Cincinnati museum directors encourage discovery, dialogue

EDITOR’S NOTE: We present the full transcript of this panel discussion conducted via Zoom in September 2023.

Cincinnati is known for many things. Food, beer, industry and sports are commonly associated with this place. But it is our culture that sets us apart. Specifically, this is a remarkable museum city. The Taft Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Contemporary Arts Center, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the Cincinnati Art Museum are all well-regarded and well-attended. They are innovative and thoughtful and we are fortunate to have them here.  

We asked the directors of these institutions to talk about the challenges and joys of making a museum thoughtful and relevant in 2023. All five were interviewed at once, the interview was lightly edited for clarity. 

Moderator John Faherty, executive director of the Mercantile Library

John Faherty: How do you meet the changing expectations of visitors, while still fulfilling the classic experiences that people want to have when they go to a museum? Are those two ideas in conflict, or can they be laced together? 

Christina Vassallo – executive director, Contemporary Arts Center: This is a question that I think we all consider on a daily basis. I have the opportunity and privilege to run a contemporary art museum, so this is always at the forefront of not only the minds of my staff and myself and my board, but it’s also ingrained within our programming. We are constantly attempting to evolve, to meet the needs of society by reflecting conversations that are happening in society. That is part of the art that gets made to be shown in our space and, outside of our space, beyond our walls as well.

I think we sort of meet the challenges in varying degrees at different times. And I think you’ve set up, in a way, John, a false dichotomy. I don’t think that the typical sort of conventional museum-going experience that you’ve described is in direct opposition to the evolving needs of our visitors.

Christina Vassallo
(photo by Shae Combs)

Woodrow Keown – president and COO, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: I agree with what Christina said, I think, in general. I do think that there are different and varying degrees of expectations, and I think that that’s significantly driven by the museum’s mission and so forth.

People want our museum to be a bit more forward looking. Not forgetting about the past, but to be a bit more forward looking and to be a bit more dynamic.

This Gen Z generation, I think, are looking for something that we haven’t been able to offer at this point in time. And I also see a significantly growing demand from the community to be engaged in what we do.

And I think that there’s a challenge in terms of how we go about getting that information, and also balancing it with our resources and the things that we know we need to do to meet the overall mission of the museum.

So, I think the expectations are changing. I think that for our mission, and what we do, I think that there is a stronger demand from across the board for us to be more vocal and more involved in terms of advocating for the strategic change that the community is looking for, in terms of also bringing about unity in the community, in terms of what we can do to bring people together versus pushing them apart.

Woodrow Keown

Cameron Kitchin – director, Cincinnati Art Museum: Maybe I’ll pick up right where Woody left off, which is, John, to your question. I mean, what is a museum? It’s a living, breathing place of intersectionality. You have visitors encountering one another, you have visitors encountering artists, you have living staff and community members encountering those artists.

And so, the museum itself is a crossroads. It’s a place where contemporary society finds these points of intersection. So, when Woody talks about the community side, I think your question, John, about being relevant, is that we’re relevant because we are inhabited by people and issues and topics and intersections of today, right?

Every single day, when we open the front doors of the museum, the museum comes to life as a contemporary space. And so, I think the question itself of how we reflect or we serve, it’s not so much we’re reflecting or serving, because that’s something of an othering.

In fact, the constituent parts are the community members because that is the action that the museum takes.

Cameron Kitchin

Becky Beaulieu – president and CEO, Taft Museum: I think that there have been some fabulous macro-concepts that have been brought up so far, all of which I wholeheartedly agree with. The idea of the museum as a living space. The idea that the museum experience is participatory, and we strive to be representative.

No longer are these the days where we are arbiters of culture. We’re now facilitators. Our job is to welcome you and to make sure that we all have a voice in a museum experience. And really, that we’re speaking to, listening to, and engaging with our communities, however we define it.

I will say on a micro-level that this is an issue we deal with all the time. In historic house museums like the Taft Museum of Art, we are dealing with a very strong kind of fragmentation of our audience, where we are dealing with people who typically have long generational lines, will talk about, very passionately, what the museum should be doing.

And I think that we all are proud to have people who invest in who we are as institutions, and really collectivize that institutional identity. But I think whenever you hit generational change, both in terms of funders, those who are attending, those who are members, we see an opportunity to explore some new areas.

Does it mean that it’s popular with everyone? No. But back to what Christina was saying, circling back in the beginning, I don’t necessarily see it as cleanly as a false dichotomy, but I will say that for a space like ours, we need to be ready to have those conversations and embrace those various identities and characters that people recognize in a historic space like the Taft Museum.

Becky Beaulieu

Elizabeth Pierce – president and CEO, Cincinnati Museum Center:  So, a couple things. I always go back to what’s the definition of a museum, and the notion of the Temple of the Muses is what drew me to this work to begin with, and that sense of this celebration of thinking and moving and hearing and feeling, and all the senses that go along with it.

So, championing curiosity is the core of what we do, what we all do. It’s certainly at the core of how I try to drive the Museum Center, and because we get to be this place of intersectionality of science and history and early childhood development and architecture, and every other random thing I could kind of throw into the soup that we’re making.

So, for the museum to move forward, and to continue to be of the community, you need to be thinking about: What’s the way we can stimulate thinking and critical thinking and a love of curiosity, so everybody continues to want to use our organizations as they go out throughout their lives?

I have certainly managed to piss off the old guard in our organization on more than one occasion, because we’re not going to talk about things exactly the way it has been done for the last 200 years. And so, you deal with the kind of crankiness, or the kind of feeling of loss that some people have, like you’re not going to do it in this perfectly chronological way, or you’re not going to tell the stories that I want to tell, or you’re not going to highlight only the era that I want to celebrate.

But I think it’s a conversation where you acknowledge that that’s important to them, and then you try to help them appreciate we’re trying to bring more people in to appreciate all of this together, so if you’re not willing to engage in that way, you’re leaving people behind.

I think the other component of it is, the technology changes, or I guess technology is short-sighted. Modalities of sharing information change over time, and so we want to be able to present information in ways, across a range of those modalities, so you’re interested and interesting to people over their lifetime.

Okay, that’s me rambling for a moment.

Faherty: Rambling is the actual goal of this thing. So, thank you, Elizabeth, for getting it.

Elizabeth Pierce

Faherty: What does a good day at your museum feel like, look like, sound like, or smell like? When do you walk out saying, “That was a good day. That was terrific.” 

Beaulieu: Oh, sheesh. Thanks. Well, I guess that when I think about a good day and I love that you brought up all of the senses because I would think of a good day being all the senses engaged.

It was funny. I went to our all staff meeting this morning and the whole place smells like bacon because we are making bacon for our lunches that we were serving this afternoon at the cafe. And I was reminded that in every museum I’ve worked in, they have a cafe, and one of their dishes always has bacon, and you just get so used to the idea. So, to me, I now have this sensory Pavlovian response to bacon as having to do with working in museums, for some very crazy reason. So, smelling bacon, obviously a huge part of a successful day. Hopefully eating it as well.

But I would also say that, it’s interesting, something that we really prioritize at the Taft is an intimate experience with the museum. So, I would say that as much as I want to hear noise and cacophony and have children’s voices and know that people are there, we want to have that, and then we also want to have tranquility because I recognize this is one of the strengths of the Taft Museum of Art.

And we always want to make sure that between the historic house corridor and our galleries and our education spaces, that we have the chance for people to really have personal experiences with that art. So, to me, making sure that we can honor all of those variety of preferences is very helpful.

And then, a great day is when I’m able to meet people, when I’m able to get out from behind my desk and actually have conversations is so much better than when I just have a day where I’m glued to my chair. So, the engagement, I thrive on that, and I think that that helps all of us have much stronger relationships, both within the staff, with the volunteers, and then with the visitors who are coming in.

Anytime that I can be listening to people as they’re experiencing new things that the museum makes for an excellent day.

Taft Museum of Art

Keown: I’m going to pick up on Becky’s last point, and I’ve got another one I’ll add to that. And that is, when we have a lot of people flowing through and throughout the museum around here on these big days, King Legacy Day, Juneteenth, or pick one. During the Cincinnati Music Festival. And we’ve got a lot of people, different groups, intergenerational groups, moving through the museum with this look of curiosity on their faces.

And when I have an opportunity to go and talk to them. And when I get one of those “a-ha moments” from somebody, whether it’s young, old, in the middle, whatever the case might be, where somebody’s learned something new, significant, that really changed them, and convey to me that they are getting significant value through this experience in the museum, I just love that and I just don’t have enough time to do that.

But when we’ve got that buzz going, and people are moving in and around, and it’s very busy and active and vibrant, that feels good and looks good.

The other element that I wanted to share is that, from a staff standpoint, when I walk around on our administrative floor here, and I see different people in these huddle rooms working together and running around and pulling people together to solve problems, or to create opportunities, and so forth, that is something I look forward to. It’s been something of a cultural change I’ve been trying to push since I’ve been here, and I’m starting to see the change that I’ve been trying to bring about, and we’ll continue to work on it.

But when I see people just more naturally getting together, and are smiling and having fun, and there’s not a lot of negative vibes going around the building, that’s a good feeling for me and something I look forward to, and I’m feeling that now.

Kitchin: I didn’t know who would be up next, but thank you. I’m thinking about, for me, when I spend time on the floor of the museum, and then we’re within the staff administrative side of the museum when we’re in the community, it’s really finding joy in accidental encounters in multiple ways, right? The idea that a visitor may come to the museum to see Picasso, but find William T. Hawkins. Or the visitor may come to the museum to see the terracotta army from China, but they find Ragnar Kjartansson. Or a visitor may come to the museum to see the antiquities and find Roberto Lugo.

And so, these accidental encounters that happen at the Cincinnati Art Museum are really beautiful in many ways. They also occur when visitors encounter one another who didn’t know each other previously, that they’re standing alongside each other shoulder to shoulder, looking at the same work of art, and suddenly they’ve had an accidental encounter that creates community. Those are the ties that bind, that bring a community together because they have these shared experiences and we see them.

And also, sometimes we just have happy accidents that happen that bring joy and humor to all of us. We had, this was some years ago, a visitor who was brought from out of town in a taxi to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Came into the museum, saw our visitor services desk, went on past, and about two hours later, no kidding, about two hours later, reemerged from all the collections galleries at the museum. And our front desk staff said, “How’d you enjoy the museum?” And the visitor said, “I loved it, but I never found the dinosaurs.”

So, this was before Uber. This was before you knew you were going to… The taxi driver had taken him to the wrong museum, but they loved their time at the museum. I hope they went on to see the dinosaurs next.

Faherty: I believe you owe Elizabeth $8. That’s a great story.

Kitchin: It’s a true story.

Vassallo: So, as what I assume is the resident vegetarian of this group, bacon doesn’t enter into a great day of mine, though it’s okay if it exists in the background.

So, my entire leadership career in the arts has really been centered around alternative art spaces and niche museums that generally serve adults and college-age students. And so, now that I’m at the CAC, to me, a great day is being able to experience an age range.

I go upstairs into our amazing, electrified creativity center and see little kids with their caregivers making art. And being able to participate in that, or at least observe a moment where someone feels so compelled to engage in the artistic process, grab some zero-waste materials from our art lab, and put them together and make something awesome because they were so inspired by art gallery exhibitions, that to me is a great day.

I think on a more logistical level, it’s when something didn’t get stuck in customs. Right? This work isn’t always glamorous, and it is often precarious. And to know that a shipment has safely landed on our shores from another country, and will soon be installed in our galleries, always feels like a win.

Pierce:  Okay, so sound continues to play a role in this conversation in the sense of you walk into the rotunda, or I walk upstairs from where our administrative offices are on the mezzanine level, and I can see the ceiling of the rotunda as you walk up, and then you just hear all this joyous noise of kids eating and people interfacing. And so, when the sounds of joy are echoing through the rotunda of Union Terminal, that’s hard to pass up or hard not to get energy out of that. And likewise, I love the sound of the little kids crying at the end of the day because they don’t really want to go home. And, “No, I want to stay and watch the dinosaurs more!” 

Faherty: Elizabeth likes hearing the sound of children crying. We have our headline. Cruella appears.

Pierce: “I need more dinosaurs.” Yes, I love it. There are generations of people walking through, too, so that’s fun. Just hearing grandparents and grandkids having conversations. And when I don’t have to do one topic all day long, and I can feed the ADD that I have, that’s also a good day. So, science, and history, and dancing around. All right, now I’m done. Move on to your next question.

Faherty: Diversifying membership, staff, leadership boards, is I think an ongoing challenge for everybody. What have you found to be effective so far in your efforts to diversify any level from the member walking in the door, to your board president, and everyone in between, where have you seen success, and where are you still running into roadblocks, either real or imagined? And that’s a tough one, so we’re going to start with Cameron this time because I bet you he’s got an answer in there somewhere.

Kitchin: You’re a betting man. We’ll see, when I think about it, and the question is broad, right? There’s a lot of things within there. We are a museum that opened its doors over 140 years ago. And when we opened the doors, Mayor Amor Smith Jr., a mayor that you’ll have to do your digging on, Elizabeth probably has the archives, Mayor Amor Smith Jr. said on that day that “This museum is a gift of the people for the people.” So, within there is an intrinsic question, which is, “Who are the people we’re talking about?”

It’s all of Cincinnati. It’s all of our community. It’s the entire citizenry of Southern Ohio, and it’s all of the visitors to our great cities. So, it’s a gift of the people, for the people. We have a responsibility to reflect Cincinnati of today, and to reflect the full complement of the changemakers, of the influencers, of the amazing people who are driving our city today, and the people we live amidst and with, and who we are.

And so, we have a responsibility to be that institution that recognizes that gift of being for the people, because it’s of the people.

Cincinnati Art Museum

Vassallo:  I really appreciate this question. And as Cameron said, it is so broad, and we need to go deep on it.

This field requires systemic change. I see it whenever I recruit for a high level staff position. What does the applicant pool look like? And so, on the micro-level, it is our job to understand the obstacles that are in the way and what true equity looks like in the workplace, and how we can actually get to that.

A tactic that I’ve been using is trying to understand transferable skill sets, and how might they apply to specific kinds of positions that are always… There’s a gate-keeping role to those positions and who can become part of those positions. And I think it just needs to be plainly stated that we are all working in a field that is still suffering from the residue of an entirely elitist system.

Not until only recently were all of our staff represented by people who had the background that would allow them to work in a position and barely get paid for it. I don’t think any of us today accept the fact that we should expect our staff to pay their rent or their mortgage with the prestige of working in our institutions.

That’s a lot to get over in short order, and I think we’re all working really, really hard to get to that place.

I will often hear museum directors and curators talk about what a great job they’ve done changing their programming, diversifying their programming, but that argument is really decades old, right? Programming is actually the easiest and the quickest thing to change.

What I have found to take longer and require a true culture shift is who takes on staff positions and who sits on boards. That’s a change that requires the building of relationships, and relationships are inherently inefficient in terms of the time that is required. It takes a really long time to build a relationship and to go outside of your own circle.

So, that’s something that I’m always tending to. Again, I keep thinking about how successful am I at anything that I try to do? And I go back to that phrase I used in my first answer. There are varying degrees of success and greatness that I personally have accomplished with this.

Keown:  Okay. Very, very, very interesting and complex question for me. I would say that we have had excellent success in terms of recruiting and staffing Black talent for staff, for the board, and not as much as I would like to see as far as membership is concerned within the Black community.

And I think that our challenge is basically to be careful that we don’t over-staff or over-recruit as far as African Americans and Blacks are concerned. That we want to be sure that we’ve got a diverse view of the population, as Cameron was talking about, in terms of who you’re serving, and so forth.

And the other challenge that we have is basically, the concept of freedom is somewhat ubiquitous. And so it’s like there’s this constant tension around you’ve got to take on the world and deal with everything, versus having a focus through a certain lens, and then work the other issues through some sort of collaborative effort with the Latinx community, with the LGBTQ, with… You name it.

And then you’ve got the religious breakdowns that we deal with, in terms of how much work and time we put in, and find these common causes with various organizations and so forth.

And then, the other dimension that we have to deal with is that we have kind of fallen into a overly Cincinnati-centric kind of mode in terms of being more localized than our brand, say, than we should be, and our mission says that we should be. So, what we’re looking to do is to really kind of rebuild and extend back into a… not a global, but a national organization, and view our market and our constituents as a national constituency base and audience base.

And we have to do some things in terms of national scale advisory boards. We know we have to take care of the home front. We know we have to take care of the back yard. But I think that we have to really kind of get back out and really view our audience and our market beyond society. And I mean society, but we even struggled trying to connect with Northern Kentucky, and we’re right across the river. You can see it in the background there.

And so, what we’re doing is struggling with that and ensuring that we can have a more diverse representation in a number of dimensions. And some of the stigmas that we fight are people view us as being a Black-only museum. We have those kind of challenges that have emerged over time. And what we’re trying to do is to fight against that, and say, “No, we’re a museum for all, and there’s a story here. We are teaching American history here, and that’s what we’re about. It’s not an exclusively Black museum, and that’s not the way we operate.”

So, we have to deal with those kinds of challenges, while being authentic in terms of what we’re teaching in this area of American history that are not taught in the school, for the most part.

Pierce: I’m going to build on what Christina was saying about relationships, because I think the successes that Cincinnati Museum Center has had in our community are built on the core of relationships for many, many years. And they take time, no doubt about it.

And at each chapter, and as each staff person or board member or community leader changes and evolves, you’re hoping that that relationship continues or gets passed down.

One of my favorite things about working at Union Terminal is that it has an incredible history with pluses and minuses within the African American community in Cincinnati, and so it’s a place that also has these incredible stories that come forward. So, things that we’ve been able to bring into the collection over time have come so because of relationships. We serve on a number of community councils where we’ve been welcomed in, and have nurtured and cultivated that relationship for many, many years.

And that makes a difference in all the other things that we want to do, in terms of hiring and visitation and programming in the community, and in some ways even making sure that we have diversity in our spending.

So, I think applying diversity across all of the factors that we have control over in the museum is also one of the ways that we can contribute to the success of the community overall.

So, relationships I think are at the fundamental core of all of that. I go back to Brian Stevenson on a regular basis. His comment about “get proximate” that he shared at the racial justice breakfast at the Freedom Center so many years ago, when the YWCA brought him in. And it’s part of his ongoing regular presentation, but it is about kind of reminding people that relationships are at the core of how we do business.

Beaulieu: So many, I think, really valuable comments have been made, and I think especially at the moment that we’re in, at least at the Taft Museum of Art, I agree completely with what everybody is saying about relationships, and also making sure that we’re not providing superficial action. Christina’s right, the idea of doing programs, it’s very easy to do one-off and episodic programming that says, “See, look what we’re doing here. We’re making an effort.”

But really, when you start impacting the infrastructure, whether it’s your human resources, how you’re bringing people in, or it’s your financial structure in terms of where you’re investing, sometimes quite literally with ESG (environmental, social and governance) options, and I love seeing more museums go in that direction. There’s a lot more opportunity of putting your money where your mouth is.

For us, I would also say, and this is looking inward to the staff community of the Taft, as well as looking outward to our constituent base, is the need to build trust. We have some very strong relationships in the city, and we benefit from them, and we are so thrilled to continue to honor those over the generations.

At the same time, I think there’s a lot of people who look at a place like the Taft and say, “What’s there for me?” They may have done one show, or they may have had one program, or they may bring in a Duncanson artist-in-residence for two weeks a year, but where is the consistent effort in outreach?

And I think that that’s where it’s important for us as leaders to really show our commitment. And so, for me, I think one of the areas of a lot of effort at this point, and honestly it’s a pleasure, not a hardship, is to get out there. It’s not just about saying, “Well, I hope that we put this on the calendar and we see some new people.” It’s also about getting out of our comfort zones, getting out of my space here in the museum, and going and showing up at community gatherings, at events for yes, peer organizations in the arts, but also those far outside of the arts. Introducing us as a colleague in Cincinnati and beyond.

So, building that trust, I think, both with our teams, that they can feel proud of where they work and share those good vibes, but then also the idea that we are building substantive, regular, consistent communications, and connections with the community, I think, is kind of square one for any museum that really wants to create that investment.

Faherty: People are showing up at your museums as political animals. Are museums places to recognize that and address it? Or say, “Nope, we’re teaching people, and we’re here for everybody.” How do you walk that line? 

Pierce: Current-day politics as a layer over museum visits isn’t unique to this moment. The high emotion and lack of respectful discussion is perhaps the newer part of the process, unfortunately.  For a long time, Cincinnati Museum Center has positioned ourselves as a “center for community dialogue.” In the last 30 years, exhibits such as “Civil Unrest,” presented 90 days after the shooting of Timothy Thomas in 2001, have been presented with the goal of creating space for the community to express feelings, process  trauma and to connect with each other. “Civil Unrest” was also based in the historical context of previous of race riots and civic resilience from the 1848 court house riots to 1968 protests and modern day difficulties.   

Several other exhibitions and programs have been presented for the purpose of sharing information and creating a space for dialogue. We have sought to bring scientific and historic fact forward to show context of how and why, with the goal of deepening knowledge about circumstances, developing empathy for other and helping inform future solutions.  This has included “Pirates, The Untold Story of the Wydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship,” “BODIES… The Exhibition,” “Race, Are we So Different” in 2009, Cleopatra, Dinosaurs Unearthed etc. 

Museum objects, stories from our past, discoveries of science are presented to bring forth humanity, to develop greater understanding. 

Cincinnati Museum Center

Vassallo: So, museums are a site for civic dialogue, right? I mean, that’s my answer. Full stop. When it starts to become harmful dialogue I think is when skilled facilitators and educators and other sorts of museum staff members need to step in and help facilitate that conversation. And we always have to be prepared for that.

Keown: Well, we position ourselves as a museum of conscience, and we position ourselves and try to operate in a way to invite this dialogue, to bring different perspectives in, to try to get people to see and understand, get information, get knowledge, and then to process that in their own personal way and figure out what they do with it, in terms of how they live their lives, or how they want to influence the world, and so forth.

So, that’s what we position ourselves to do. But I would say in reality, I would say that we don’t probably attract… We are probably kind of a lightning rod, in a way. We would like to see more people with other perspectives that would come in, so that we can have this kind of dialogue under the right circumstances with the right facilitators, people who know how to facilitate and manage these kind of situations.

And so, that’s what we welcome. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think there’s work to be done in that regard, but I think that is a critical role that museums can play in terms of bringing it in. But as Christina says, it’s got to be done the right way.

Beaulieu: Well, I agree completely. It’s such a complex question, but with a relatively simple answer. And you’re right, by the way, John. This is a complete shift generationally. This is not necessarily something that museums were facing when we were young.

But at the same time, this is a space for learning. This is designed to be a place where people can come together and experience art, experience culture together, and hopefully find alignment and synchronicity there.

At the same time, we recognize that not everyone is coming from the same place. Museums often bring up uncertainty for people. It’s our job to take out the intimidation factor of going to a museum, and I think that that’s sloughing off some of that historical privilege that Christina was talking about earlier.

But part of it is that we may hear things that we don’t necessarily agree with. As long as there’s a healthy degree of respect and curiosity, and the ability to receive what other people are sharing, that’s really where we are a laboratory for inquiry, and we have to be open to that, no matter what our personal beliefs are, right?

I will say that we’ve gotten better at training our staff members to learn how to navigate such conversations. So, everything from somebody who comes in who may be more confrontational, we talk about deescalation tactics. We talk about the idea of upending our own beliefs from a conversation so that we can best serve as a platform for other people to learn what they really think.

So, sometimes we walk out at the end of a day and say, “Wow, that was a tough one,” or, “I really had to grapple with what somebody was saying.” But we need to recognize that for these to be welcoming spaces, we are setting a standard in terms of civil discourse and behavior, and that’s what we ultimately strive to continue doing, no matter what and how charged the climate around us.

Kitchin: When we think about the role and the power that museums have enjoined with the community, that is a capability within our museums and beyond the walls to engage in conciliation and in listening. And I say that, not about the organization with the community, because the organization is the community. I say that about the community with itself.

And so, let me pose a scenario. You grab two Cincinnatians off the street who may be walking downtown or somewhere through OTR, and neither knows the other. You take the two of them, and you ask them to face each other and have a conversation.

It’s not likely to be terribly successful. You haven’t begun with some common ground. You haven’t begun with some knowledge or appreciation of each other. You come into that circumstance of just gauging people by preconceived notions.

But take an alternative scenario. Take those same two individuals, grab them on the street in OTR, ask them to look at each other, and ask them to talk about (Cincinnati Reds rookie) Elly de La Cruz. Suddenly there’s a commonality, and there’s perhaps even a sort of trust through argumentation. Which is to say, “I have an opinion about that, and my opinion is as valid as yours is. I don’t know you, but you don’t look like you are a scout for the reds, and so, I probably know as much as you do about this.”

And so, in fact, we can engage in differences of opinion, and we can do this in a way that actually is uplifting and constructive, and sort of takes each other to a new place through the process of listening, and even sometimes in disagreement.

So, a place that, within the museum context, if I put two visitors in front of a great Franz Kline Horizontal Rust painting, and I ask them to share observations about that painting, one is, you’re beginning at a point where there can be a healthy discussion on something that begins perhaps on safe ground, and then moves to new and more risky turf.

But also, there’s a third party in the room, which is there was a creator, there was an artist, there’s a voice that’s within the room who is brought in. And it employs that voice as a convener, and it employs that voice to say, “This is more than a canvas. This is, in fact, an act of creation, and that act of creation is worthy of discussion, and there can be differences of opinion about that.”

Now, you couple with that, finally, the notion that not every artist within the Cincinnati Art Museum is still living and breathing within our community, but they were living and breathing within their own communities in their own time. At the time every artwork was made, that artist was living in a time and place.

And so, there’s all of that conversation, and the power that comes through that artist’s voice is rife with historical context, with social context, with differences of opinion, and with fractious times. And so, if we allow ourselves to consider that with contemporary thinkers, contemporary mark makers and contemporary artists, then we’ve given ourselves space to be able to talk to one another.

So, I think there’s real efficacy in thinking about art as a convening point for a community.

Faherty:  Every city thinks it’s unique, but I think Cincinnati is kind of uniquely unique. Does the uniqueness of this city factor into what you’re doing and how you’re doing it? 

Keown: Yes.

Kitchin: Perfect answer, Woody.  Cincinnati is a place where we can sustain an entire wing of the museum called the Cincinnati Wing, about the history of art making in this very place. I know of no other city that has done that within their art museum, including New York City.

It is one of the most beloved spaces within our great community because people here care so deeply about those who have come before and those who will follow after them.

When we talk about Cincinnati being generational, it also is generational in the best possible ways, which is that we care deeply about the footsteps before, and the path ahead.

Pierce: I love the uniqueness of Cincinnati as it relates to our presentations. We really go out of our way to find that unique Cincinnati angle in our permanent galleries, and in the traveling shows and films we bring to town. In the case of the traveling shows and films  we are often adding gallery space, and pulling items from our collections into the stories to create a whole other layer of understanding of how this is relevant to our community.  The examples are myriad, celebrating UC departments of classics,  archeology, geology,  through our previous presentations of Pompeii, Cleopatra and Maya exhibitions. We added a companion gallery called Daughters of the Queen City to the Princess Diana exhibition to celebrate the impact of female philanthropy on our region – from the 1840s to current day. 

In the case of the new permanent galleries, every single one has the unique Cincinnati filter. We can uniquely claim Neil Armstrong. We are the world epicenter of fossils. We have an entire history gallery, celebrating all those things “Made in Cincinnati.” 

My passion project of the Cr(eat)e Culinary Studio, coming online later this year, is all about celebrating Cincinnati’s unique food scene as a way to teach science, history, world heritage, and create memory-making experiences for generations together. 

Vassallo:  Yes, also. I think we can hold so many things in this city, and certainly at the CAC also. We often talk about bringing the world to Cincinnati and exporting Cincinnati to the rest of the world. And that, I think, is my illustration of how we can hold many different things.

Beaulieu: Absolutely. Cincinnati is a vibrant, growing, evolving, passionate, messy, fantastic city. It is, in so many ways, the apex of what an American city can be.

It has an incredible history of strengths and challenges. Continuing to grapple with both day-to-day. But when we talk about what Cincinnati is, there are so few American cities in 2023 that talk about where they’re going in a way that is so hopeful, and is not full of empty promise, but is growing and thriving.

So, for those of us in the arts, to be in a place that has such a strong cultural heritage, to have such a strong culture of philanthropy, these are areas that help us feel like we have the opportunity to be able to grow for generations to come. There are not many cities in America that will say that, especially coming out of the pandemic. And I don’t think there are a lot of museums, especially a peer network like this in a city, that can share such strength. So, I would say it’s absolutely singular in that regard.

Keown:  John, I’ll give you a little bit more. Great job, Becky.

Now, our location is historically significant. We are a borderland between north, south, east and west. It was a gateway to freedom, and a pathway to freedom for so many enslaved people trying to find freedom in this country. And therefore, a lot of significant debates and activities took place here to kind of drive our country to be what our Constitution promised it to be.

So, historically, militarily, and for a number of different reasons, our location here in Cincinnati is historically significant in many, many ways. And so, we talk about the power of place, and we talk about our borderland, and having this interesting confluence of different cultures coming together, north, south, east, west, coming here, right together here in Cincinnati. So, that’s why I say yes, and I can send you more if you want.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Faherty: If the dream is a wonderful event that’s packed, which feels better after that? An amazing event that you have a far smaller audience than you wanted, or a pretty good one with a huge audience, which feels better? Which is better? Becky, you’re up first.

Beaulieu: Well, that’s a terrible question, John. And you know it.

Faherty: It is. It is a terrible question.

Beaulieu: As somebody who runs programs. I don’t know. I mean, I’m really interested to hear what other people have to say. I think that if you’re interested in investing in change and evolving how you’re activating your mission at your site, you need to prepare yourself that sometimes there are going to be those times where you’re investing and your team is investing in a new direction.

And that will not immediately garner raves and crowds, but it may be something that builds slow and steady. That’s very typical in our field. I do think that that, to me, is not necessarily one or the other in terms of success. There have been events that have been intimate events that have bowled me over, both as a museum worker and as a museum patron, that just created such an impact for the better, for me as an individual.

But I’ll also say, sometimes you go and it is that feeling of being in a community, and you look around and you say, “There is nowhere else that I could have this singular moment with these people, and I’m able to share it with them.” So, I would say that it’s less about quantifying the number of people, as much as it is finding the opportunities to create these experiences that resonate with the audiences as much as possible.

So, sometimes those are going to be small, and I will welcome those small events if it’s going to create one or two relationships that are going to continue for years to come. So, I think it may depend on where you are in your institutional lifecycle. It may be dependent on where you’re putting your resources, and it may be dependent on your staff and how you’re hosting and promoting events.

But all those logistics aside, I would not trade an event where there are 20 people here having an absolutely remarkable experience, as happens, to have 200 people who forget where they were the next day.

Keown: I completely agree with Becky. The answer, you won’t like it, I would say is both. I’ll take them both. I’m interested in impact, and it comes in different ways, and so forth. And so, I see that impact of small gatherings as well as large gatherings. So, I’ll take them both.

Pierce: Short answer…  any “WOW or I didn’t know that” is success. Now, I’m also running a business so it’s most effective when those eureka moments of understanding (include) revenue that keeps our business model moving forward. 

Vassallo: I don’t really know what to add to how Becky kicked this off and what Woody contributed, except to say that I think your question is really about depth versus breadth of impact. And that is something that I am always considering as we put together new programming.

We are risk takers at the CAC. We believe in experimentation, and we believe in inviting our artists and our audience, our publics, to take risks with us. And sometimes, not many people show up, and that’s OK. I really think it depends on the type of event that you’re doing.

My mantra for the CAC has been to constantly be relevant, responsive, and responsible, and part of being responsible is understanding, was it worth the risk? How much, Becky, to your point, did we invest in this initiative, and did anyone benefit from it? And what was the depth of their impact, or of the impact that the program had on them?

Contemporary Arts Center

Kitchin:  John, Let me place kind of a mirror on the question, which is to say, is it better to present an exhibition like “Black and Brown Faces with Paloozanoire,” and a broad community impact, and many artists, and many community members? Or is it better to present our single-painting, lone exhibition of Raphael?

And the answer is, it’s good to do both. And we have the capability of doing that simultaneously within the same building, and to have that multiplicity of experiences.

In the same way, John, I know your family. And that sounded like a threat, but it’s not. I know your family. And is it better to spend a special moment with your daughter on a Saturday afternoon hiking in the woods, or to have Thanksgiving dinner with all of your children? It’s both, right?

Faherty: Yeah, I’ll take both.

Kitchin: It’s both. And so we seek both, right?

Faherty:  Thank you all very much. I’ve really enjoyed this. So, thank you. You’re all terrific, and I think our museums are in good hands.

Discover more from Movers & Makers

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.