A Conversation with Cameron Kitchin

December 1st, 2014  |  Published in November 2014

Cameron Kitchin, the new director of The Cincinnati Art Museum, firmly believes that “public service is in the DNA of this institution”, referring to the museum itself.  He and I sat down for a combined conversation/interview on Monday, November 3rd, which lasted for just under two hours.  Although he had only been on the job for three weeks, his sense of the institution and its place in this region, is thoughtful, idealistic, and often quite tangible.  Both soft spoken and well spoken, Kitchin exudes a firm grasp of the museum’s potentials and possibilities, and takes a holistic approach to the museum and its collections and personnel, and its enhanced role in a rapidly evolving, and newly dynamic, City of Cincinnati.   Since we met in the new offices, in the old Art Academy spaces, where all the curators’ offices are, we were in a completely glass enclosed conference room, where I noticed various curators waving at Kitchin, and he back to them.  Clearly, a level of informal trust has arrived at this institution, and I believe that Kitchin will bring out the best in every curator there, and I think that they know it.

We did not discuss fundraising or development, as I do not believe that the strengths of a new director are necessarily found in that area after just three weeks on the job.  Instead, we talked extensively about the museum’s collections, and about Kitchin’s clear intention to collaborate with other institutions in this region both on exhibitions and marketing, but in other creative ways which will evolve.  His strong belief in outreach will probably be the key to his collaborative approaches, and to how he sees his mission as art museum Director.

When asked what he thought were the strengths of the collections, he mentioned European paintings, Asian art, American art and decorative arts, particularly those in the Cincinnati Wing.  I have wondered for decades what happened to the museum’s great Near Eastern collections, as the Cincinnati Art Museum was generally thought to excel particularly in that area, which seemed to be new to him.  As for contemporary art, and how he sees its role in the museum, he mentioned that he would rather show a movement, such as neo-conceptualism, wherein many artists’ work could be shown, rather than the occasional one person exhibition of a contemporary artist.  By showing work representative of a contemporary movement, Kitchin believes that the museum’s own collections can form the best possible backdrop for how a movement grows, and what its antecedents are, and the like.  I see this idea in the context of his belief in collaborations; he mentioned that The Contemporary Arts Center has “more ability to be nimble in its programming, where it can exhibit a single artist in depth”, but brought the idea back to collaborative efforts which he believes “has taken root in cultural circles, and amongst boards of trustees and educators, and is a replicable model”.

Wherever the conversation led, Kitchin would re-center it around two basic ideas, collaboration and outreach.  He sees those two concepts as interactive, and essential to the museum’s future and overall health.  His thoughts on outreach build upon the original ideas of reaching out into underserved populations, bringing them into the museum, and making them feel welcome, both through educational programming and by exhibiting work that is more diverse and inclusive than museum shows used to be.  As an example of how outreach can begin, he mentioned having two schoolchildren from entirely different socioeconomic backgrounds, sit in front of the same work of art, and discuss what it means to each of them, without any professional intervention, as a way in to the idea that any work of art’s meaning involves what each of us brings to it (this, of course, is a major tenet of post-modernism).  Any number of dialogues and interpretive discussions can grow out of such a small beginning, and he sees this kind of interplay as central to what an art museum of the 21st century should and must do.  If you then consider the number of collaborative possibilities within that idea, it’s possible to understand how the museum’s role will be central to visual culture in this region, and move beyond the visual into all art forms.  These ideas are a far cry from the original bussing of schoolchildren to view exhibitions.  Because Kitchin believes that a museum has a social service mission, he believes that art can be at the heart of mutual cultural enrichment and understanding, and can spill over into any number of areas of urban life.  One artistic collaboration already in the planning stages is a look at 19th Century landscape painting; The Taft Museum of Art will exhibit works by artists such as Daubigny, and others of mid-19th Century origin, while the museum will show paintings by Van Gogh.  It’s a very wide spectrum of work at the two institutions, manifesting the radical changes in visual culture in just around 50 years.

We discussed some collaborations from the 1980’s here, including Arts ’85, Arts ’86 and Arts ’87, which were major collaborations between The Art Museum, The Taft and the CAC, and included performances by Philip Glass and the dance troupe Pilobulus, amongst others.  Another was a fascinating experience, where The Art Museum possessed a half of a stone stele, which it had found in Jordan, and Hebrew Union College had come up with the other half, found in Israel.  Queen Noor of Jordan came to the museum symbolically to see the two pieces put together at a private dinner held at the museum.  Kitchin is visibly excited at the plethora of possibilities which this region possesses.  I have no doubt that he and the museum’s curators will find and create significantly enriching collaborations in which his version of outreach will be built.

I have written several columns this year about what we want from our museum directors.  Cameron Kitchin clearly has the high intelligence, the people skills, a high level of knowledge of art and art history, and a staff eager to have their ideas welcomed.  Kitchin’s genuine idealism is refreshing to be around, and is the center of all of his other skills and qualities.  He is easy to like and very persuasive.  Assuming that his board helps him raise funds and gives him the wide berth to pursue his ideas and ideals, Cincinnati will have found itself a different type of director, but one reflective of both younger generations and a globalized world.  I expect that Cameron Kitchin will be able to bring these pieces together and raise our museum to a new and different level.

–Daniel Brown

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