When Zaha Hadid's Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art -- the first American museum designed by a woman and her first built project in the U.S. -- opened downtown five years ago this month, it was heralded for its radically visionary design.
Hadid saw it as an extension of city life, an "urban carpet" that swept street life from outside its downtown location through the wall of windows right into the building's lobby and up ramps into the three floors of idiosyncratic gallery space. Indeed, one of the building's most notable features, the quarter-pipe-like curl of the rear wall, served as a metaphor for a carpet roll. (Where that curl extends outside, along the building's eastern façade, Hadid designed parallelogram-shaped concrete stools as "cane protection" for the blind.)
But it's been a challenge for the staff of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), a non-collecting museum established in 1939, to make the building work optimally since its May 31, 2003, opening. Some of the traveling shows, such as the recent Space Is the Place, have been hard to install and make look good amid the galleries' unusual nooks, crannies, angles and breaks in wall space.
And the "urban carpet" needs some foot traffic.
Now, Raphaela Platow -- since July the CAC's director and chief curator -- is bringing some bold new ideas to play. She formerly was curator at Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum.
"If you have a space like ours, you have to make it a valid proponent of everything you do," she says. "You always have to engage with it."
For the galleries, Platow has decided to move away from traveling group shows. She is currently working with Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, the Albanian-born video artist Anri Sala and Tara Donovan of New York on site-related installations.
"We've decided to work very closely with artists and develop projects related to our spaces," she says. "This engages in a dialogue and working relationship with artists, and obviously provides an incredible platform for people to try something new. And also, it helps us -- you learn about your space through the ideas of other people. It won't always be the same curator wrestling with the same space."
The building's critical ground-floor lobby area -- formally known as Kaplan Hall -- often is ghostly quiet, not alluring to those glancing from the busy city street outside. Because of the materials used (concrete and cement, especially) and the lack of decoration, it has been called "cold."
Here, Platow already has commissioned Nigerian-born artist Odili Donald Odata to paint a brightly colored pattern along white interior walls. Called "Flow," it is up through the fall. Unlike past temporary pieces in this space, this is more backdrop than installation, and intentionally so. She also has other plans to change this area, including the new "44" lunchtime events on Mondays, named after the building's 44 E. Sixth St. address. (For a schedule, see contemporaryartscenter.org.)
Platow hopes to invite artists in the future to create "environments" for the lobby that work as art but also serve other traffic-generating functions, such as a bar/café.
"It's in middle of downtown and you have to reach people who work here," she says of the building.
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