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Questions About CAM ‘Collections’

By Steven Rosen · December 28th, 2011 · The Big Picture

When I wrote about art for The Denver Post in the 1990s, the Denver Art Museum renovated one of its floors to create a large, sensitively installed open storage area for its pre-Columbian collection. You could walk between cases filled with pottery, stone objects and small statuary to your heart’s content. 

There was only one problem — it was virtually empty of people whenever I toured it. I don’t know why. Maybe it was visual overload, maybe too much stuff from one curatorial department or maybe it just wasn’t an interesting way for most visitors to experience an art museum. They need curation and selection. 

But other museums have also tried this in order to get more of their collections on view. Now Cincinnati Art Museum, which has 60,000 objects, is trying the approach. It’s converting two important second-floor galleries — previously its prime space for temporary exhibits — to open storage for the next two years, when renovation of the old Art Academy building is complete. 

Right now, the first of those galleries is open, offering 4,300 square feet of space for nearly 1,800 objects from the Antiquities, Decorative Arts, Paintings and Prints collections. An adjoining gallery of about the same size opens in April for material from other collections.

The conversion of the space is being treated like a show.

Titled The Collections: 6,000 Years of Art, visitors are dramatically greeted at the entrance by the marble “Lion Funerary Monument” from around 350 B.C. Beyond it is the standout 16th century Flemish “Altarpiece with scenes from the Old and New Testaments,” installed so you can walk around the back to see the oil paintings on the rear of panels. 

This start raises expectations and makes clear the museum is trying hard to make this installation interesting and meaningful for visitors. But it’s not a done deal.

One big question for me is whether the objects can be treated respectfully when displayed in crowded surroundings like this. I particularly have problems with the way paintings have been placed on fencing along the back walls, as close together as space allows. 

There is a tradition to this approach — it’s called salon-style — but there’s also a reason it’s no longer popular today. Paintings worth showing to the public are worth contemplation, both as individual accomplishments and in the context of their times and genre. Seeing a George Inness atop a Philip Guston or a Frank Duveneck portrait alongside Donald Sultan’s contemporary “April Factory Painting” is jarring. Chief Curator James Crump has said there’s not supposed to be any context to the placement, but the viewers’ eye searches for it — in part, to make sense of it.

In the Decorative Arts area, the approach works better, although it depends on your stamina and interest level. But it makes visual sense to look at rows of porcelain figures, 19th century bottles and teapots, for instance. And the furniture has room to stand out and be appreciated. As for Antiquities, while the area is crowded, you can focus on fascinating individual objects.

You can type individual catalogue numbers into wall-mounted tablet computers for more information. There are also some attractive handouts, including a booklet, that spotlight objects. However, there’s an overly ambitious attempt to connect wall graphics with individual objects in cases via colored lines that go across the floors and can be very hard to follow. 

So attention has been paid to try and make this work — and maybe it will. But it’s no substitute for new, beautifully designed, expanded and thoughtfully curated galleries that would come with a major new addition. Maybe time will be right for that within two years.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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