Sunday, July 25, 2004

A colorful life, steeped in art

'Everything about this move seems right,' says the Contemporary Arts Center's new director

By Marilyn Bauer
Enquirer staff writer

Linda Shearer, the new director of the Contemporary Arts Center
She's driving cross-country next week with her 27-year-old son and his pet boa constrictor, Princess.

While this may seem unusual, for Linda Shearer, the new director of the Contemporary Arts Center, it's just another step in the colorful, circuitous path that has led her to Cincinnati.

This is, after all, the same woman whose brother runs a boutique circus featuring his pet elephant, Flora.

Shearer, 58, grew up on a Long Island, N.Y., estate with the children of one of America's wealthiest families and gave up the stage only after classmate Jill Clayburgh outperformed her in a college play.

There's something about her.

She has a nobility of spirit yet welcomes alternative views, an asset she plans to put to good use in running one of the country's premier venues for contemporary art.

She moves into the job formerly held by Charles Desmarais, the museum's director for nine years.

Desmarias left last year, seven months after the move from the CAC's former home on Fifth Street to its stunning new building at Sixth and Walnut streets, downtown.

Unafraid of controversy

The Contemporary Arts Center has generated controversy throughout its 65-year history, peaking when objections to a 1990 show of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs evolved into a courtroom spectacle. Hamilton County prosecuted the center and its then director, Dennis Barrie, on charges of "pandering obscenity." Both were acquitted.

Born: Long Island, N.Y.
Birthday: Feb. 13, 1946
Marital status: Widow
Children: son, Ivor Hartley Shearer, 27
Sarah Lawrence College, B.A. (1968)
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, graduate course work
Work experience
Williams College Museum of Art, director (1989-2004)
Museum of Modern Art, curator, painting and sculpture (1985-89)
Artists Space, executive director (1980-85)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, associate curator (1969-80)
Teaching experience
Williams College, undergraduate contemporary art and theory, graduate art history
School of Visual Arts, New York, lecturer, 20th-century art history
On good art:
"To me a good work of art is good when it hits on all cylinders - visual, intellectual and emotional. Something clicks."

On artists:

"I was always drawn to the way artists think, their imagination. I believe they are ahead of most of us in understanding what is going on, what is important and in seeing major shifts in the focus of art in general. It's really exciting to feel you are on the ground floor of what is going on in an artist's mind. It's not a linear process and my mind does not work that way."

On installation art:
"This is work that is not immediately accessible - one of the challenges in presenting contemporary art. With the best work there are layers. As you learn more and more your experience and understanding broaden. For many artists it's the mystery of the work, but there has to be something to draw you in, even if you don't understand it."

On art in the '70s:
"Artists were trying to take back control of their destinies commercially and intellectually. The art was expanding in ways that could not be contained by traditional walls - performance, installation art, Earth art. They were breaking down the confines of what we understood as traditional venues."
"Linda is one of the true gems in our field. She's a visionary leader who is fully appreciative of art made in the past, and one ever willing to support the art and artists of our time."
Jock Reynolds, Director, Yale University Art Gallery

"I was an intern at Artists Space in the early '80s when Linda was the director. I consider her my mentor and one of the people in this field that I look up to with the utmost respect. In particular, she taught me to always put the needs of the artist first. If you do that, everything else will fall into its proper place. I'm so excited for Cincinnati and for the museum. She's one of my heroes."
Ann Philbin, Director, UCLA Hammer Museum of Art

"The art world is going to feel the CAC has really made a great coup getting Linda to come here. She is very well regarded (internationally)."
Carl Solway, CAC board member

"She is very enthusiastic about coming to Cincinnati and working in our wonderful new building. I think that's great. With each new face is a new chapter."
Phillip C. Long, Director, Taft Museum of Art

"She will take the CAC to a new level."
Otto Budig, CAC board president and philanthropist
Business at the Contemporary Arts Center is booming, which is good news because the new building is considerably more expensive to run than the museum's former home above Walgreens on Fifth Street.

In July 2003, the CAC had 5,136 members. As of this July there were 7,051 members.

Attendance is up as well. The year before the CAC opened in the new Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, annual attendance was 76,709. From the building's opening on May 31, 2003, to May 31, 2004, 177,885 people visited the museum.

The UnMuseum for kids, which opened with the new building, had 177,000 visitors from May 2003 to May 2004.

One of the first showcases for contemporary art in the nation, the CAC is dedicated to showing the newest, latest and - some suggest - most confounding works of art by 21st-century artists. This is not new ground for Shearer, who has worked with contemporary art all her life. With her generous nature, flexible psyche and approachability, one suspects Shearer could bring patrons along willingly on the wildest of rides.

"When I was (director) at Williams (the college's art museum in Williamstown, Mass.), the undergraduates worked as docents," she says. "They were wonderful. ... The girls would have black fingernails and the boys would be in skirts. People would say, 'How can you have them represent the museum.' But that's what we were, a college museum."

Shearer's been on the job in Cincinnati for a week, although her belongings, including her personal collection of art - an Eva Hesse drawing, Tom Otterness plaster relief, Cindy Sherman photo, Tibetan thanka, three Joseph Beuys prints and her photographic portrait by Mapplethorpe - are still in Williamstown.

Fittingly, Shearer's new home, which she will share with her son, is a condominium that was previously the home of the late Harriet Frank Rauh, one of the founders of the Modern Art Society, precursor to the CAC.

Loves design

"Everything about this move seems right," she says, looking up at the CAC's box tower while seated at an outdoor table across Sixth Street at the restaurant Bella. "It reminds me of my first real job in 1969 at the Guggenheim (in New York). I had this feeling of exhilaration when I walked in. You can get that from architecture."

It's that combination of vision and joy that made Shearer the ideal candidate for the CAC job, according to Joe Hale, the center's chairman of the board. "She has a very strong curatorial vision (and) she is warm and engaging," Hale says. "She approaches the job with a sense of adventure."

In her Carol Channing-like voice, Shearer refers to London-based architect Zaha Hadid's prize-winning building design as a "major piece of art." The building has been criticized about its suitability for showing art, but Shearer sees compatibility in the building and its contemporary art contents.

"The core audience has really put its all into creating this new building," Shearer maintains. "Much of what will go on inside will be a response to the building. This will provide Cincinnati with stimulation and excitement and provocative exhibitions that cover historical background, then bring things up-to-date. There is a certain responsibility to provide background in combination and balance with new art."

Life with the Whitneys

Shearer's first step into the art world came early. Her father, a former polo player from England, trained horses for Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, living with his wife and five children on the Whitney estate.

"Flora Whitney Miller (Whitney's sister) also lived on the estate," says Shearer. "It was their mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Flora really took up a torch for the museum. It was largely due to her influence that I had my first exposure to art," Shearer says.

Listening to Shearer tell her story, it is easy to see the teenage girl who went to work at New York's Museum of Modern Art and who was so moved by working "in a place where art and people came together" that she learned the museum's entire collection by refilling the postcard stands in the gift shop.

"I was 17 that summer," she remembers. "I fell in love with museum work and with the dynamic of people interacting with art."

You can see the girl - the same short, straight blond hair, the same earnest concentration, the enthusiasm - in the adult, who is fast to flash a smile accompanied by a devilish twinkle in her light green eyes.

Shearer is anything but pretentious. Where some directors hide behind their Armani suits or too-cool-for-school armor of expensive haircuts and all-black ensembles, Shearer is a breath of fresh air in a cherry-red linen blouse fluttering over an ecru T-shirt and black slacks.

She's real in a way that's rare in the rarified circles of the art world.

First, a stab at theater

Theater came before art, Shearer says. Her older brother, five-time Obie Award-winner Ivor David Balding, was an off-Broadway producer in the '60s and brought home actors who talked up the world of theater to the teenage Shearer.

Balding became the executive producer of the Big Apple Circus in the early 1980s, then left to start his own one-ring European-style circus named after the elephant he had rescued after its mother was killed by poachers. But despite her early exposure to show biz, Shearer did not follow in her brother's footsteps.

After her theatrical epiphany onstage with Clayburgh, Shearer circled back to the other passion that defined her childhood. She began taking art courses. One took students on tours of artists' studios.

"That was a real turning point," Shearer says. "It was inspiring. I realized ... even if they were famous, they were just like you and me. That contact was enormously exciting and provided real insight into the artists' process."

Guggenheim introduced 'edge'

Still a student in 1966, she married Hartley Shearer, a video artist and volunteer counselor for at-risk kids. "It was love at first sight," she says. After a stint in India with the Peace Corps ("It was the '60s") and a return to working at the MoMA gift shop, a chance meeting with a former professor propelled Shearer into a curator's assistant job at the Guggenheim Museum.

"Even as a young assistant she was extremely competent," says former Guggenheim curator Diane Waldman, who became Shearer's mentor.

"She helped me with everything from loans to catalogs to working with the artists and collectors directly. Her success came from her personality. I found her very energetic and enthusiastic about art."

Waldman was working on a new talent series, so the two women made the rounds of artists' studios. "I really developed an interest in artists who were not well-known and who were either young or on-the-edge," Shearer says. "That became the focus of my work."

Her first show under Waldman's tutelage was for Minimalist painter and sculptor Eva Hesse in 1972. "An amazing experience," she says of the show, which was the first memorial exhibition and retrospective of Hesse's work after her 1970 death.

"It was a measure for me on how you could make an exhibition, how it's installed and how the works relate to each other."

Linda Shearer's career continued to blossom in the '70s. She produced painter Brice Marden's first group museum show and gave African-American sculptor Martin Puryear his first show in a New York museum.

After 11 "fabulous" years at the Guggenheim, she moved on in 1980 to become director of the experimental Artists Space.

"It was a time when art itself was changing," Shearer says. "I loved working with artists at the beginning of their careers or artists that were not established yet. That's the closest parallel to the CAC, as a noncollecting institution."

At the CAC, Shearer sees her role as a teacher and overseer working closely with curators and staff to capitalize on the momentum generated by the building.

"It is the best we could have hoped for," says former CAC acting director Andree Bober. "She balances administrative (and) curatorial experience. ... I think she is the type of person who can bring together all the great resources the CAC has, and bring it to its highest potential."

A new life

From Artists Space, Shearer returned to MoMA in 1985 to run its interdisciplinary PROJECTS series. Four years later she would move to Williams.

"We had lived in New York for 20 years," she says. "It's a tough place but a great place, but we were ready for a change. As much as I loved the Modern (MoMA), I missed what I had at Artists Space - being in charge and having a more agile organization. I wanted to be involved in the teaching of art and the learning of art. I really wanted to go to a college museum."

In her 15 years at Williams, she directed the development of critically acclaimed multimedia exhibitions, many of which traveled to other institutions.

Then her husband had a stroke in 2001.

"It was a rough couple of years," she says. "The town really rallied. I spent the happiest days of my life at Williams, and the saddest. After my husband died, I knew I had to stabilize. The CAC came along and it made enormous sense."

While talking, Shearer has made her way to the top floor of the CAC building. She's been sharing her vision for the future as she walked through five floors of galleries.

"People need just the smallest amount of encouragement and information to unlock the key to a work of art," Shearer says. "Art plays a thousand roles in our lives: It can be a catalyst for social change, spiritual, conceptual or truly physical. Art affects our heads and our hearts. When those chords are struck, you have changed another human being.

"That's what's so exciting about art today - there are so many ways of making ... (and) interpreting art. You don't want to dumb down an exhibition by overexplaining it. It's the experience that is at the heart of it."

Close examination

An exhibition by students from an Uptown Arts summer school program catches Shearer's eye. As she strolls over to a collection of architectural plans for dream houses the kids have made, she greets workers and colleagues as they pass.

She looks closely at the work, especially delighted by a home designed by a 10-year-old who has included an amusement park, butler's quarters, VIP club and star-gazing room.

"Kids really get architecture," she says, winding her way back to the subject of the CAC's building.

"One of the things I found exciting here was the space. And there's so much excitement and enthusiasm on the part of the city leaders. I was really knocked over by the support for the arts in this community."

Shearer can't help but break out in a big smile.


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