CREATING SOCIAL COHESION THROUGH THE HANDS OF ARTISTS. Cameron Kitchin is the Louis and Louise Dieterle Nippert Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, where he serves as the ninth director in the museum’s 137-year history. Since his appointment in 2014, Kitchin has led the museum to embrace its founding principles of inspiring people and connecting communities through the power of art. Cameron Kitchin previously served as Director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and as Executive Director of the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.
You are the Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum since 2014. How would you describe your experience?
It has been a joyous beginning to what I hope to be a long tenure in the community of Cincinnati that we now call home. The long appreciation for culture and for the visual arts in Cincinnati is seen through the great support, public and private, for this museum. I appreciate that the story of this museum is based in the founding of the city.
What is the story of the museum and what is its position in the community?
The museum was founded by a group of volunteer citizens who felt that it was essential to the life and growth of a young burgeoning city to have a great art museum in the European tradition. Our idea in Cincinnati was innovative from day one, in 1886. Unlike many other East Coast colleagues, this museum was founded based on the arts of our own community, blended with the broader story of art history. So the great collections today of European, American and Asian and African art were built with an eye to educating our population and providing teaching material for a growing community of artists and artisans.
How did you build the collection and what do you consider the masterpieces?
The collection was built through a blend of private donation and smart acquisitions by curators of the museum.
Do you continue to collect and add to the collection?
We do. Among the masterpieces in antiquities is our third millennium Cycladic figure, one of the largest of its type and a foundation for the study of western art. In European painting our major van Gogh, ‘Undergrowth with Two Figures’, was painted in June of 1890 in the last month of his life, during his final artistic flourish in Auvers-sur-Oise. It is the exemplar of his sous-bois, forest undergrowth paintings and is often called on by art historians for major exhibitions. Among the other masterpieces, our Franz Kline of 1960, ‘Horizontal Rust’, is one of the finest examples of the action paintings in the New York School. It is surrounded in the gallery by Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, among my personal art heroes.
“This museum was founded based on the arts of our own community, blended with the broader story of art history.”
The Cincinnati Art Museum front entrance at night. Credit: Don Ventre
Our entire collection of Rookwood Pottery is the collection of record for this important school of American ceramics, all from Cincinnati, Ohio. I would add that for me personally our John Singer Sargent, ‘A Venetian Woman’ (1882), is a prime example of his portraiture of anonymous figures. I think our Anselm Kiefer, another personal art hero, from 1996, is a perfect representation of the artist’s interest in mythology and European history. It is the story of Parsifal and Monsalvat and perhaps relates to mid-20th century European history and the artist’s own childhood.
I also find that our Grant Wood, the American painter, ‘Daughters of Revolution’ (1932) captures a moment in American history in a uniquely personal manner. In the Dutch Gallery, ‘The Music Party’ by Gerard ter Borch (circa 1675) is an example of both a trade and a fine art, and a subtle inclusion of sexuality in a time when sexuality was often unstated.
How many pieces do you have?
The collection is just over 68,000 works of art and growing.
How many visitors come here?
We have approximately 275-300,000 visitors a year, with additional outreach service in schools and neighbourhoods throughout the region.
Do you put on many exhibitions?
We do, and all of our exhibitions are based on new scholarship in our history and inspiring and connecting people.
Since you are Director which exhibitions have you staged?
For instance, our Cagnacci exhibition with the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture (FIAC) ‘Cagnacci: Painting Beauty and Death’ is a particular joy and pride for us. As was our Raphael exhibition ‘Sublime Beauty: Raphael’s Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn’, also with the able leadership of FIAC. From April 20th to August 12th 2018 our exhibition ‘Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China’ with our Chinese colleagues brings the tomb figures from Xian with a new catalogue and new research.
“Today we are in a new golden age for Cincinnati.”
What kind of a city is Cincinnati today?
Cincinnati is in a renaissance. We often refer to the late 19th Century as a highpoint for change and growth in our city. Today we are in a new golden age for our city.
I think it is in part based on our historical strengths, and in part by a young and entrepreneurial diverse population making Cincinnati their own. Large companies like Procter & Gamble, Macy’s and Kroger are based here, as is AK Steel, and many other growing companies, particularly in branding and consumer research. We have also a strong financial sector and importantly there is a civic sense that Cincinnati should be a great place to live and to raise a family. This is seen in our parks, museums and universities.
Cincinnati is one of the most generous cities to the arts in the United States. Our community arts fund ArtsWave is the largest in the country. We are famed for our Symphony, for our choral music, for our three art museums and our theatres. All are healthy and growing, including our ballet and opera.
Is it a young city?
It’s a city where young people are moving in today; we have a large influx of young people.
The opportunity to start businesses and an emerging ‘cool’ factor. The University of Cincinnati has 40,000 students and is part of the State university system of Ohio. Other major universities are nearby.
You were director of the Memphis Brooks Museum and before that of the Virginia Museum of Contemprorary Art. Is there a big difference here?
Each museum is uniquely wonderful in its own way. Some with larger collections, some with larger resources, some with longer histories, but I hope that each of the museums I have led have been marked by a deep commitment to community change.
Do you have an ideal museum in your mind?
I think we are creating it in Cincinnati, because of the balance and blend of the collections, of academics and of public service. Our museum was founded from the South Kensington School in London, that gave rise to the Victoria & Albert Museum. For me personally, I was raised in the galleries of the National Gallery of Art and of the much missed Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, the Whitney museum in New York, and my training grounds at the Harvard University Art Museums and the Fogg Museum.
Completion of the original Cincinnati Art Museum in 1886. Credit: Cincinnati Art Museum Archives
The Antiquities Gallery was recently reinstalled in 2015, through a partnership with the University of Cincinnati Department of Classics. Featured in the center of the photo, Lion Funerary Monument, circa 350 BCE.
Guests enjoying the exhibition Albrecht Dürer: The Age of Reformation and Renaissance.
The Great Hall represents the center of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and can be used as a gathering point during your visit. Credit: Don Ventre
The Mary R. and John J. Schiff Gallery highlights the Cincinnati Art Museum’s European Paintings collection.
Cincinnati Art Museum holds a monthly event, “Art After Dark”, which boasts specialized activities.
“America has become a center for global culture.”
What is your ambition for this museum?
In the abstract, a museum that makes Cincinnati a better place. In the concrete, that would mean an art museum that brings people together in the city and creates social cohesion through the hands of artists. This means tackling difficult civic questions and needed dialogue.
Do you think that museums and arts have a central role in America?
I think that first we are a nation of immigrants, and museums serve a necessary role in increasing cross cultural appreciation. But also, after World War 2, first New York and then the broader culture of America, has become a center for global culture. Museums have played, and continue to play, a key role in that position.
American museums are mostly private. Do they still have funds to buy new works of art to add to their collections even if prices are very high?
Not all museums are private, the majority, but there are also many State and City museums. It’s a blend. With the incredible acceleration of the art market in the 20th and 21st Centuries it is very difficult for museums to compete for acquisitions. At the top of the art market we depend on generous private collectors. We can still make a major impact with emerging and mid-career artists, and through exchange and smart curatorial work.
Do you add to your collection all the time?
Mostly in areas that connect to our collection, but as an academic institution we are not tightly connected to the market. When we acquire we intend to keep an object in perpetuity, and not as an investment. Thus market considerations are largely peripheral to our work. We are very interested in digital interpretation when it can be additive to the understanding of a work of art, and not a distraction.
Are you connected to other museums?
Yes, we are in constant communication with our colleagues around the world, by developing exhibitions, publishing, and lending works of art.
Portrait of Cameron Kitchin by Paula Norton.
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