Bequeathed to the people of Cincinnati in 1927, along with its collections, the Taft Museum of Art opened in 1932. Once the home of Nicholas Longworth and then Charles Phelps Taft, the house was originally finished in 1820 by Martin Baum, Cincinnati’s first millionaire and founder of the Miami Exporting Company, which in 1803 became the first bank chartered in Ohio. After Baum lost his fortune, the house became an academy for young ladies.
Longworth had arrived penniless by flatboat in 1803 and made enough money in odd jobs to enroll in law school. Profiting by accepting land in lieu of legal fees, in 1829 he was able to buy the house for $29,000. It was Longworth who commissioned the Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872) murals in the early 1850’s, a great pride of the present museum.
In 1871, David Sinton bought the house. Dying in 1900, he left $15 million to his only heir, his daughter Anna, who had married Charles Phelps Taft, half-brother of President William Howard Taft in 1873. The Tafts began collecting art. Anna, then the richest woman in Ohio, was also instrumental in founding the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the opera and with Mary Emery funded the Cincinnati Zoological Park Association, which in 1917 took over management of the zoo and ran it until a 1932 purchase by the city.
“This is a not a house museum, technically,” says Dr. Lynne Ambrosini, Chief Curator of the museum. “In my mind a house museum has the owners’ slippers next to the bed and a book on the nightstand, and you look at this room with all the belongings as it appeared in the owners’ time. This house is not like that. The Tafts wanted the house to be transformed into a modern museum.” She continues, “House museums have completely different challenges. They have thousands of small objects that need to be catalogued and cared for, and we don’t have any of that.
“The furniture at the Taft Museum,” adds Dr. Ambrosini, “with one or two exceptions, did not belong to the Tafts. The configuration of the rooms has been changed from when the Tafts were here. What we have is the fabric, the building structure, the exterior that is on The National Register of Historic Places. The minute you are inside, you are in a modern museum, and the interiors, as you see them now, do not preserve the appearances as they were. They were redone in 1932 by the first curator, and then they were refurbished again in 2001 – 2004 in a way that illustrates the evolution of American interior design during the 100 years that the house was inhabited. Each room shows a different style that was popular during that century.
“The Tafts were extremely far-sighted,” she continues. “They did not want their private belongings on show. They were more modest than that. Also they were so prescient that they said if the neighborhood went downhill, the house should be abandoned, and the collections moved to a suitable place. We are still benefiting from the Tafts’ bequests and their effort to keep the arts alive in Cincinnati.”
What does Dr. Ambrosini feel are the strengths of the Taft’s permanent collection? “The Museum’s collection excels in several areas: European Old Master paintings; 19th century European paintings, especially English and French; a very few exceptional American 19th century paintings; European decorative arts (notably Limoges enamels, Italian maiolica, and watches), and Chinese ceramics of the Ming and Qing dynasties. These strengths are closely mirrored in some other museums formed by wealthy American collectors at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, such as, for example, that of Henry Clay Frick (founder of the Frick Collection, New York City), who was a competitor of the Tafts in the art market. We display everything that we can. Unlike many larger museums, in which what you see on view is only the tip of the iceberg of the collections, at the Taft almost everything that is authentic and not damaged is visible in the galleries, and very little is kept in storage. Our collection is tiny, but truly choice, superlative; the works are often requested in loan by major museums in the United States and Europe. Ironically, the Taft is better known in London and Paris than in Cincinnati; many people here don’t realize that its collections are world-class.”
One of the big questions at the Taft has concerned the authenticity of Goya’s (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, b. March 30, 1746, Fuendetodos, Spain – d. April 16, 1828, Bordeaux, France) portrait of Queen Marie Luisa of Spain. In the field, there are always dilemmas of this sort, and Dr. Ambrosini says, “One wonderfully humbling aspect of being an art historian is to realize how the ‘truth’ about art is malleable and changing. Over the past decades the attribution of that portrait has flipped back and forth between being ‘right’, i.e. Goya, and ‘wrong’, i.e. by his students or followers. Each time a Goya specialist visits the museum, we solicit his or her opinion. Usually they strongly believe that it is or isn’t by Goya, and can make good arguments. Our file on that painting is full of well-buttressed but opposing views on the matter. About three years ago we had an opinion from a leading scholar that the portrait came from Goya’s hand. Our former director embraced this view, issued a press release, and asked me to change the label to state Goya’s authorship more strongly. More recently, however, another Goya expert, Janice Tomlinson, has studied the portrait and does not believe it to be an authentic work. I honestly can’t tell you which perspective is ‘true.’ Even highly trained eyes, connoisseurs who could easily distinguish an artist’s work from outright fakes, have trouble with pictures that come from an artist’s studio and may reveal the master’s hand along with additions by students. And these highly trained eyes also differ intrinsically from each other; seeing acutely can be learned but always brings with it some subjectivity. I think we should consider the matter an open question and an instructive problem. In future, we might learn more by sending the painting for examination by conservators at the Museo del Prado, in Madrid, where they could compare its canvas weave and fibers, its pictorial structure, its pigments and technique to the host of documented Goyas that they own.”
The Taft has precisely 1½ curators. “Yet,” says Dr. Ambrosini, “I do feel comfortably connected to outside colleagues. I’m working on projects with colleagues; meeting with colleagues; going to conferences; and I’m on the phone off and on all day working with others on different projects.”
There was a small ad awhile back on the Internet stating that the Taft was looking for a photography show for 2012. To this query, Dr. Ambrosini answers that they have found one: Star Power. “They are all portraits – people like Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Martha Graham, Walt Disney, Fred Astaire, and Katherine Hepburn – the list goes on and on. There are both fashion shots and portrait photos, and they will give a great picture of the 1920’s, when the Tafts were still collecting, and the 1930’s which was the decade that the Taft opened. So they really fit into one of the periods on which we focus.” This exhibit will be part of FOTOFOCUS, the citywide celebration of photography, launching October 1 – 31, 2012.
Dr. Abrosini feels that there has been an increased appreciation of photography in the last 25 years of its being considered an art form. “For a long time it was regarded more as a tool and craft, and people didn’t understand how endlessly it can be manipulated. So it’s now another tool for making art, like a paintbrush.” When Millard Rogers became director, in 1974, of The Cincinnati Art Museum, he declared photography to be a legitimate art form.
What does she think of digital photography? “Photographers are doing things they could never do before, so now there’s a brave new world of photography that is one of the most important art forms out there, perhaps even more important than painting, drawing or sculpture for our era.”
Dr. Ambrosini says, “I’m not a specialist in contemporary art; I’m a specialist in 19th century French art, but I watch with endless delight and amazement what goes on now. It’s hard to see the past except from a contemporary point of view.” She adds, “Yes, there’s that great fallacy when you’re trying to reconstruct the past and you are of the present, but you do everything you can to immerse yourself in the culture. That kind of immersion is effortless when you’re looking at art of your own time. That’s why so many people are responding to contemporary art now.”
Listed on New York University’s roster of doctoral dissertations is Dr. Ambrosini’s Peasants in French Painting 1815-1848: The Romantic Roots of the Realist Mode, which she wrote for her 1989 Ph.D. “It focused on pictures of peasants produced during the July Monarchy (1830 – 1848) in France. I examined images of rural workers made by a variety of painters during those two decades, trying to discover how and why the dominant style of treating rustic subjects underwent a dramatic shift from a romantic to a realist mode. I relied on documents and texts from social history, the study of contemporary literature and theater, critical responses in the period’s newspapers and magazines, and comparable images from popular art in order to understand the shift from depicting peasants as quaint, charming figures to heroic and sometimes threatening figures. The primary painters that concerned me were Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, and Jean-François Millet, but I compared them to about 30 other artists.”
Looking to future exhibitions, Dr. Ambrosini says her plans are inspired by the Taft’s collection as well as that of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts where she previously worked. “I am planning an exhibition of the work of the great French 19th-century landscapist Charles-François Daubigny, who was a mentor for the young Impressionists. We are currently looking at the project with a European museum as co-organizer, and hope to present the exhibition in 2014 or 15 – these big projects take time. I would not craft it with ‘entertainment’ in mind but with the goal of providing a visual experience that is overwhelmingly luscious, that knocks people’s socks off. You can visit museums with the more passive attitude of ‘entertain me’ (and that is fine), but you can get more out of the experience by bringing a more active form of engagement, asking ‘How does this object speak to me, how did the artist create this effect, what does he or she mean?’ I want our exhibitions to move people, first through their visual punch and then by provoking questions. I find that viewers are very thoughtful and are really seeking out this form of intimate and direct stimulation. After all, they are surrounded by other, more passive kinds of experiences that are readily available in movies, television, and on the Internet. Sometimes people crave more. The increasingly visual nature of our cultural world, in fact, will only strengthen the appeal of truly great art. We are very oriented to reproduced images these days, so much so that it can be a shock for people to come face to face with a surface built up with layer upon layer of filmy, translucent pigment: there is so much depth and light in those surfaces that they can look miraculous, way beyond what one might expect from earlier looking only at a reproduction. The appeal of the real is profound.”
The Taft has about 25 full time employees. “We all wear many hats, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to work here. With that comes a greater responsibility and a greater incentive. I was working in a museum that had grown in size the years I was there from a staff of 70 to over 200, and whenever you have a larger organization, you start having more bureaucracy.” Dr. Ambrosini worked at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts from 1987 to 1997. “There is some loss of human connection in that. I miss the art: I go back and visit the collections I oversaw whenever I can. However, I did want a smaller place where life was more flexible and meetings didn’t require as much time. We move here more easily from project to project, and we all seem to have a great stake in any current project. It takes very tight teamwork.”
Exhibitions are not all a curator does. What is Dr. Ambrosini’s daily life like? “One of the things I like is that my life is never the same from one day to the next. There are many projects; many ends and beginnings of projects going on, on any given day, and some are short and some are long. A short project might be to answer the question, ‘Can you give me two paragraphs on what our most urgent artistic goals were in the last year and how well we met them.’ Other projects, such as exhibitions, can involve me for three to five years or more.”
Who makes the ultimate decision on exhibitions? “Those decisions, with such a small staff, are really concentrated when it comes to exhibitions. The initial impulse comes from me or the director (Deborah Emont Scott); we work together very closely and fortunately see eye-to-eye. We are both doing everything we can to maintain a high level of artistic quality while also reaching out to as many people, in as many parts of the region, as possible in order to share the riches with them – share the stimulating properties art has. And we have the goal of making art understandable, attractive and alive for our audience.” In building exhibitions, museums often borrow works from each other, and the Taft is no exception: “In the last Taft-organized loan exhibition, we borrowed from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Archivio Fantacchiotti (in Florence, Italy), the Corcoran Gallery of Art (D.C), the Dayton Art Institute, Hirschl and Adler Galleries (New York), the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Speed Art Museum (Louisville), the Toledo Museum of Art, and eight private collections,” explains Dr. Ambrosini. Further connections exist between museums, and Dr. Ambrosini says that “a consortium of ‘Gilded Age’ museums does exist and we are a part of it. Our director meets regularly with directors of comparable institutions to discuss shared issues and interests and explore exhibition projects together.”
Of course budgeting is a big hurdle right now for all museums, but Dr. Ambrosini explains the process she prefers: “I think about the expressive and interpretive goals of the exhibition and how best to achieve them. That is the creative part, and just as when you’re brainstorming, it’s best to allow a creative flow without interrupting it by thinking about any negatives or limitations. The restrictions come afterwards with another part of the brain in a strategic, evaluative exercise in which you consider how to achieve the goals more economically. At the Taft, we have been able to create some wonderful experiences on a much smaller budget than you would imagine, without sacrifice of quality.”
Dr. Ambrosini points out that goals in a museum depend on the current staff, and of course the board. “Our board is the ultimate arbiter of what we do. Before the project is presented to the board, collaboration between staff members is ironed out. Then a million other considerations enter the picture, for instance what kinds of educational programs would this show invite?” The Taft has a strong outreach program for schools that brings many thousands of children to the museum each year. Dr. Ambrosini says that if there is any time she’s a bit frustrated with her job, all she has to do in peek in on one of the education programs and watch the children’s faces as they encounter the art, “and my whole reason for being in museum work – sharing the delight of art with more people – that is instantly satisfied, and I go back to my office happy.”
She continues, “So, my colleagues and I talk over the advantages and possible disadvantages of certain exhibition ideas, and that serves as a brainstorming process as to what we might work on in the future for exhibitions. Then our director has the final decision to go forward, and ultimately the board calls the shots. In many museums, the Board leaves selection entirely to the director. But since we are largely not a collecting museum, our board rightly focuses more on our exhibition program.”
In the seven years that Dr. Ambrosini has been at the Taft, the board has not vetoed an exhibition. “However,” she adds, “they are a vital sounding board, and they raise all of the practical questions from a fiduciary perspective that are needed. They are ground zero when it comes to sensing the viability.” She adds that they are also very generous. “If there is an exhibition that particularly appeals to one or another board member, there might be a gift to follow.”
Dr. Ambrosini also oversees the fine arts collection, the staff that actually handles the art and the legal documents and insurance. “What I do is just the tip of the iceberg; the staff that works with me does the majority of the project. I couldn’t do anything I do without our Registrar (Joan Hendricks), because maybe our insurance premium is going to go up, and she knows how to finesse that; or I’m meeting with our exhibition designer (Mark Rohling, Chief Preparator/Exhibition Designer) looking at a scale model of the next exhibition, and we’re debating whether we should make another wall here or move it there to fit the thematic groupings. There’s a lot of variety in my work: I might be out and about looking at art in private collections, or I might be out to lunch with some of our collectors or donors to discuss future projects.” Juggling her time is Dr. Ambrosini’s greatest challenge, and then there are also some evening and weekend hours spent getting the job done. “My children have been very understanding by and large.” She does admit it is a tug of war: “Between me and me,” she laughs.
Are there challenges facing museums today, aside from funding, which is of course huge? “I think one of the primary challenges is the changing expectation of audiences. Fifty years ago, people did not think of museums as entertainment; they thought of them as educational places. I grew up seeing the museum as the locus of understanding art. So, that mission at the heart of museums is now in some tension with the need to cast the museum in part as entertainment.” She goes on to explain her thoughts on that aspect of appealing to the public. “When I speak about ‘entertainment’ I refer to a dilemma, a false perception really, that many people in museums feel we face, that of competing with entertainment venues for visitors’ time and attention. I don’t think that we are in competition with the movie theaters or the zoo or the baseball game. If we begin to think that, we will distort what we offer, which is the unique, direct experience of rare and beautiful objects. No institution other than an art museum can give visitors that. Sometimes I want to see a film, and sometimes I want to see art; there is room in life for both. At the Taft we do go to great lengths to make the art accessible to visitors who lack experience or prior knowledge about it. We offer brochures that highlight our ‘top ten’ objects; we present very brief spotlight talks on a single object; and we have tour guides who can take you around without a prior appointment. We are a friendly and welcoming place tucked away in a quiet end of downtown, with a beautiful garden to soothe you when your eyes tire. All people have to do is show up at a time that works for them and the rest is bliss.”
How do you get past the stereotype of the museum as a place for the elite? “We spend a lot of time talking about the perception. For instance, a few years ago we rebranded: instead of the stodgy Latinate typography and a little image of the classical portico of the house, we now have a lower case, colored, casual and more accessible logo that helps us communicate that we are for everyone. We are seeing a notable increase in visitors that is gratifying. We are always looking for ways to tweak that, build on that.” She adds that the Internet and social media have provided new avenues for reaching out.
“I love my work,” Dr. Ambrosini concludes. “I feel so lucky to work here.”
The Taft Museum
316 Pike Street
Cincinnati, OH 45202
The Museum is free to all on Sundays. Free Sundays made possible by The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation. The Cafe is open Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Upcoming Events: Starting Friday 10/7/2011: George Inness in Italy
– Cynthia Osborne Hoskin