Monday, October 25, 2010

Is Cincinnati's Public Art Only Temporary?

With the LA Times story of Rodia's Watts Towers, I've been thinking about the state of permanence of urban art. With the popularity of street art, particularly graffiti and temporary murals, and "impromptu" performances, where is the investment in permanent art in urban spaces? Millions of dollars have been dropped on private or commercial real estate in the past decade. Are many these buildings and homes, which stand empty or unfinished, our new public art investment or just junk?

Watts Towers is a monument to the arts of found objects or "junk art." As such, it is the focus of a conversation on preservation through reused items. As an architectural sculpture of found object in an urban space, Watts Towers straddles many worlds and genres. Ironically, lending itself to various conversations on art and preservation Watts Towers risked flattening out and finally destruction. When a work art resists categorization, it risks being ignored. Fortunately Watts Towers was designated a National Landmark in 1990 so is itself protected.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Cincinnati's MuralWorks program is a successful one that celebrates local communities and puts artists to work. It is a very popular program with mural unveilings occurring countless times in the year recognizing community and the arts. Unfortunately, the city has adopted it as a business plan to exploit. We are now in the middle of year two of street art programs. As Shepard Fairey's temporary murals and Paint the Street evolve into the city's most prominently choreographed eyesores, plans are being made for the next round of street art events. With the upcoming Keith Haring exhibit, I loathe to expect something with chalk to promote the streetcar. Whatever the plan, popularity rather than permanence is the likely focus.

Despite all of the city planning involving a streetcar and casinos requiring literal ground breaking resulting in permanent changes in the urban core, there is no hint of a commitment to the arts in these plans. As new buildings go up redefining the commercial landscape of the city, there seems to be no effort to make a sincere commitment to permanent outdoor sculpture in our city.

Of course an honest and successful public arts program in Cincinnati requires those currently in power cede their influence to those who can actually judge art. The current trend towards the temporary permit "safe" decisions requiring no knowledge of the arts. There are a number of local artists and art professionals who can be hired as part of a panel to commission public art for the city. A panel of art professionals rather than business professionals would insure the city's landscape with a sincere commitment to and knowledge of the arts and culture.

Rodia's Watts Towers is a powerful statement for street art made at a time when the arts was about preservation and permanence of culture. Not a temporary public display.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

HomeWord: The Betts House

Looking at the homes of the earliest settlers in Cincinnati reveals an excited commitment to sow ones seeds in a new place. The Betts House, built in 1804 is Cincinnati's oldest residence in the downtown area and Ohio's oldest brick structure on its original site. The stability of the brick structure alone may be testament to the intended permanence of home in this river valley. However, the record of the Betts family westward migration reveals a commitment to the Queen City. Born in New Jersey, William and Phebe (nee Stevens) Betts first moved to Pennsylvania for a few years before finally settling in Cincinnati in 1800. Five Betts generations were raised in the home! Even the earthquake of 1811 failed to rock the structure of the house or the resolve of the family to maintain a home for decades.

The Federal Style architecture of the Betts House was a very popular style during the late 1700s through the early 1800s. With its balanced proportions and repeated analytical lines of geometry, the style is inspired by ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The adoption of this style during America's early decades was a conscious effort to create a visual link to earlier democracies. The visual language of symmetry and stability reflect the commitment of the earliest settlers.

At 416 Clark Street, the Betts House is located in the Betts-Longworth Historic District, just northwest of downtown Cincinnati. The neighborhood is characterized by a variety of architectural styles. Along with the Greek Revival , there is Italianate and the Queen Anne Style, and yet some buildings are transitional; adopting many styles. Yet the neighborhood has a cohesive feel. Amid the varying decorative elements, the brick work and stone facades are pulled together through a vertical design filling these long narrow lots.

Unlike many historical homes open for public tours, the Betts House is unfurnished. This is not to say the house is empty. Betts House Director, Julie Carpenter has been developing some wonderful programming related to the architectural and cultural history of Cincinnati. As with many of our cultural centers, the Betts House hosts children's educational programming in the summer as well as events and special exhibits during the holidays. But because the house is not furnished with original artifacts once belonging to the Betts family, Ms. Carpenter opens the space up as a gallery for local artists, who share an interest in the built environment and regional history.

Last spring, the Betts House opened HOME WORK, an exhibition of items for the home inspired by architectural decorative elements found in Over-the-Rhine. Currently exhibited is From Queen City to Porkopolis: Prints of Cincinnati from 1860 to 1890. These are truly breathtaking images of notable events in the city's history. And coming up for the holidays, the Betts House will exhibit recent paintings by Marcia Alscher along with the annual celebration of Christmas in the 1800s.

Using the home as a space for exhibiting local artists and histories keep the house fresh. New perspectives and conversations provide continued learning and celebration of the region. The stability and commitment to Cincinnati continues in the Betts family home as it now functions as a living history.

Monday, October 18, 2010

CincyVoices Invites My Opinion

Yes, I have opinions on things not directly related to the arts. My thanks to CincyVoices for inviting me to participate in the conversation.

Today you can find my post about marketing Cincinnati as a place to live or simply pass through on the way to something else.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati Opens Gallery

The Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati opened a new headquarters and exhibition gallery this month, in the Herzog Building, 811 Race Street, Downtown Cincinnati.

Check here for their calendar of exhibitions and other programming.

The Great Art Walk Debate

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting story about the value of art walks to art sales. Presumably the jury is still out on whether "they build the foundation for sales and create collectors or draw looky-loos opting for a cheap night out?"

During our own Final and First Fridays, are you a looky-loo?

Monday, October 11, 2010

HomeWord: New Cincinnati Art Snob Blog Series

With the success of my artist interviews (of all blog posts, the interviews get the most "hits" and from a wider ranger of people), I've decided to begin a new series called HomeWord. This series will begin by exploring each of the many house museums located throughout Greater Cincinnati. As with most museums, these focus on education and preservation. Though as house museums, each has a specific historical focus usually related to the house, the people who lived in it, and neighborhood in which it resides.

HomeWord will present not only a profile of these homes as museums with a mission, but also realize their historical significance to the growth and movement along the Ohio River.

I will begin with The Betts House, the oldest home in Downtown Cincinnati.

Perhaps a bit of a disclaimer is necessary here. While I am an art historian, I claim little knowledge of specific architectural histories. My interest here lies in teasing out Cincinnati's cultural history and believe looking at these homes and the histories of the people who built and lived in them is the best way to such a discovery.

Unlike ArtWord, HomeWord provides a much broader set of topics and perspectives. As such, HomeWord permits itself to be a series that would welcome guest bloggers. I look forward to including other perspectives on home in Greater Cincinnati, Ohio, or elsewhere.

Friday, October 8, 2010

ArtWord: John Humphries

Tile or Scales Linked Together

Originally from Texas pausing briefly on the Ozark Plateau and along the Puget Sound John Humphries feels the Miami Valley is a location for locking in roots. Having completed degrees in Architecture, and Fine Arts in Design and a foray as a saucier and metalsmith, John Humphries is a visual artist, gardener, and designer focusing on translating one media form to another. The creative work takes the form of photo/watercolor constructions, carved wooden slabs, automatic poems, and multi-layered sounds.

Humphries is exhibiting works as part of "A Vanguard Six" currently on view at the Phyllis Weston gallery

1. Your work is self-referencing. Can you tell me how working with various media and subjects from painting and photography to architecture, wood to metal, music to writing, color to sound helps satisfy your exploration of identity? Perhaps more important, how does your work force your viewer to engage in these questions of identity?
Passion and identity through making, in my work and teaching, lies primarily in the realm of drawing. Even my acoustical sculptures [yuck, that sounds like a terrible term] are design drawings because they foreground the technical execution and the media. I try to use all of the various permutations of drawing when thinking about space, narrative, pedagogy, color, and detail. Drawing from something [water from a well]. Drawing blood. To draw out [as in extending something beyond its useful life]. Drawn towards [as in gravity or loves or compulsions].

Drawing inspiration.In terms of identity, I have found most of the really interesting things in the world are so mind numbingly complex that analogy is often the most reasonable way to try to understand these things. Especially identity, one needs to come at this sideways. When working, I keep a notion of my identity in my mind at all times waiting for a chance to integrate small bits. A drawing can not be simply an illustration of my thoughts or desires or they become lampoonish or caricatures of a notion. A complex thing like the Self or Ego or Id or Morbeus’s mindless Krell primative can not be summed with a simple image or picture.

The drawing needs to be held in a certain state of indecision for the work to bloom. A bloom allows others to enter the drawing. Shifting between modes of representation holds this moment longer. I think I am trying to find that moment when the work is a bit uncanny--when something just seems to not work. I hope this does not sound too indulgent or flakey. It is a very specific feeling we have all had--a combination of surprise, anticipation, and fear. This is the experience when something as mundane as when we throw a ball of paper into the wastebasket. The instant before making the shot, we kind of know if it will make it or not, but not fully. The instant when fear shifts to accomplishment. You also feel this when you walk at night and know there is nothing to fear but little triggers shift the moment of just walking to running for your life. I think this is what happens to children when they are scared of their room or closet at night.

Identity comes forth when I can hold, or visualize, or fear, or embrace these moments. Multiple media explorations have become a tool to highlight these moments of tension. For the record I use Alexander Calder’s method for stopping a drawing--usually about dinner time, though not always.

2. Seeing your work as a continuous exploration of hybrids and spaces in-between, I wonder if you are familiar with Border Theory as a methodology for exploring Chicano and Latino identities through geographical spaces and middle grounds or borderlands? Do you see your own identity as an adopted child of first generation immigrants as similarly influential in your work? If not, what are the differences?
I am not familiar with the Border Theory of identity. I think it might be some notion about holding a geographical or temporal thing in mind as the transformative event of one’s identity. The moment in space-time when one became an alien. Perhaps my experience is close to this way of thinking. The experience of being adopted into a family which has a very strong history sets up some strange relationships. You do feel as if you simultaneously do not belong and also do dare having another place to belong. There is borrowed history and stories which you have some connection but also really do not care about. Very simplistically perhaps it could be as if you have a friend who loves a certain movie or film because they have a personal connection to the event featured in the document. You care about the person so you accept that this is important to them and you take the time to understand the event and might even enjoy the tale. There will never be the same connection so i find myself being interested in other things. The telling of the story for example.

My history started at my birth--it is as if there was nothing before me. All connections to things prior are like little charges or zaps or moments which make contact intellectually to my personal experiences. I have only one blood-relative. I have no cultural myths of creation or morality or ethics. I am searching for these connections. I believe these connections are the moments which keep us all searching. A vacation snapshot is not usually interesting in itself but it is a tangible connection to now and the past. My drawings want to be the snapshot between one thing and another, allowing you to escape for just a second. This might be why it is fun to dig through the snapshots of strangers; maybe this is the real success of Facebook and the internet.


3. Though necessarily conceptual, your analytique drawings are especially exquisite. While the drawings are full of detail and information about space and our movement within it, this viewer enjoys getting lost in their complexity as much or more than teasing out a narrative. Do you see this tug of war between beauty and concept as a problem with these drawings or with conceptual art in general? Or perhaps you welcome it as part of your (the viewer’s?) passage between definitions of art and utility?
I do not appreciate sloppiness in any work. There is a discipline specific craft required in all fields. Even art, as loose as many people think it is, needs to be well crafted. Painters before the advent of aniline dyes and large color manufacturing houses had to be as much chemist as painter. I avoid certain moves and subjects in the paintings and sounds and drawings because I still need to develop my ability to work in this way. One is typography, or the glow of salt on a dark surface, another is the luminosity of human skin in the sun.

Concept is problematic, in general, in contemporary art. Often the work seems to be over thought. I think the conceptualization of work is the thing that helps me start without a blank page, make certain moves of connection, and make value decisions while working. The success is not when a viewer is held because they “get it”. The execution of my watercolour drawings uses the connections between the technical act of drawing and making to hold the viewer in the drawing. I hope they are not confused when viewing the work--but are able to wonder around the drawing.

The technicalities of drawing allow for the transformation of one media type to another. For example: orthographic drawing has largely horizontal and vertical lines and planes. Axonometric projection has vertical lines as well. This is the moment when one type of drawing can shift into another. Axonometric drawings also have diagonal elements, these can be found in perspectival representations of space. With this understanding a drawing can shift from perspectival representation to a planimetric drawing to a an axonometric drawing.

When working I hunger for these technical transformations. These moments are the snapshots which connect ‘now to a remembered event or imagined thing or just a dumb line. I work with multiple media because I find these connections. When expanding them into three dimensions small sticks and bits of wire are very close to lines drawn on the page. The newest leaps into sound and text are because I have found these connections in other media. Speech has certain rhythmic and cadence properties which allow for a connection between any sound and text. Sound can be graphed to form an image. Multi-media is just the next inevitable step.

Sometimes you have to stop drawing and listen.

Pelops Speak Non-sense for Himself

4. You draw your work with hybrid identities from the Greek transformational story of Pelops. Admittedly, I’m not too familiar with this rather gruesome tale. It seems as though the machination of this story is what attracts you. Instead of historical depictions of creatures made of elements from nature (Egyptian and Aztec gods, gargoyles, etc), employing an image of a machine/human hybrid leads to further exploration of the culture of mechanics. Are the in-between spaces you expose then manufactured rather than natural? Do you see yourself moving too far away from what may be fundamental issues about the arts and art making? How threatening is this crossing of media lines to your artwork?
As I have said I draw. Maybe it is closer to drafting or a technical manufacturing. The story of Pelops is fascinating and complex, and full of imagery, and tragedy. It seems very modern in a sense. A young person is transformed and becomes more beautiful by getting a new gadget. Maybe his new arm of ivory and bronze manufactured by Haphestus is the equivalent of a new iPhone and ubiquitous white ear buds making a new and beautiful person. Pelops is my check and balance, a kind plastic educator.

5. Many artists today are welcoming the opportunities to work with non-traditional tools for making art. I often wonder if computer technologies hurt art either by welcoming them into the galleries and museums or into the artist studio. As comfortable as I may be with these technologies personally, as an art historian/critic, I find art made or viewed with these tools easy to dismiss. You are currently using newer computer technologies to explore sound and color. Is focusing on these basic art forms (sound, color, image, form, writing) the way to maintain your own identity as an artist?
I agree. My struggle with using these newer technologies [though they are not really new] is that I am uncertain where the ART is located in the things generated. I do not think these technologies hurt our discussion of our culture through the act of making. I think the problem is the newness of these media and most folk do not know how to enter the work and are seduced by the cleverness. The concern with newer media is that the work seems to err on the side of didactic. Is the craft in the algorithm?

There is a hesitation on my part to exhibit or display the newer work because often the discussion becomes about the how and not the what. The how is easy--just like drawing. A pencil works by scratching a mineral onto matted plant fibers. In what way did the scratchings affect/effect the viewer?

My erratic sounds and non-sense poems derived from my drawings are not very new--if anything they are retro-dada. The only thing I gain from the computer is the ability to generate many more sounds and strings of words than I could without the device. I could map or chart my drawing on paper and give this document to a cellist.

The danger I have found is also in this speed of making things. I use this in my teaching of new design students at Miami University. Making many things quickly give the impression that making things is easy and often automatic. A slowing down of the process allows for contemplation of the work at many scale and stages. The computer allows for more time to contemplate made objects--its greatest strength is in the mash-up. We are not accustomed or trained to deeply consider formed object.

I remember a discussion with my mentor, Richard Ferrier FAIA, when we spoke about new technologies and how they need some time to develop a language and discourse of their own. Acrylic paint was initially considered only in terms of its similarity to water media and oil paint. The same with photography, it was considered a documentarian and utilitarian media. In my field of teaching, design, interior design is still relatively in its infancy and struggling to develop an identity separate from other design disciplines.

My identity is tied up in my drawings--I think though my feeling of comfort with alienness allows me to be comfortable with discomfort and thereby find these connections. The discussion I would hope to engender is one about the sameness of things and to find the places we connect.

The Ohio Arts Council is Moving

On November 11, the OAC will be moving to its new location at the Rhodes State Office Tower, 30 E. Broad St., 33rd Floor, Columbus, OH 43215-3414. The phone numbers will remain the same, however, now with only only one fax machine: 614/466-4494.

Due to the moving process, The OAC will be unavailable from November 10 - 12. Additionally, the offices will be closed the following furlough days in order to help reduce payroll expenses statewide: November 26, December 23 and December 30.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Local Marketing Firm Honored by Americans for the Arts

Clifton Cultural Arts Center's Ruth Dickey nominated Strata-G Communications for its commitment to the arts. Next month, Strata-G will accept BCA Award in New York from Americans for the Arts.

I knew there were some local marketing firms that genuine support the arts in Greater Cincinnati.

Read here about how Strata-G supports the CCAC.

Here you will find dates and registration information for the Ribbon Cutting and Gala Celebration taking place this month at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Not a Wave But a Trickle

The focus of the new expanded mission of ArtsWave (formerly the Fine Arts Fund) is not the arts, but a vibrant community or impact. This is what ArtsWave President & CEO, Mary McCullough-Hudson told a handful of us who attended the first of a series of brown-bag lunches.

During this meeting we heard a little bit about the history of the Fine Arts Fund and the recent marketing research that led to their re-branding. (I speak about this here and here and here). While I maintain my criticism of their outsourcing of marketing research and the embarrassingly sloppy re-branding of the Fine Arts Fund, my immediate concern is their expanded mission.

Expanding their mission to include arts and culture will make money available to all non-profit cultural institutions. Ms. McCullough-Hudson stressed the support of the "Big Eight" (Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati Ballet, Contemporary Art Center, Playhouse in the Park, and the May Festival) will not weaken. ArtsWave will also continue to support the growing number of smaller arts organizations throughout Greater Cincinnati. Though she did say the mission towards impact would now allow the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and Cincinnati Museum Center to seek funding support from ArtsWave.

I will let (and hope) others ask how access to this new funding source will affect the passage of future taxes to support these two organizations. As I mentioned recently, my concern is for the artists. Perhaps more accurately, for art.

I attended the meeting to ask the one question, "Does this new expanded mission include artists grants?" The answer, "no."

Ms. McCullough tried unconvincingly to suggested ArtsWave may make grants available to artists in the future, but right now they must work to define organizational impact. After additional discussion about the concern of the lack of direct artist support, Ms. Margie Waller, ArtsWave Vice President of Strategic Communications and Research, went on to explain many of our local artists do in fact receive money from ArtsWave as they are hired by supported arts organizations. Further, many of our local artists start their own art organizations ArtsWave continues to support.

Borrowing from their water imagery, I accused Ms. McCullough and Ms. Waller of employing trickle-down economics.

Funding impact is simply a way to be sure the largest organizations get the biggest piece of the pie. But more troubling is ArtsWave unapologetic lack of support for the individual artist. Yes, many of our artists have started wonderful arts organizations throughout Greater Cincinnati that truly impact our communities. With no competitive artists grants, this is the only way our local artists have been able to get any support from ArtsWave. ArtsWave is not supporting artists doing art, but by doing the work of ArtsWave; heading art organizations that will bring capital into the city.

There are always a number of interesting and important conversations artists in and outside of Greater Cincinnati in which artists are engaged. Without competitive artist grants, there is little to no path for our artists to participate in these arts discussions. Of course this is a horrible situation for our local artists. This also harms any claim Cincinnati can make in the art world. And this situation is not healthy for arts in general.

Earlier this week, Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts visited Cincinnati. During this visit, he witness the work of the ArtsWave and now points to this funding machine as a national model!

As much as it claims in their calls for donations, ArtsWave does not support the arts. It uses the arts to celebrate the city. These are two very different things. I have no problem with the recognition of the arts as an important or even the most important factor of a healthy and vibrant community. Hell, I'm the biggest cheerleader. But riding the ArtsWave capital campaign on the backs of artists as administrators kills the arts.

If ArtsWave is being presented as a national model, their expanded mission, must be challenged. Those of you who honestly support the arts in Cincinnati as well as throughout the country and want artists to be able to do art, contact Ms. Mary McCullough-Hudson and demand ArtsWave develop competitive grants that are awarded directly to artists for their art work.

ArtsWave as a national model will have a damaging impact on the arts in the United State if artists face losing access to competitive grants. Contact ArtsWave and tell them you support the arts by supporting the artists.