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Is Cincinnati Ready for CAC's Shock and Awe?

By Steve Ramos · March 26th, 2003 · Arts Beat
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The phrase "shock and awe" isn't just a military term referring to the battle for Baghdad in a distant part of the world. It's also the reaction from those who pass by the tough, new geometric home of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) rising smack in the middle of downtown.

It's easy to love a funky design when it exists on paper and as a computer mock-up. It's another thing to embrace an avant-garde, concrete sculpture once it lands on a busy intersection.

Cincinnati, are you ready to be shocked and awed -- even if it's good for you?

Ours is not an "anything goes" town. Most matter-of-fact Cincinnati folk want their buildings to look like, well, buildings. So the inevitable hoopla explodes over Great American Ball Park because it looks just like an old-fashioned baseball stadium.

Visitors to the ballpark oduring last weekend's open house will tell you its restroom doors and hot dog counters are clearly marked and the seats are colored a bright, shiny red just in case anyone forgets what team plays there. The stadium is simple, expected and relatively flash free, much like the city that surrounds it.

The new CAC is being built with a different set of criteria, and I'm convinced the city is better for it. It's meant to outrage the provincial -- those who wouldn't sign up for a museum membership if their lives depended upon it.

It's the exact opposite of what a Cincinnati art museum should be. A "Cincinnati" museum is about wrought-iron fences and massive stone columns; old fashioned homes of affluence and wealth, the perfect setting for retired ladies who lunch.

A new "Cincinnati" museum, if it were true to the spirit of the city, would resemble architect Tadao Ando's recently opened Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The 153,000-square-foot building is comprised of five pavilions clustered around a large reflecting pool. -- a cool construction of aluminum, glass and concrete that occupies a large parcel of land near the Kimbell Art Center in Fort Worth's cultural district.

It's a calm building, filled with wide-open galleries capable of displaying all manner of modern art. By comparison, the new CAC is a radical building, and as such it offers plenty of challenges.

"Contemporary art museums are more than just places for looking at objects," CAC Director Charles Desmarais told a crowd of journalists on a recent tour of the construction site. "It's not so much about the objects anymore. It's about the experience. If you know the Guggenheim, you know it is one of the great museums, and it has its problems. You have to stand at an angle and its perspectives are laid out for you.. ... This building is also challenging."

Past the construction cranes, dust and stacks of gypsum panels, Desmarais leads the group through a series of small galleries comprised of varying surfaces and angles. The new CAC is more a concrete prism than a wide-open museum, and few of its exhibition walls are suited to large-scale works.

The fact of the matter is that a Jackson Pollock canvas would have a hard time being seen by the public in the new CAC without a series of columns blocking the view. Now that's shocking.

The new CAC looms like a misunderstood piece of sculpture -- and, after all, isn't that the theme of most contemporary work? It follows the tradition of urban sculpture represented by museums designed by Frank Gehry and Santaiago Calatrava.

I'm not sure if locals will embrace this new museum as a landmark to call their own as they have the Tyler Davidson Fountain and its bronze quaintness or the new Great American Ball Park and its retro familiarity.

The new CAC is designed to be a wake-up call because the city around it is sleeping. If the art installed inside matches the shock and awe inspired by the building itself, Cincinnati is in for a very welcomed wild ride.

 
 
 
 

 

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