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The View from the CAM: Lessons from the Cincinnati Art Museum

I woke up Sunday morning feeling like I needed to go somewhere, to do something new. And because I am a nerd, I decided that that something new was going to be to check out the Cincinnati Art Museum. I have lived in Oxford for three years and never made it down there, mostly because I didn’t have a car and wasn’t about to drop a hundred dollars on an Uber, so I decided that that would be the day.

I will admit, I got lost in Eden Park on my way there… and again when I left. I was apprehensive when I saw the multiple facades and the deceptively small appearance of the building. I’m a Chicago ‘burbs native; I’m used to city-block-long neoclassical architecture for my museums. But this museum definitely bested my expectations. But from the first step into impressive lobby with that beautiful cobalt glass chandelier, I knew I had stumbled on something great.

Every experience in an art museum or gallery is memorable and challenging for me, because I want to be a curator. I find the dialogue between art and its context to be the most fascinating part of history. I keep a list of artists and pieces I want to research in my phone, and it doubled in size on Sunday. As I walked through the CAM, I took note of what was displayed, how it was shown (whether the museum setting around it was accurate to its original context), and the organization of the museum. And as much as I hate to admit it, I was impressed by a lot of the museum. There were many types of works that I hadn’t seen much of before, including their entire collection of Rookwood Pottery, which was a name I recognized from my internship in Collections at Miami’s Art Museum. Although I’d experienced pride in Chicago’s art museums when I explained some of the art that I was familiar to friends who visited with me, there is a difference between recognizing a Picasso and recognizing some obscure pottery company (that completely changed the pottery game at its height, by the way). So there was the first lesson: change it up and surprise your patrons.

But no one is perfect- the museum did fall victim to the trend of displaying African, Islamic, and Eastern art differently from Western art. What I mean by this is that some of the more obscure objects were still lacking information, several of the galleries they were in were very dimly lit or ridiculously cold, and the galleries themselves were towards the sides of the museum, areas that patrons may not think to go towards. This is problematic (and something I will avoid) because it subtly reinforces the ideas that these objects are foreign and distant from the rest of the art in the museum. It gives the sense that these are works that should be put to the side, from cultures that are in the dark. Of course, that is too long of a discussion for this blog post, but it is something that I have learned to avoid when I establish my career. But these conditions made me feel uncomfortable in these galleries- I felt like I was trespassing in the dimly lit parts and had to move faster to get back to warmth through the cold galleries. If I didn’t enjoy it, my future patrons wouldn’t either.

One thing that I would absolutely applaud the curator(s) for is for the inclusion of so many works by female artists. I have never had the experience of walking through a museum and noticing that I noticed so many female artists. I was deeply impressed. I was inspired by the amazing things that women have created, and how they were displayed just with just as much pride and dignity as the pieces by the men. As someone who has been told time and time again that because she is a girl, there are limits on her, seeing this was so empowering to me. The note to myself was made: show the diversity in your collection in your exhibits, as much as you are able to.

What I really loved and will definitely be copying from the curators at the CAM is the sense of comfort that was achieved in the galleries. There was a very easy flow between the galleries, achieved mostly by a logical order of the art and a careful attention to detail that was shown in how some of the art was set in more aesthetically pleasing situations, while other works were a little more hidden and acted like a treasure hunt. Some of the art that was originally in a hotel was set in a gallery that functioned like a hotel lobby- patrons could relax for a moment and reflect on the amazing things that they had seen, and get an idea f the original function of these pieces. There was never a time I felt a highbrow attitude in the museum, or in its patrons. That’s the key part- art is meant for the public in a public institution, so no one should feel left out. And I can’t imagine anyone feeling left out at the CAM. Thus the final lesson was learned: welcome your guests.


Celia Bugno is a junior at Miami University majoring in Art & Architecture History with a co-major in Arts Management and minor in Spanish. She plays as the Inside Center for the Women’s Rugby Football Club, and her favorite restaurant in Oxford is Scotty’s Brewhouse.

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