Matt Distel: The quiet, constant curator

In April, The Carnegie announced that Matt Distel would become its new executive director. It was big news. But a surprise? Hardly. If you’ve paid any attention at all to Distel’s 30-plus-year career in the visual arts, there was a certain inevitability to the appointment.

Matt Distel in The Carnegie rotunda
Matt Distel in The Carnegie rotunda
(photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2023)

Distel was already part of The Carnegie’s senior staff. He’d distinguished himself as exhibitions director since 2014. But before that, no matter where you looked in Greater Cincinnati, Distel had some sort of involvement; as an associate curator at the Contemporary Arts Center, as executive director at Visionaries + Voices and as co-founder of a commercial gallery in a former meat-packing plant in Camp Washington. He even hosted a series of art shows in people’s apartments all over Greater Cincinnati.

Wherever art needed a home, Distel seemed to be the guy who could provide it.

“He’s ubiquitous,” said artist Lindsey Whittle, a.k.a. “Sparklezilla” – who has known Distel for more than two decades, when she was a student at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and Distel ran the gallery there. “He’s always there. You don’t expect someone at his level and with his influence to be so approachable. But he is.”

If Distel’s isn’t a name that is immediately recognizable, you could be forgiven. He is the opposite of an attention-seeker. Soft-spoken and always accommodating, he does everything in his power to avoid being the focal point of things. He even tried to sidestep the writing of this article.

“I worked for Linda Shearer at the CAC,” said Distel. “And she told me once that a good director gives away all the credit and takes all the blame. I’ve always thought that was pretty good advice.”

Mind you, he didn’t spend his childhood immersed in art. His parents were educators – “in public education,” he stressed – and embraced the idea of learning as a lifelong pursuit. But according to Distel, there was nothing particularly distinguished about his time growing up in White Oak or his years at Colerain High School. 

“I liked to draw, but I was bad at it,” he said, adding that “I never ever got good at it.” Baseball was another matter. “I was a big baseball card collector. And I memorized lots of stats and stuff like that. I played baseball and soccer and wrestled – all very poorly. I was usually a second baseman. Eventually, everybody else got good, so I got moved to the outfield.”

Matt Distel (photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2023)
Matt Distel
(photo by Tina Gutierrez for Movers & Makers 2023)

Only later does he mention the impact of a pair of art teachers in middle and high school; Patty Bruns and Margaret Hilliard.

“They had a pretty outsized influence on me,” said Distel. “I was really fortunate to cross paths with them. As an adult, when I would see them, I would always blame them for my career path.”

But when he entered Miami University in 1990, he wasn’t yet convinced that a career in art was the best way to go. Instead, he opted to go for a degree in marketing.

“Market research was my thing,” he recalled. His plan was to go on to business school. There was one major problem, though. “I was really unhappy.”

Most of his electives were in art history. So many, in fact, that it became his minor. When he was a sophomore, Miami created an art history major. Distel didn’t need convincing.

“I wanted to switch to art history from marketing,” he said. “But I was worried about how my parents would react.” He reassured them that he could still finish in four years. “They surprised me. They said, ‘we wondered when you were going to figure that out.’”

Reaching into new territory

At first glance, the job that Distel has embarked on is wildly different from the ones he’d held before. He is not only overseeing the gallery – old hat to him – but also The Carnegie’s vast educational offerings. And, even further from his professional background, the increasingly adventurous theater program.

“Am I a theater-going person?” he said, repeating my question to him. “No. But one of my younger brothers was in theater. I would get so nervous when he was performing. I think I still get nervous when I see people performing.”

It’s a funny line. But just as you wonder what the heck this guy could possibly know about theater, he starts rattling off information about how successful The Carnegie’s summer theater program was (“50% of the tickets for ‘Kinky Boots’ were people who had never visited the Carnegie before”), and what they can look to for the future. It seems the early interest in marketing wasn’t wasted, after all.

He’s most revealing, though, when he sums it all up with a classic Matt Distel sort of comment.

“Let’s just think about what the product is,” said Distel, not wanting to get bogged down in a discussion filled with arts management cliches. “If the shows and education programming are reflective of the audience we want to see here and if it’s really good, I think the audience will come.”

That may sound a little simplistic. But ultimately, that’s the underlying concept that seems to drive Distel. Present good art, no matter the format – theater, visual art or education – and audiences will show up.

Distel isn’t oblivious to the fact that you have to let people know about the art. But he believes in putting the right people together in the right projects, then stepping out of the way and letting them create. And sometimes, he gives it all a particularly innovative nudge.

Matt Distel by Tina-Gutirrez for Movers and Makers 2023
Matt Distel
(photo by Tina Gutirrez for Movers & Makers 2023)

“He has a very subtle style,” said artist and curator Rebecca Steele, who has occasionally worked with Distel over more than two decades. “He has a vision, but he doesn’t force it on people. Instead, it’s in the way he works with an artist to put together an idea for a show. Or how he chooses curators.”

For instance, instead of limiting The Carnegie’s gallery to local curators, he began engaging curators from outside the region to work with local artists.

“It’s not that local curators weren’t capable,” said Distel. “It’s the idea of exposing local artists to curators who work mostly beyond this area. It’s a small difference. But I think it has a huge impact. It’s about finding ways to give artists – all sorts of artists – more opportunities.”

It’s all a part of his well-practiced hands-off management style. Get the right people in the right jobs and let them do what they do. It’s a philosophy that comes up time and time again.

“I don’t feel that I have to be making all the creative choices. I like being a sounding board. I think I’m pretty good at thinking strategically. And I think I’ve been fortunate in inheriting a really stable and skilled staff.” He rattled through the list. “I have tremendous faith in Tyler Gabbard (theater director). I’ll pit our box office against any box office in the area. That’s thanks to Brenda (Berger, box office manager). There’s Doug (Stock, technical director) and Alissa (Paasch, education director).

“I’m excited to bring in a curator like Sso-Rha Kang, too,” said Distel of the newly arrived curator who was the director of galleries for Northern Kentucky University. “I’m eager to let her have a platform to continue her career and to offer her more opportunities.”

In October, Distel’s newest hire, Ben Lehman (coming from the Contemporary Arts Center), will join the staff to lead The Carnegie’s development program.

“I actually refer to him as the fairy godmother of the artists in this city,” said artist Lindsey Whittle. “He has lots of power. But you know he’s going to use those powers for good. A lot of artists talk. But Matt? He is a man of action.”

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