The low-key coolness that veteran Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) Associate Curator Matt Distel displays draws from his working man wardrobe, humble voice and a post-work tumbler of bourbon at a Main Street tavern. Nothing about him is flashy except for the contributions he's made to Cincinnati's visual arts community for the past 10 years. He's all about action, not appearances.
Creative people leave and return to Cincinnati or leave and never return. Some debate the should-I-stay-or-go question extensively and end up staying put.
Distel, one of numerous talented artists who grew up on the West Side, is finally packing his bags at age 33 and leaving the only home he's known except for college years at nearby Miami University. After close to four years working at the CAC, he'll be executive director of the fledgling Hudson Valley Center of Contemporary Art in Peeksville, N.Y., starting in May.
Left behind is an impressive slate of shows Distel programmed, including the CAC's 2006-07 season that features a show collaboration with a world-famous fashion designer, and years of pre-CAC work as a do-it-yourself artist and gallery manager.
Distel is pint-sized with a boyish face that never ages despite the slight red beard covering his chin and cheeks. He's wrestler-like rock solid, someone whose hands are on the art.
A new senior curator comes to the CAC later this spring, but Distel says his departure isn't sour grapes. It's about a chance to lead and build a small organization into something, and it's about starting a new chapter in his life
His time at the CAC has provided plenty of lessons -- lessons he'll bring with him about what's possible and what's not.
The reality of the CAC conflicts with previous expectations for super-sized attendance figures and blockbuster shows. A show like a Gerhardt Richter retrospective requires a $1 million budget, something the CAC doesn't have.
"We're a small institution with a small staff and budget in a very big building," Distle says between tumblers, explaining that everything the CAC does involves compromise. "People on the outside like to say we're having financial problems. But it's been operating the same way since I've been here. You submit a budget. You're asked to make cuts. You have a mid-year evaluation. You make more cuts. But I've never had a payroll check bounce."
Distle laughs at his own expense.
"Do you know how many shows I've done for $5,000?" he asks. "(Last year's popular exhibition) 10,000 Whispers was $5,000. But I like that. I like being grassroots. I like the challenge."
Distle understands that there are people, including CAC board members, who consider his programming off the deep end -- far too radical for any art museum and perhaps, in their view, the reason why attendance is below goals. Maybe they don't know his history.
Distle and Kristin Rogers co-founded Dileia Contemporary Gallery in a vacant Camp Washington meat-packing plant. The industrial exhibition space operated for three years as part gallery, part clubhouse.
It was underground and chancy. Most of all, it's been sorely missed since financial hardships forced them to close in July 1999.
Distle went on to other projects, all of them inspired.
Building and driving a car in the Hamilton County Fair Demolition Derby was performance art at its noisiest. He hosted a series of art shows at apartments across town.
He joined the CAC in 2002 and quickly became the top advocate for making local artists part of the center's programming.
The one moment that sums up Distel's position is this: While CAC movers and shakers enjoyed a formal dinner under an outdoor tent at the new building's 2003 gala, he poured wine into plastic cups, passed out bottles of beer and served homemade spanakopita from a tinfoil tray to artists who installed work in the new space, including Chico MacMurtie and Tony Luensman.
It was the "kids' table," but Distel didn't mind.
He was always an outsider, even when working from the inside of a large arts institution. That's who he is, and that's one of many reasons why he'll be missed.
Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com