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In Praise of Thom Collins and Boxes

By Steve Ramos · November 25th, 2003 · Arts Beat
A blue sky, picture-postcard fall afternoon and day-long schedule of free tours and performances made a recent November afternoon the ideal time to visit the newly opened Walt Disney Concert Hall, architect Frank O. Gehry's first major project in his hometown, Los Angeles. The programs were part of an ongoing series of free music, theater and dance performances to encourage Angelenos to take pride in the dazzling new center, and the large crowds of people proved Disney Hall has energized the sprawling city.

Gehry's signature curving exterior walls rise above South Grand Avenue in downtown L.A. like shiny metal flower petals. Disney Hall contains a 2,265-seat hardwood-paneled main auditorium, a bookstore, a café, a branch of a popular upscale restaurant, Patina, and the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater and gallery space, a separate venue within Disney Hall -- plenty to keep the building busy.

Walking paths, a terraced garden and an outdoor amphitheater guide patrons on a zigzag path across all sides of the building. During daylight hours, Disney Hall sparkles like a piece of abstract sculpture, hovering above the hilltop intersection due to its placement on an underground parking garage. At night, exterior lighting keeps the building aglow.

Gehrymania retains its hold on L.A., thanks to the exhibition Frank O. Gehry Work In Progress, currently on display at the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA).

The show includes sketches, photography, final design models and study models from 12 current projects, creating an exhibition that feels like a branch of Gehry Partners' office and work studio.

Sample materials on display include a full-sized Fiberglas model of a building panel. The model is immense, and my first response upon walking through it was that this was something that could not be displayed at Cincinnati's own piece of famous architecture, Zaha Hadid's new Contemporary Art Center (CAC), at least for up-close viewing.

"Lyrical and radical" is how MOCA Director Jeremy Strick describes Gehry's work, and the same is true for Cincinnati's new CAC.

The Cincinnati structure is a sleek temple of art, located snugly on a half-block downtown site, situated up close with its frequent passersby, creating a sensation different than a visit to Disney Hall.

One building will claim the 2003 tag as America's version of a Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, its showcase building, but it's unclear which arts center -- Disney Hall or the new CAC -- will win out. The fact that Cincinnati is competing with L.A. for the title is incredible. Think about it: When was the last time you spoke of Cincinnati and L.A. in the same breath and on equal terms?

While the CAC's concrete and glass walls remain strong, the museum appears to be in chaos. Thom Collins, who came to town as the Cincinnati Art Museum's curator of contemporary art in 2000 then left to become the senior curator at the CAC in March 2001, is leaving in December to become Executive Director at the Contemporary Museum Baltimore. Every CAC departure means something, and there have been many. But Collins' exit leaves a gaping, shocking empty feeling.

Collins was youthful, hip, edgy and willing to push artistic boundaries, working hard to elevate the CAC from a small exhibition gallery to a full-fledged museum. He delivered everything and more to the new CAC, earning good reviews for the inaugural survey show Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art.

Collins' failure lies in his inability to create a new movement of supporters for his programming schedule, unlike anything Cincinnati has seen, and to do away with local negativity toward progressive art.

The new CAC was supposed to squelch cynicism. Instead, it's creating more of its own, and Collins' departure brings the momentum from the successful May opening to an explosive crash.

The competition for year-end accolades between Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall and our own CAC continues. One lesson remains to be learned by those operating the CAC: Landmarks require people to keep them operating, interesting and worthwhile.



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