Sunday, July 18, 1999

CAC is contemporary 60

With its new home on the horizon, downtown arts center still breaking

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A photomontage of the new Contemporary Arts Center shows how it will look on the corner of Sixth and Walnut.

| ZOOM |
        Picture the opening of the new Contemporary Arts Center: a gala event, held in a gallery designed by a world-famous architect, a center unlike any in the nation.

        Celebrity guests arrive from all over the world. Artists, art dealers, museum directors — everybody who is anybody.

        That's likely to happen when the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art opens in 2001.

        And that's exactly what did happen when the CAC's current home opened in September 1970.

  • What: Contemporary Arts Center
  • When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
  • Where: 115 E. Fifth St., downtown.
  • Admission: $3.50, $2 seniors and students. free to members and free to all on Mondays.
  • Information: 721-0390.
  • Now showing: Atelier van Lieshout, through Aug. 22. In the Kitchen With Liza Lou, through Aug. 29: Drawing into Sculpture; Martin Puryear, through Aug. 29: Sitcoms, Video Works by Matt Marello, through Aug. 22.
        Cincinnatians tend to think of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) as a small, local institution seeking international status with its groundbreaking Zaha Hadid-designed building.

        What the Rosenthals — and others in the art world — knew was that the CAC has been in the forefront of contemporary art since its founding 60 years ago. It was the third U.S. museum to deal exclusively with contemporary art.

        It led the art world 30 later, when its current gallery, designed by noted Chicago architect Harry Weese, was built.

        The building was such an innovation, everyone wanted to be here. “Dukes, duchesses, dealers, artists; they came from Paris, Rome, Milan, London, from New York, San Francisco, from everywhere,” William A. Leonard, CAC director from 1964 to 1971, says of the 1970 gala.

        The Rosenthals hope the CAC gets such attention again. With their $5 million gift, announced last month, the Rosenthals want to make sure the new building happens.

Three women begin it all
        It was 1939 when three Cincinnati women — Betty Pollack Rauh, Peggy Frank Crawford and Rita Rentschler Cushman — decided the city needed a society to encourage interest in modern art.

        “We bemoaned the fact that nothing painted after 1913 ever brightened the walls of our museum,” Mrs. Cushman wrote in a catalog for the CAC's 50th anniversary.

        “Everybody was very helpful,” recalls Ms. Rauh, who was 23 years old at the time.

        Edward Warburg, a family friend, was on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “He put us in touch with Alfred Barr, who gave us a lot of good advice,” Mrs. Rauh says by phone from her home in Yellow Springs. Alfred Barr was Museum of Modern Art director.

        The women named their organization the Modern Art Society. It was only the third such art organization in the nation.

        “I think we were on the leading edge,” Mrs. Rauh says. “There was the Museum of Modern Art, and a few private galleries, but that was about all.”

        Mr. Leonard says the others were the Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929, and the Chicago Art Club, founded in 1936.

        “There were practically no modern pictures in Cincinnati galleries at the time,” Ms. Rauh says.

        “To find something to show, you had to go to New York or Chicago, but we discovered that there were a few good private collections. They were always very nice about lending things to us.”

"Guernica" shown here
        The Modern Art Society put on eight exhibitions in its first five years. The shows took place in galleries at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Among the artists shown were Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, George Grosz, Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis.

        The fourth was a huge Picasso exhibition that featured the artist's masterpiece “Guernica,” which was 3 years old at the time.

        The society also operated a lending gallery for local artists. Innovative works were encouraged. (That means more innovative than the local artwork selected for Cincinnati Art Museum's annual exhibitions.) Art could be loaned from the society for $5 a month.

        In 1953, the Modern Art Society got its own gallery when Cincinnati Art Museum gave it space in its basement. The society called the gallery the Contemporary Arts Center and renamed itself.

        Nine years later, when the CAM wanted to build a new wing (the Adams-Emery Wing), the CAC gallery was lost in the new design.

        In 1962, CAC director Allon Schoener was searching for a new location.

        “Allon Schoener wanted to bring the CAC downtown,” says Mr. Leonard, who was designing catalogs for the CAC. “They were remodeling the Carew Tower and he got a whole floor for the CAC. That was where he showed Pop Art for the first time anywhere.”

        The Carew Tower space was lost by the time Mr. Schoener became curator at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1964, and Mr. Leonard stepped in.

        “When I became director,” Mr. Leonard says, “the Contemporary Arts Center was a card table, a chair and a telephone in the basement of the Taft Museum.

        “Three months later we had a gallery on West Fourth Street with an exhibition that ended up going to the Museum of Modern Art.”

        Titled Motion and Movement at the CAC, the show became The Responsive Eye at MOMA. “That set the pace for us because all of a sudden we knew that no matter how kooky what we were doing seemed, we knew were on the right track,” Mr. Leonard says.

First for Warhol
        From 1963 to 1970, the CAC was on the fourth floor of 113 W. Fourth in the Women's Exchange Building.

        “We were the first museum organization to show Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, and they all became very good friends,” Mr. Leonard says.

        “We were on our way, but we were so popular we couldn't stay in the building. We were having 2,000 people to openings and the Fire Department was going to close us.

        A new center, on the second floor of a new building at 115 E. Fifth St., was designed by Mr. Weese. “He was considered one of the 10 most important living architects at the time,” Mr. Leonard says. Cost of the gallery was $800,000.

        Monumental Art, the exhibition that opened the CAC's present gallery space, was the largest exhibition ever shown in the city, filling the CAC, the Mercantile Arcade and spilling out into Government Square and the new Fountain Square Plaza.

        Huge works by Clement Meadmore, Mark diSuvero, George Sugarman and others were displayed outdoors. Works by David Smith, Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson and scores of other top name artists filled the new gallery.

        “When we opened we had 4,000 members,” Mr. Leonard says.

        At the time there were only four or five other contemporary arts centers in the nation, and none with their own gallery space.

        “It was their own gallery but not in their own building,” Ms. Rauh says. The gallery, above a drugstore, has had no way to expand or become more visible to the public.

Outlandish, serious
        Budget problems almost closed the CAC in 1971, but it revived under director Jack Bolton, a former Hughes High School art teacher.

        He presented some of the most outlandish exhibitions in CAC history. Artists today especially remember Eat Art, a large and hilarious 1972 show in which artists were invited to create edible works. The highlight of the opening was a man taking a bath in a tub of mashed potatoes.

        There were serious shows as well, including many that recognized new trends before the New York museums discovered them.

        The 1978 exhibition Arabesque, for instance, identified a new decorative trend in art that was quickly picked up and claimed by New York museums.

        In 1975, Mr. Bolton created the first museum exhibition of video art and took it to Brazil as the U.S. contribution to the Sao Paolo Biennial.

        “The center has had a lot of important directors,” says Charles Desmarais, director since 1995.

        “Allon Schoener went from here to do the Harlem on My Mind show at the Metropolitan Museum. Jack Bolton did the Sao Paolo Biennial. Robert Stearn is one of the leading authorities on performance art and brought his expertise here.”

        Dennis Barrie put the CAC in world headlines when he showed the homo-erotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and went to court to defend the CAC in 1990.

"Into a new phase"
        Now the CAC is making headlines again, with Zaha Hadid's exciting design for its own building, the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.

        “I think the CAC is going into a new phase,” Mr. Desmarais says. “It's gone from being a place you had to go find — to a place that's visible and available to everybody.

        “It will be fully integrated into the fabric of the community, a large open building that will be part of the community and not separate from it.”

        Part of the new building will be the “Unmuseum,” a new concept, where artists will be commissioned to make art that will involve children in its creation.

        “It's a logical extension of what we have always done. Kids always get what we do much faster than adults,” Mr. Desmarais says.

        There will be lots of attention given to the opening exhibition in the new Rosenthal Center.

        “It will have to be something that will be great fun for the local community and it also has to be something credible for the larger arts audience outside the city,” Mr. Desmarais says.

        As for the gallery that Mr. Leonard built and which has served the CAC for half of its history, Mr. Desmarais says, “it is still a great space. The last time Zaha Hadid was in Cincinnati, she said what a great space it is.

        “We don't know yet what we'll do with it. We may have exhibitions in both locations for a while.”

Center's home will be downtown landmark

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