Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Refitting the Museum

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s new exhibition, Long Time No See sets to pitch the need for an expansion that will include additional gallery space. As with many such exhibitions, it is designed as a bit of teaser for what is to come; a P.R. push to open a capital campaign that will kick-start the museum’s expansion. The show claims to capture the “soul of the Cincinnati Art Museum.” The museum seems to speak of itself in corporeal terms. The “soul” is the inner cavity of the building in which these objects have been held for 10 or more years. Thus the focus of the show is the body of the museum rather than the body of work.

The exhibition does display some wonderful pieces from various cultures and periods. As I walked through the galleries there were many times I wondered almost aloud why some of these pieces have not been rotating out of storage. A Gauguin, a handful of wonderful paintings by Degas and a beautifully whimsical piece by Mark Fox, Congregation, 2005 can almost certainly find room in the current galleries. For others like a Japanese screen, more room means simply more storage since the age and delicacy of the screen may allow only rare viewings no matter how much gallery space is added.

There are those pieces in the exhibition that easily demand to be pulled out of storage that are simply breathtaking. These include African and Asian works as well as a Mesopotamian floor mosaic. The Cincinnati Art Museum has always been deficient in space dedicated to “other” art histories, reserving these collections for the underbellies of stairwells. I hope the expansion will correct this embarrassing problem.

Finally, the show presents the model for the expansion. As expected, many have criticisms and praises for the look of the building’s exterior or its body. But it is its interior; how we reveal that which resides in the "soul" of the museum that is most important.