Interview with Aaron Betsky on Schmidlapp Gallery Re-Installation

July 25th, 2011  |  Published in Digest, Summer 2011

"Romanian Blouse", Henri Matisse, 1937, oil on canvas

Tucked in the multi-page announcement of the Cincinnati Art Museum’s 2011-12 exhibition schedule is a portent of change beyond the new season.  Re-installation of the Schmidlapp Gallery will be “the first step in the vision for a re-designed Cincinnati Art Museum.”

To find out what’s going on, in the Schmidlapp gallery now and the rest of the Museum later, we went directly to the source, CAM Director Aaron Betsky.

“We are not a temporary exhibition showcase, nor is art history our reason for being,” Betsky says, setting out the museum’s priorities immediately. The mission of the art museum is to bring people and art together, a mission crafted from the input of staff, trustees, and volunteers, he explains, and resulting in a focus on how to bring more people into the Museum most effectively.

The Schmidlapp Gallery, conduit from the entrance hall to the Great Hall and all the rooms beyond, has housed ancient art since the building’s last extensive renovation in the early 1990s. That spate of change resulted in the uncovering of the Great Hall itself, boxed in and divided into two floors for several decades. The deliberately old-fashioned use of glass cases and neatly lined up artifacts in the Schmidlapp Gallery was a tip of the hat to the Museum’s early days, a fitting approach, it was thought, to the soaring 19th century Great Hall. This disposition of mind has since been lost. “Boring” emerges as response to those cases of wonderful things, accustomed as we are these days to multi-media, razz-ma-tazz presentations. Eventually ancient art will be shown elsewhere in the Museum, in presumably more enticing ways.

Meanwhile, the shake-up is to bring to the Schmidlapp Gallery the stars of the Museum, those works “we consider iconic of our collections.” So, art that people come specifically to see, but not to be confused with “most popular.” The director says “What makes a piece iconic is in part its intrinsic quality, of course, but also its resonance with our culture and its place in this community and our history.” The list was determined by “conversations among staff, with input from our docents” and as of this writing is still being tweaked.

The list as it stands shows certain of the old familiars from the Schmidlapp still on view. The largest of the Museum’s Cycladic figures, oddly Modigliani-like in aspect, is included, along with a “Mummy of An Adult Male,” at the Museum since 1922 but dating from the fourth century B.C. Twostunners – Matisse’s Romanian Blouse and Gainsborough’s Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) – are among the paintings, as well as Frank Duveneck’s Whistling Boy and a Warhol soup can. Also slated to be shown are a gorgeous example of French furniture, a Rookwood vase, an African figure, a Richard Avedon photograph, and several other definitive objects for a total of eighteen works.


Cycladic Figure, 2500 BC-2400 BC, Island Marble

“This will be a true introduction to the Museum,” Betsky says. “No more than eighteen or nineteen pieces from the 6000 years the Museum reflects. Each will have its own space and arrangement will be visual, not chronological.” Each piece will be accompanied by information on where to find related works elsewhere in the Museum. “Eventually, people will be able to download information to their own electronic devices.” The Gallery, he says, “is a way of saying ‘this is the starting point.’” What about the people who may take in the collection’s “most iconic” works and leave, having accomplished what they came for? That’s all right, says Betsky, “but we hope to seduce visitors to go beyond.”

We ask this trained architect and former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute how his architectural background affects his approach to installation. He looks surprised, but says he “doesn’t want just a narration, but environmental logic, visual information. Linear narration is only one way.” He envisions installations that do not follow the historical pattern of particular rhythms, he says, but present a series of nodes, or points of attention, each concentrating on one or more “incredible works of art” or “thematic moments,” that is, sets of ideas or experiences

In a move that has nothing to do with architecture, he adds that in 2012 there will be experimentation with being open at different hours. Night hours, for instance, “because Mt. Adams comes alive at night.”

Schmidlapp Gallery changes are only half of the current renovation planning. The two big galleries that run the width of the building on the second floor, traditionally used for temporary exhibitions, will become home to more of the permanent collection, now less than five percent on view. We note that all old museums are in that fix, and it’s a sad waste, but Betsky says “we’re worse than most.” Decorative arts, now lightly displayed, will be highlighted there although the Museum’s grand period rooms will stay in storage. “Just not space for them.” There will be a print cabinet, fashion arts and textiles, other pleasures now unseen. Light sensitive material will be rotated, but generally speaking the installation is planned to stay in place for several years.

What about exhibitions, with those two generous galleries given over to permanent collection? Other temporary galleries remain, but none are as capacious. One answer under consideration is off-site space, although blockbuster exhibitions are a waning genre these days and not one Betsky is much interested in. “We must have a targeted reason for a show,” he says, “not just filling space.” Also, the Museum is keeping loose in how its space is used. The American galleries will be dismantled to accommodate a large traveling show of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s work next summer. “Beautiful paintings,” says Betsky. “He had his first show in Cincinnati.”

The master plan for Museum expansion and renovation, which Betsky was brought in to fulfill, is postponed in the current economy but not abandoned, he says. The focus, however, has shifted. Renovation of existing buildings now comes first. Work begins in September on revamping the 1887 Art Academy building for use as offices and the Museum library. The result will be thirteen thousand additional square feet of exhibition and public space in the Museum itself, “an increase of twenty-five to thirty percent,” says Betsky, looking immensely pleased and ready to start filling these new galleries right now.

"Ann Ford (Later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse)", Thomas Gainsborough, 1760, oil on canvas

Plans are moving forward for open storage in a currently unoccupied building in Kennedy Heights. “People love storage,” he says. “When we want to give someone a special favor we take them into those spaces.” Educational programs will take place at the new establishment and the storage area itself will be open by appointment.

A high priority is expanding digital capacity for public use, with the Museum’s web site at top of the list. New additions there “begin rolling out the end of this month,” he says. “We want to tap into blogs, social media.” He mentions the Museum of Modern Art’s use of social media to create communities around individual exhibitions.

Betsky’s thoughts, centered on how to increase utilization of the collection and how the building might be enlivened, always consider “how we can move beyond traditional tools” to attract visitors. Research indicates people’s first priority in coming is to learn something, he says, discovery of beauty and aesthetic experiences is the second, and thirdly they come to enjoy the Museum as a social experience, as a community center. Last summer’s expansive, program-filled project, Seeing America, was an indication of the direction planning is taking.

New programming is bringing in new people. “We plan more informal chats. We’re opening up the Museum. We will reconfigure the Museum to fulfill people’s expectations,” Betsky says.

Renovation of the Schmidlapp Gallery is one step, bringing with it a side benefit that could fit neatly into the over-all vision. At last observance visitors could still make their way through the Gallery, but later construction will require its being closed. The only first floor route from the entrance hall will lead through the Near and Far Eastern galleries, the Museum’s least-visited areas. Watch for informal chats at the feet of the Buddha and among the Chinese bronzes.

-Jane Durrell

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