Raphaela Platow and the CAC: growing, evolving, finding balance

Raphaela Platow, photo by Tina Gutierrez

Contempory Arts Center director Raphaela Platow, in the center at Sixth and Walnut, downtown Cincinnati. Completed in 2003, it was designed by acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid. (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)


By Sara Caswell-Pearce

It’s mid-afternoon on a steamy Friday and the cool, light-filled lobby of the Contemporary Arts Center is buzzing. Lunch meetings are taking place at tables in the Collective CAC. Patrons browse the gift shop.

Couples walk slowly up the long staircase that cuts through the building. As they do, they point to lit pendulums swinging rhythmically on the concrete wall of the stairwell. Amid the hubbub, a woman naps on one of the low-slung sofas, a cup of coffee perched on its arm next to her head.

Director Raphaela Platow steps off an elevator and is all smiles. This lively, casual space is the lobby she envisioned eight years ago.

In 2015, the austere concrete space underwent a startling $1.1 million makeover. The shop was downsized and moved. The welcome desk shifted from the side to the center. A cafe, with a bar, was added. Low-slung sofas and funky seats invited guests to step right in and relax.

Walls were covered in a raucous abstract print created by Assume Vivid Astro Focus, an international collaborative artist group. Columns were sheathed with light panels. Wiry, cloud-shaped chandeliers by Cincinnati artist Matt Kotlarczyk hung from the ceiling. And a mesmerizing, light installation by Erwin Redl, an Austrian artist living in Ohio, hung against the stairwell wall.

The once somber, subdued and, to some, forbidding, space quickly came to life. Visitor numbers leapt from 48,107 in 2014 to 84,287 in 2015. Add free admission for at least three years (which kicked off on Feb. 12, 2016) and the figure is at 114,918 already this year (not even counting the year’s final quarter).

In a way, the transformation echoes that of Platow herself. Walk past the center, and it appears much as it did when it opened in 2003. Look at Platow, and she appears much the same as when she was hired in July 2007 after an eight-month international search. It’s on the inside that each has changed, again and again.

Now, the lobby is toned down via yet another change, but still striking and appealing.

When she arrived, Platow thought she’d stay in Cincinnati for five or so years, seven tops. She was coming off a painful divorce. She knew about the CAC and jumped at the chance to lead it, and to start what she calls a new chapter in her life.

“It was a huge opportunity,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone but Carl.” She is referring to Cincinnati gallery owner Carl Solway, who she met when acquirng a major Nam Jun Paik sculpture from him while she was working at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. As it turned out, he helped recruit her to Cincinnati. “He was really generous as a host and mentor, really sweet.”

Raphaela Platow, photo by Tina Gutierrez

Raphaela Platow, photo by Tina Gutierrez

Platow is sitting in her office on the fourth floor of the center. Tall windows frame “Additive,” Ohio artist Julian Stanczak’s bold, op-art sculptural mural on the facade of Fifth Third’s parking garage across the street. Unlike most offices of art museum directors, the walls are not hung with an array of masterpieces. Instead, one wall serves as an ersatz blackboard with important dates scribbled right on the wall. Tiny sticky notes are stuck on a window.

She attributes the lack of art to not being a collector. “I don’t collect art,” Plato said. “I don’t collect anything. It’s not in my nature.”

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t own art. She has pieces by artists she has worked with and can recall in detail the first artwork she bought.

“I curated a big group show in Munich about surfaces in our living environment, and how they make us feel. There was a piece by Stephanie Jünemann with a slick surface that looked diaphanous.

“I thought, ‘I have to have one.’ So I went to her studio and bought an untitled piece.”

It cost $1,200.

“I had never spent that much on anything. She let me pay if off, and I did, over two years. I was still sending her checks when I came to the United States.”

The painting moved with Platow from Germany to Raleigh to Boston to Cincinnati. Now, it is in the Northside home she shares with her husband, Jeff Groh, and their two children, Jakob, 3-1/2, and Lena, 15 months.

She met Groh, head of The New School Montessori North Avondale, at a dance party friends threw for her 37th birthday. She wasn’t relishing turning a year older. She liked her job, which consumed her waking hours, but felt that her personal life was adrift.

In walked Jeff, at 11:30 p.m. (Yes, she remembers the exact time.) He began dancing under the disco ball with a friend of hers. She started dancing, too. “It was a magical moment,” she says, then sighs.

Even so, it took them months to begin dating. “I was traveling a lot, working all day, and nights and weekends.” Eventually they squeezed a few dates in, then became serious. They have been married five years, and it has changed her outlook on life, especially on work.

She grew up immersed in visual art. “I always drew and curated. I curated my bedroom, changing things around all the time.” Her parents took her and her brother to museums all over Munich. In her first job out of high school, in the year before college, she worked for an art dealer who represented cutting-edge and emerging artists.

She was on an art whirlwind. “We went to all the arts fairs … Basel, Cologne.” She doesn’t talk much about her first husband, except to say that as a German couple in the United States, they led an insular life. “It felt like an extended vacation.” But the longer they stayed, and the more wrapped up she became in her work, the more difficult things became. Now, she has found more balance in her life, and attributes that, in part, to having children.

“It is a huge life expansion,” she says. “I never thought I would have children until I met Jeff. He is the right partner. He is 180 percent involved.”

She says she is “more intentional” about how she spends her time and thinks having children has made her a better leader.

“Before, I expected everyone on the staff to devote all their time to the job, to working. After all, that is how I lived my life.”

Now, the staff gets Friday afternoons off in the summer. She takes a three-week vacation with her family to visit her parents in Germany and her brother and his family in Switzerland. She thinks a lot more about art education for children, as well as teens and adults.

“I didn’t really understand what it meant to nurture creative expressiveness before I had children,” she said.

She hired Jaime Thompson as curator of education. The preschool programming was reshaped. She’s even tackled the issue of creating more family bathrooms with diaper-changing stations, and rooms for mothers who are breastfeeding. “Having children myself sharpened my eye,” she said.

Programs for other audiences were also added, from “Drink and Draw” and “One Night, One Craft” (featuring area artisans) to Makerspace (tapping into the Maker zeitgeist) and lunchtime yoga classes.

The underutilized Back Box theater in the basement has been energized, under performance curator Drew Klein, by a series of unconventional performances that have brought renowned and emerging musicians, dancers, filmmakers and other creatives to Cincinnati.

“Programmatically, we have solidified the institution, and are making better use of the building,” she said. “We have, finally, grown into the space.” Much as she has grown into this place. ♦

Platow’s ascent

Rahaela Platow grew up in Munich, Germany, and attended undergraduate school at Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and economics. She also has a master’s in art history and an MBA from Humboldt University of Berlin.

Immediately before moving to Cincinnati, she worked at the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. In her nearly five years there, she held the positions of acting director, chief curator and curator.

Before that, she was international curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, from 1999 to 2002.

Platow was selected as director of the Contemporary Arts Center in July 2007 at age 34. The search committee cited her business acumen, ability to interact with the community and wide network of contacts as among the reasons they chose her.

She has lectured on contemporary art and curated/co-curated and authored/co-authored catalogues for a variety of exhibitions featuring work by artists Diane Landry, Andy Warhol, Dasha Shishkin  and Keith Haring.

Mixing it up

Area artists have long complained that the CAC, as well as other area museums, does not show work by local artists. Platow believes showing local art just to show local art is demeaning to the artists. “We want to treat it the same as everyone else, to elevate it, and not segregate it,” she said.

A number of exhibitions in recent years have featured or been curated by area artists such as 2013’s Joey Versoza installation “Is This It,” 2014’s “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world?” curated by Michael Stillion, and parts of “After the Moment,” last year’s look at the work and influence of late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

The CAC has also committed itself to hosting student art exhibitions and has showcased work from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Mount Saint Joseph University, Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati.

“We are mixing it up between established and emerging artists,” said Platow.


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