Museums with serious historical credentials but an off the beaten path location are well poised to take risks and get noticed by the “A” list of American museums. It becomes the witty one at the party secure in itself enough to shock the buttoned-down crowd, but well tailored enough to never be vulgar. That is how I read the Cincinnati Art Museum on a recent visit. With a building that dates to 1886, it is one of the oldest museums in the country, and yet it refuses to take itself too seriously or work from an outdated script. It might be the Betty White of museums, if she were not such a naughty slut these days. Instead, CAM has this warmth, as if the lens through which to view their collections was through a hometown parlor window.
On the micro level, the museum’s design department has breathed subtle humor into the space with red baseboard signage helping the visitor navigate the labyrinthine building. While the directive for one ladies’ room touts, “Fresh Flowers Included in the Ladies’ Room,” it is countered by the men’s room sign running along the bottom of the wall that reads, “Sorry Boys, No Fresh Flowers For You.” So much punch in such an inexpensive little detail that wakes up the museum and sets a tone that something is afoot here before you can even get your coat off. It also complements, but does not compete with, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of the Cincinnati Art Museum) from 1994, whose gray vinyl lettering circles the grand hall’s uppermost portion like a bird trapped in an airport. Rows of historical dates, important to the museum, the nation, and Gonzales-Torres himself, skip across history on the backs of important events such as, The Telephone 1876; Modern Art Society 1939; Dynasty 1984; Photography Department 1900; Leaves of Grass 1855; Department of Decorative Arts 1957; E.T. 1982. From floor to ceiling, the museum’s message is that, here, art is going to be about everyday life, fleeting experience, and the personal embedded in the historical. It beckons you to enter your own public home rather than making you feel like an uncouth interloper in the halls of art.
All of these accidental revelations resulted from my pilgrimage to find my ultimate goal—Art Deco: Fashion and Design in the Jazz Age—the exhibition of the Betty Colker collection of 1920s dresses, curated by the talented Cynthia Amnéus. I wish every museum had a costume and textile collection that migrated through the galleries of paintings and sculpture. I consider theirs a fragrant flower in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s buttonhole. The exhibition mingles groups of dresses on low platforms with feminine accoutrements in nearby cases—beaded purses; colorful French perfume bottles grouped into a miniature glass city of the future; a fantastic 1930s Swiss accessory combining a lipstick, watch, and compact that redefines the Swiss army knife’s sense of utility. A Paul Frankl round-mirrored vanity table and elegantly minimal Egyptian-styled seat does away with drawers and shelves and blows the mirror up in scale with an admirable honesty. It is an Art Deco way station where one is meant to admire and be admired.
The dresses themselves reveal hemlines that inched upward throughout the decade, depending on the dance craze of the moment. Heavy beads cling to fine silk like fat raindrops testing the tensile strength of a spider’s web—the conservationist’s nightmare and the reason some dresses had to be “adopted” by local patrons to fund their repairs. An amazing cape is displayed from behind, its dark expanse spread by the mannequin’s boomerang elbows to better display a vast firmament of little silver crystals.
One of the exhibition’s local touches includes photographs by Cincinnati artist J. Miles Wolf of the city’s Art Deco architectural features, including close-ups of the Carew Tower, Union Terminal, and Cincinnati Bell Building. These mythological and muscular motifs are dropped into eye-level view, extracted from their placement high up on architectural sites. Over all of this, music plays. Like fashion, music helps to display the kaleidoscope of an era’s arts and gives you a warm sense of what you have been missing.
If there is one moment of pause in this stunning exhibition of period fashions, it is that the focus rests almost solely on the surface of women and their upkeep. For example, the Frankl vanity table has a prime place, but the museum’s absent Frankl skyscraper bookcases might have implied something more intellectual that aligned with the record number of women entering universities in the 1920s. However, Amnéus stokes the flame of rebellion and progress on a large wall label that lists historical breakthroughs that both informed these fashions and were influenced by them: Amelia Earhart flying airplanes, women finally able to vote, cutting their hair short, driving cars, smoking in public, and working outside the home. Another brave little addition appears on the label, if not the press release or the docent tour that I heard as the guide struggled to remember all but this one little factoid—that Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. We should be proud to announce the positive effects of family planning that liberated women arguably more than anything else and led to a more rational society, rather than move back into the Dark Ages as some in Congress would have us do. No wonder these women wanted to kick up their heels and do the Shimmy.
While Art Deco: Fashion and Design in the Jazz Age is waning and nearly over, a new exhibition is just taking off—The Collections: 6000 Years of Art just opened on December 1, 2011. Following a New York based trend of the last decade, displaying art as storerooms, the museum has devoted 10,000 square feet to exhibiting heavy wooden furniture, ancient Greek and Roman pottery, Master prints, and cabinets of Meissen porcelain in this manner. Visitors walk along storage cabinets of silver pieces, racks of paintings hung salon-style with no chronological or thematic rhyme or reason to their assemblage. To be honest, many of these paintings are of somewhat inferior quality. However, this is the case with all museums that sit on thousands of works in storage and only a small fraction and the very best works are ever on view. In CAM’s case, only six percent is in the galleries at any one time. Here, however, scores of others are trotted out to help freshen up our standard art historical text with quirkier examples. I was excited to see a Josef Albers golden chromatic painting from 1962 even if it left me somewhat unsatisfied up close.
In this densely packed exhibition, objects hem patrons in rather than a primary thematic directive. The intention is not to present a tightly woven exhibition, but to turn out the museum’s metaphorical pockets and put its treasures out in the open for the sheer spectacle of it. It allows visitors to meander through disparate objects like surrealists in Parisian markets, or Walter Benjamin discovering cultural ruins in the Paris Arcades. It encourages random juxtapositions of mysterious objects that were so appealing in these instances and led to new creative insights. At CAM, one is focused on the visual and has to seek out information on individual pieces—either on the iPads mounted on walls, a paper handout with map, or the occasional wall label joined to a particular object by a thin red line that runs down the wall, across the floor, under a Victorian couch, and over to the object in question. It is delightfully disconcerting.
This merely scratches the surface of all the nooks, crannies and sheer hominess of CAM. Overall, the impression is that the city is forever aligned with the 19th century and its collections from that era are intensely vigorous. After that, it feels like a struggle to remain relevant and collect the most important 20th-century artists, if not the most impressive pieces. This is not a bad thing. CAM comes off as an underdog who makes do strategically with what it has rather than struggle against the winds of extreme auction prices or international art capitals and their endowments. Instead, the museum celebrates its great local collectors like Charles “Skip” Fleischmann. It also recently installed the finest jewels from each of its core collecting areas in the Schmidlapp Gallery, each in its own little chapel for visitors to worship singularly. Not walls, but black strings hang floor to ceiling creating soft grottoes that blot out the work next door, blocking the gamma rays of each piece’s monumental strength. There will be more to come as the museum takes over the Old Art Academy next door and converts it into museum offices, freeing up an additional 13,000 square feet of museum gallery space to play with. I have to admit I am hooked on this museum because it makes me want to see what it will do next.
Catherine Walworth is a writer living in Pittsburgh. View more articles by Catherine Walworth.