatically designed to hold 12-18 displays of the museum’s most iconic masterworks from all collections.

Thus it will be made into a crowd-pleasing destination, a place to see — for instance — Matisse’s “Romanian Blouse,” Gainsborough’s “Ann Ford (Later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse),” a Warhol painting of a soup can (a promised bequest) and Frank Duveneck’s “The Whistling Boy.”

The notion of a greatest-hits collection sounds awfully pop for a fine-arts institution.

Art museums traditionally group their objects by separate collections, and within those collections by eras or genre.

But Betsky seems worried that art museums also traditionally use big traveling shows, rather than permanent collections, to attract visitors. Indeed, an awful lot of a permanent collection winds up in seemingly permanent storage. And with the Great Recession changing institutional thinking (and financial resources) for such shows, now’s a good time to try new approaches to promote what the museum already has.

Besides the Schmidlapp experiment, the museum come fall is turning what had been its largest space for temporary exhibits into an area where lots of objects from all departments will be displayed in a dense manner, including the relics that Nelson Glueck excavated in the ancient Middle Eastern city of Petra. The museum is treating this new installation as a show called The Collections: 6,000 Years of Art, but it will be up for a few years at least.

Other museums have tried to take specific objects out of context and spotlight them as “curator’s choices,” “objects of the week,” etc. It’s a practice seemingly tailor-made for a museum website — the Met, for instance, has an “Artwork of the Day” feature. (CAM doesn’t have anything like this.)

“We’ve found that when other institutions do focused presentations, that’s been very popular,” Betsky explains. “We’ve found that when we have just six great paintings facing each other, like with Gainsborough (last year’s award-winning Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman), people appreciate that. So this is an experiment to see if we can create something that’s a true introduction to the art museum.

“And also, to see if it can capture people who might come strolling in and go wandering. If we give them this introduction and then say where they can see more, that will help lead them through the museum more easily.”

On the other hand, if someone coming to the museum solely for the café comes across the Matisse and stops to admire it for a minute, that’s OK, too.

“We want to allow that to happen — the ability to have a relationship with art in different durations and intensities,” Betsky says.

Picture above courtesy of the Cincinnati Art Museum: Female Figure, Central Aegean, Early Cycladic II Period, 2500-2400 B.C., Island Marble, Museum Purchase 1960.484

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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