The parallel paths of Cameron & Katie Kitchin

Cameron and Katie Kitchin

Cameron and Katie Kitchin at home (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

Beauty & the Broken

By John Faherty

In the winter of 1999, in Washington D.C., an associate legislative director for a Pennsylvania governor and a research associate for a museum collective walked into a movie theater for what may well have been the wonkiest first date ever.

It was also the first true intersection of two lives that had been following parallel lines, always close, but never connecting.

Somehow, Cameron and Katie survived the fairly gloomy film “Magnolia,” and there was a second date and then a third. Now, this city and region are better for it.

He is the more public of the two. Cameron Kitchin is the Louis and Louise Dieterle Nippert Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

She is more behind the scenes. Katie Kitchin is the director, Ohio, of the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

At first glance, it would seem Cam is making the world prettier, and Katie is making the world better. Their worlds, and their work, however, have more in common than you might think.

Cam and Katie come from the same place. Literally, the exact same place. Each was born at Norfolk (Virginia) General Hospital, but Cam arrived two years earlier. They went to the same school, Norfolk Academy, but they never really knew each other. To put this delicately, Katie was a cheerleader, and Cam was, well, Cam was a top student.

After high school, Cam went north to Harvard University and Katie to the University of Virginia. A decade later, following their pattern, both were living and working in Washington, D.C., and both were single. Katie’s cousin and Cam’s parents arranged a date for the two. At this point, each was vaguely aware of the other. Katie agreed to the set-up but called her sister who had graduated with Cam. She asked a simple question. “Is he maybe a geek that turned cool?”

The date became marriage and then three children. So, cool enough.

Their careers flourished.

Katie worked as the legislative director in the Washington office of the Pennsylvania governor. Then she was a staff member for the U.S. House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources. Later, she returned home to Norfolk to direct the Office to End Homelessness, where she helped to reduce homelessness by 25 percent. In Memphis, Katie was executive director of the Community Alliance for the Homeless.

In short, she has the rare combination of experience in both policy and practice. She has seen homelessness and worked to help end it. It has been her passion her entire adult life.

Why? Katie, who really doesn’t enjoy talking about herself, answers with a quote from a lawyer and social justice advocate she admires. “There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy,” Bryan Stevenson wrote in his book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”

“When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Katie has seen what happens when a person, or a family, has no place to call home. There is turmoil and anxiety and a brokenness. She also has seen what happens when a person or a family finally has a real home. It is like being born again.

“People do better when they have permanent housing,” Katie said. “There is a psychological switch when you are no longer worried about where you will be the next day.”

She said the statistics are clear. Former prisoners are more likely to stay out of prison. Children are less likely to be taken from their homes. Behavioral health issues are dramatically reduced.

It is the challenge that inspires Katie. “When you see the brokenness, you can’t help but do this kind of work.”

She continues her work now at CSH, where she has raised awareness, increased funding and decreased rates of homelessness. Her work focuses on providing permanent, supportive housing for vulnerable people, including the homeless, the mentally ill, veterans and people leaving the prison system.

Experience in both policy and practice.

Early in his career, Cam worked in strategic planning for the American Alliance of Museums.

He then served as executive director of the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art and spent eight years leading the Brooks Museum in Memphis. When he interviewed for the job at the Cincinnati Art Museum, his commitment to inclusion impressed the board.

“One reason we hired Cam was what seemed to be his strong belief in making the museum a vibrant, relevant and valued part of the community,” said Marty Ragland, CAM board chair. “Great exhibitions and stimulating programming attract people to the museum.”

The museum is a grand institution with more than 67,000 works in its collection. It hosts national and international exhibitions. But one of Cam’s larger goals is to ensure it remains a smaller space for singular moments. He wants to provide a diversity of exhibitions so the entire community is interested in what is happening at the museum and feels welcome to go to it.

“When you have people come into and share a civic space, they experience each other through a common point, a piece of art. That is their connection,” Cam said. “The museum can be a real equalizer, a place for all of us to come together.”

So, in the past year:

It would be difficult to configure a more diverse string of art. This is exactly what Cam hoped for when he became the Cincinnati Art Museum’s ninth director in 2014.

“Every exhibition brings different opportunities,” Cam said.

Katie, of course, sees the value of this work. “A huge challenge is when we don’t know each other,” she said. “I think what he does is create a safe space for challenging conversations with a mix of people. That is important now more than ever.”

On a recent afternoon, the museum-goers enjoying the art were a more diverse group than one might expect. People of varying ages and races and ethnicities walked around the halls in the way people do at museums. Cam, who wanted to show the inner workings of how future exhibits will be displayed, did not seem to notice the diversity. He was, it seemed, too busy figuring out even more ways to make sure more people would feel more welcome. But Katie noticed. “I think once you have established that the museum is for everyone,” she said, “everybody will find something here.”

Cam does see the intersection of his work in art with his wife’s work searching for equity and fairness. “We talk a lot about social dialogue,” he said. “There are very few places left on earth for discourse. When people are in this space, they feel connected.”

This is aligned perfectly with the museum’s stated mission: “Through the power of art, we contribute to a more vibrant Cincinnati by inspiring its people and connecting our communities.”

Ragland, the CAM board chair, sees it working with Cam and his talented staff. “Great exhibitions and stimulating programming attract people to the museum. Van Gogh, Dressed to Kill, Tiffany glass, 30 Americans, these exhibitions that Cameron and his staff have organized appeal to diverse audiences,” she said. “He helped us develop a strong strategic plan that focuses on the community.”

Katie and Cam live with their children in a Wyoming home that does not readily reveal his work at a museum or hers in social justice. There is interesting art, but it looks more like a house filled with kids and sports and dance practices and the normal chaos of family. Cam is, forgive him, a Washington Redskins fan.

And Cincinnati is home. Cam is happy to know the Cincinnati Art Museum is considered a long-term destination, as evidenced by the fact it has had just nine directors in its 137-year history. The Kitchins have also come to love this place for their children and themselves.

“We are happy here,” Cam said. “We chose this as a place to raise our children. Cincinnati felt like a calling to us.”

Katie and Cameron Kitchin playing with Presley, their mixed-breed rescue dog.

Katie and Cameron Kitchin playing with Presley, their mixed-breed rescue dog. (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

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