Sunday, September 28, 2003

Desmarais' return to curating comes as no shock to art scene

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Charles Desmarais
Few people in the arts community expressed surprise at the announcement Tuesday that Charles Desmarais was stepping down as director and chief executive officer of the new Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.

Four months after the center's grand opening in May, Desmarais said he will take the new position of curator at large July 1 after a six-month paid sabbatical.

"I figured he was going to leave anyway," says artist Michael Scott. "To his credit he created a building and a permanent location for the (Contemporary Arts Center). One could really say he was a hired gun who came in to do that and it's time to move on. Maybe he prefers to work with artists rather than raise money."

Weston Art Gallery director Dennis Harrington says the process of getting the new center built was very stressful. Desmarais "has talked about this six-month sabbatical for a long time. He's always had an interest in curating, and this is something he wants to go back to."

Back to what he loves

Desmarais was named Contemporary Arts Center director in April 1995. In his previous position as director of the Laguna (Calif.) Art Museum, he did some curating.

"In other institutions I have been able to do both curating and administrating at the same time," Desmarais says. "This new position is an opportunity for me to grow and to have the organization grow."

"We had to keep him engaged," says Joe Hale, chairman of the Rosenthal Center's board of trustees. "We think this new position is going to let us do that."

During Desmarais' tenure, museum membership has increased from 2,056 to 6,232. Admissions income has risen from $19,585 to $143,362, the endowment has grown from $1,182,647 to $6,115,106, and the annual budget more than tripled in the same period.

Of the more than 120 shows presented since May 1995, Desmarais curated a survey of Tim Hawkinson's work and a group show of prominent Cuban artists.

"I loved doing that," he says.

He co-curated Paul Kos: Everything Matters, A Retrospective that will open at the center in June and has been in discussions with senior curator Thom Collins on a show of ambient art.

A $37 million mark

Most significant, however, has been the "house that Charles built" - the $37 million Rosenthal Center, a contemporary structure dramatically cantilevered over the intersection of Sixth and Walnut streets.

The center was declared an "instant icon" by Architecture magazine and "the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War" by The New York Times.

Desmarais says he doesn't know where he will go on his sabbatical, which begins Jan. 1. It will, he says most likely be New York or Los Angeles, but he hasn't ruled out Europe or staying in Cincinnati.

"This whole thing has been a shakedown cruise" he says. "We haven't done bad."


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