When contemporary art critics were recently asked by Columbia University to list the contemporary artists they liked the most, they didn’t so much rise to the challenge as duck. How else to explain their picking 70-something Robert Rauschenberg as their No. 1? Now, like a lot of those critics, I happen to like Rauschenberg’s blend of abstract expressionism and pop. Indeed, I’ve been a fan for at least 30 years — and there’s the rub. The hard truth is that the world of contemporary art hasn’t exactly been a star-making machine. This, however, has not dampened enthusiasm in many American cities for building impressive public temples dedicated to the display of contemporary art.
Cinncinati’s new Contemparary Arts Center: a model for urban hipness
The most recent entry in this field is just down the road, in Cincinnati. Open to the public on June 7, the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art is likely to become a model for urban hipness that competing cities like Indianapolis will have to try and match. The CAC (as it’s called) has rather ingeniously managed to package all of the elements that make contemporary art important for communities — whether the people in those communities happen to recognize the names of the artists being shown or not. To begin, there is the package itself. In a move that was no less bold for its being obvious, the CAC board determined early on that they wanted their new home to be a work of art. After conducting an international search, they chose London-based architect Zaha Hadid. In so doing, they not only selected an internationally known avant-garde talent who had never done a building in this country before, theirs would also become the first museum in the United States to be designed by a woman. Located in the heart of Cincinnati’s downtown, on the corner of Sixth and Walnut streets, the CAC seems, seen from mid block, like a gargantuan frown. A broad, black, horizontal bar halfway up the building splits its glass and concrete façade like a furrowed brow. When approached from the corner, though, another perspective is revealed. The building appears to be a collection of sharp-edged forms, a stack of mismatched blocks that, wonderfully, make a perfect fit. Hadid says her intention was to create a kind of jigsaw puzzle effect; she has succeeded. But her puzzle pieces serve as more than external visual elements. Inside the building, this approach to form results in the creation of varied and flexible spaces capable of accommodating whatever types of exhibits, installations or media artists are likely to throw the CAC’s way. At 11,000 square feet, Hadid had a rather small building footprint to work with. She worked up, sculpting spaces as she went. The CAC consists of seven levels, including a black box performance space in the basement and what they call the UnMuseum, a special 7,400 square foot gallery for kids and families, on the top floor. The whole thing is a veritable symphony of angles, zigs and zags in silver, black and white, steel, glass and concrete. So the building is a happening in itself — a declarative statement that says Cincinnati supports world-class, cutting-edge design (and the commerce that goes with it). But that’s not all. Since the CAC doesn’t intend to collect works for a permanent collection, it is free to exhibit and commission new work on an ongoing basis. This means that there will always be something new to see. It also side-steps the “been there, done that” syndrome that can kill attendance. More important, it creates a buzz factor. The artists the CAC shows and the works it commissions will make international art news. If you’re thinking “so what” about that, think again. International art news will bring international art buyers, many of whom are among the elite in global business and finance. You can do worse than to give these people a reason to think your town is cool. Cincinnati has done that now. But the CAC goes even further. Many people believe that because contemporary art can be unnerving and confrontational it is, by definition, for Adults Only. This, of course, turns a potentially huge constituency — families — into art aliens. In a kind of masterstroke, the CAC has swept this issue off the table by creating its UnMuseum for kids and families. Not only do the kids get the best views of the city, they arguably get some of the best art, too. The CAC could have turned this floor into a kind of holding tank or mere play space. Instead, they commissioned artists from around the country to create original works with kids and families in mind. The results are intelligent, positively provocative and — dare I say it? — fun. There’s a tree that rains, a plastic piano that practically explodes when you play it and a leaf lounge made of over 400 stuffed leaves. Ah, what artists can do when they’re freed from obsessing about their “issues.” My guess is that the staff will have to take pains to make sure the grown-ups don’t hog the action here. Having said all this, I should add that the CAC’s premiere show, Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art, is much livelier than its seminar-style title suggests. The show, which will be up through Nov. 9, features works by 35 leading artists and art collaboratives. The pieces on view are, by turns, spiky, touching, outrageous, decadent, self-absorbed, glib, beautiful and profound. Given this range, the so-called “themes” around which they have been organized, “The Social Construction of Identities,” “Discourses of Social Order,” “Changing Patterns of Social Relations” and “Sublime Social Encounters,” read like the kind of academic puffery that only serves to get in the way. Curator, get thee to a copywriter! The larger point is that, for the most part, these pieces have been thoughtfully selected to provide a multifaceted experience both entertaining and complex — and, not coincidentally, to show off the building’s voluminous capacities. Finally, it is worth noting that the total project cost for Cincinnati’s new Contemporary Arts Center was $35.7 million. This figure includes land acquisition, and the creation of a substantial endowment. Construction costs were $20.2 million. An individual who was key to the success of this undertaking was the CAC’s board chairman, Joe Hale. People who have been around Indianapolis for a while will more than recognize this name. When the Cinergy corporation had its headquarters here, Joe Hale, head of Cinergy’s foundation, was a tireless cultural champion. Then Cinergy relocated to Cincinnati, taking Hale with it. Much has been made of our city’s seeming inability to hold on to its corporate headquarters; rarely has the consequence been demonstrated with such clarity. Today Cincinnati has a major new contemporary arts destination, we don’t. The CAC is located at 44 E. Sixth St. in Cincinnati and is open Monday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 6 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: adults, $6.50; seniors, $5.50; students with ID, $4.50; children 3-13, $3.50. Members admitted free. Annual memberships start at $45. Call (513) 345-8400; or visit the CAC Web site at www.contemporaryartscenter.org.