Free museum admission a ticket to cultural enlightenment

You know the Alexander Calder mobile, “Twenty Leaves and an Apple,” in the Cincinnati Art Museum, right outside the café? I’ve seen it dozens of times, but on my last visit to the museum, I stopped in the hallway and watched it for 10 minutes or so. It moves slowly, pushed by invisible air currents that turn it to stretch to its full length, then contract while the smaller pieces circle at a different rate. It rearranges itself in a million random ways, though the elements never touch each other. I noticed how beautiful and perfect the individual shapes are, how right that there is only one red circle, the apple, standing up straight, and thrilled to what an accomplishment of imagination and technical skill it is. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

This meditative, aesthetic 10 minutes was so different from just seeing the mobile as a familiar icon, remembering it used to hang in the Terrace Hilton. I could take the 10 minutes because I wasn’t “doing” the whole museum that day, or accompanied by other people with their own priorities. I only looked at a few other things: The entire visit was less than 45 minutes, so I was in and out before my feet started hurting. 

For that I thank the Rosenthal Family Foundation, which 20 years ago donated enough money to the museum to make admission free and keep it that way. Dick Rosenthal won the Cincinnati Art Award this year in acknowledgment of that great piece of philanthropy. Instead of buying more art, it made the art already in the museum more accessible to more people. For the museum, it means they have a high rate of first-time visitors. For me, it means that I can stop in the museum any time I want, for as long or as short a time as I feel like. I did this often during quarantine. (The Contemporary Arts Center has the same generous free admission, great if you have a little time downtown or want to keep up with the latest by going often.) 

The Calder, the Botticelli, the Horace Pippin Christmas painting, no matter where they came from, are part of Cincinnati just like Union Terminal or the Tyler Davidson fountain, and we can all feel a sort of ownership. I like to see how my favorite objects are doing every once in a while. Sometimes I gaze myself right into the landscape of the Corot, with the ruins of the Chateau de Pierrefonds above me, or I’ll admire the sheer, utter tastefulness of the purple Rookwood vase with chrysanthemums, though my response to it is less artistic than desire to own it. Someday I may stand in front of a Baroque painting and feel something. Meanwhile, I like Lucas Cranach’s pretty little “Saint Helena” from 1525, looking not quite pious enough in her heavy gold jewelry and rosy cheeks. It’s always an education for me as different bits of art history start to click together in my cluttered mind. 

Sometimes I wander around and unexpected themes reveal themselves. One day I stopped in the Middle East galleries, which have been redone with new emphasis including a display of figurines representing female power in the ancient world. There is a fascinating, big-eyed terracotta goddess that, when there were people who believed in her, was transformed by that belief into the real, living thing. These female images counterbalance the art that more overtly conveys power to men, like the inscriptions on the lustrous gold libation bowl of Darius, saying his name in three languages, embodying his right to rule. 

Just around the corner, in the new acquisitions gallery, I found a monumental Kehinde Wiley. He is widely celebrated for his huge paintings of modern Black men, and more recently, women, in classical poses on decorative backgrounds, giving them the dignity of those older forms. CAM has acquired a gorgeous new one, “Two Sisters.” There are also two bronze busts, one of Mame Kewe Aminata Lo, the Senegalese woman who runs Black Rock, Wiley’s art center in Senegal. The back of her neck is tattooed with the words “Imary,” for faith, “Nguvu,” for strength, and “Yemaye,” for the powerful feminine Yoruba spirit of the river and sea. That struck me as a different version of the inscriptions that Persian kings used to claim power, in the previous gallery. And, then I went over to the African gallery. There, I had a face-to-face meeting with a shoulder mask of Nimba, a goddess of increase and fecundity from the Baga people. She is not young and beautiful, but old and wise and very powerful, and the mother of many. Dancers wear the wooden mask on their shoulders in secret dances, where it towers above everyone else.

That was a good visit, an unexpected day of encountering female power in a place that, like most art museums, has always been full of works by European men. It reminded me that free admission is just the basis for creating inclusion in this Cincinnati art palace for people – programming, acquisitions and interpretation all matter. But anyone who wants can enter and see how our definitions of art and artists are changing, and make their own connections across time and cultures and artistic visions.

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. 

She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions

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