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Branching Out at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Galleries, Artists, Etc.

By Steven Rosen · June 18th, 2008 · The Big Picture

The perception too often is that Cincinnati has one specialized museum for contemporary art, the Contemporary Arts Center, and a bigger institution that focuses on everything else, the Cincinnati Art Museum.

But while the art museum certainly means to remain "encyclopedic," it is becoming increasingly active -- even hip -- in its pursuit of contemporary art, which it has been collecting but has had trouble properly displaying.

To remain encyclopedic, a museum must collect art of the future as well as the past. That's the belief of Director Aaron Betsky, who wants to expand on previous Director Timothy Rub's interest in this area. The museum's contemporary collection numbers in the high hundreds, but the permanent, loft-like gallery space is tiny and constrained.

Change is coming.

Beginning in September, Jessica Flores -- currently Betsky's project assistant -- becomes the museum's associate curator of contemporary art. She arrives at a time when the museum has made some significant acquisitions of work by such contemporary (and late-modernism) names -- many with strong Cincinnati or art museum connections -- as Tom Wesselmann, Tony Luensman, Mark Fox, Charley Harper, Lorna Simpson, Louise Nevelson, Judy Pfaff, Pat Steir and Mark Bradford.

She also assumes new duties at a time when the museum unveils, as part of the June 28-Aug. 31 exhibition Long Time No See: Hidden Treasures of the Cincinnati Art Museum, an eagerly awaited conceptual model of its planned expansion.

That new building, the first in the U.S. by Rotterdam-based Neutelings Riedijk, is still a way off -- Betsky says "community support," including fund-raising, must still be developed. But even this early conceptual model will present for the first time a building designed to showcase contemporary art in all its shapes, sizes and materials.

"We're limited in space now and we're going to continue to collect contemporary art," Flores says. "We need a building that supports that."

Flores also has a new support group for forward-thinking younger contemporary collectors, called the Fourth Floor Group because the museum doesn't have a fourth floor. Membership is $500, to fund art acquisitions, and the group will be planning a future juried exhibition at the museum for regional contemporary artists.

She is also busy working on a series of temporary contemporary exhibitions featuring artists -- again, some with strong Cincinnati connections -- displaying newer work. One that will open soon, and came together quickly, presents large-scale photographs from Gregory Crewdson's Beneath the Roses series, which explores what he characterizes as "the dark inverse of the American dream." It is up this Saturday through Oct. 5.

Flores says there are upcoming shows devoted to Ryan McGinness (opening Oct. 25) and Jimmy Baker. The New York-based McGinness was in the CAC's popular (dare I say "legendary?") Beautiful Losers show and also exhibited at Publico. Baker, a Cincinnati-based mixed-media artist who frequently explores apocalyptic themes, teaches at the Art Academy and was part of this year's Art Basel. This will be his first museum show.

As the art museum ramps up its contemporary presence, it raises the question of an overlap with the programming at the CAC, which does not collect. Flores sees the art museum's mission as slightly more traditional and less risk-taking and experimental, although in the world of contemporary art such terms as "traditional" and "experimental" can be relative.

"Because we're an encyclopedic museum, we're making a commitment to the artists when we show them," Flores says. "It becomes part of our legacy."

Contact Steven Rosen: srosen@citybeat.com



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