CINCINNATI -- Not many prominent museums have a wing devoted to local artists. The Museum of Fine Arts has no "Boston" floor, and one wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art would overflow with the works of New York artists. Yet Timothy Rub, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, where the new Cincinnati Wing debuted last May, insists that this recent addition is an important step in confirming his city's place as a cultural hub of the 19th century.
"Outside of the East Coast, Cincinnati has the longest and most interesting art heritage," says Rub, noting that the Cincinnati Art Museum opened just five years after the MFA, in 1881.
With the launch of the Cincinnati Wing, the addition of a striking new building downtown to house the Contemporary Art Center, and the reopening of the Taft Museum of Art in May (after two years of renovations by Boston's Ann Beha Architects), Cincinnati is reaffirming itself as a big-league art destination. If the names of the artists in the Cincinnati Wing fail to impress, the works surely make up for that. Lilly Martin Spencer was arguably the leading American woman painter in the mid-19th century. She specialized in scenes of domestic life, as in the oval painting "Patty-cake" (1855-58), where an elaborately dressed mother bounces a baby on her knee in front of a glowing fireplace.
Sculptor Hiram Powers created a marble bust of Nicholas Longworth (1850), an eccentric and progressive lawyer who financed the development of many young artists in town, including Powers, Spencer, and Robert Duncanson, one of the first African-American artists to gain international recognition. The landscape painter Thomas Worthington Whittredge also came from the area. In his work, "Landscape in Westphalia" (1853), a small boy looks lost in the bucolic German countryside.
In addition to the Cincinnati Wing, there are gems in the permanent collection that any museum would envy. Spanish artist Joan Miro first came to the United States in 1947 on commission to produce a mural for the Gourmet Restaurant in Cincinnati's just-built Terrace Plaza Hotel. The monumental work, more than 30 feet long, now stands across from the Museum Cafe. You can't help but be dazzled by the vivid blue background and the whimsical shapes and childlike figures that fill the canvas.
Those who viewed the recent Thomas Gainsborough retrospective at the MFA will remember the "Portrait of Miss Ann Ford" (1760), with her sweep of dress as she sits down to perform on the mandolin, which was on loan from Cincinnati. With it on the second floor here is Thomas Cole's "View Across Frenchman's Bay from Mt. Desert Island, After a Squall" (1845), purchased by a Cincinnatian in 1847. Light shimmers down from the pink clouds, illuminating the small schooner as it tries desperately to make its way through the whitecaps to shore. John Singer Sargent's "A Venetian Woman" (1887) is a life-sized portrait of a young woman with tender eyes and alluring parted lips. Lifting her skirt to show her ankles, she caused quite a stir among early viewers. This being the home of the Cincinnati Reds, how can we not see a painting of their most famous hitter, Pete Rose, painted by Andy Warhol, after Rose broke Ty Cobb's record for career hits in 1985.
The Contemporary Arts Center is best known as the focus of an important First Amendment legal case in 1990, when the museum displayed the graphic works of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The CAC always has been at the cutting edge of contemporary art, being one of the first American institutions to display Picasso's masterpiece "Guernica" (1937) and Warhol's Pop Art in 1963. Now it can lay claim to being the first American art museum designed by a woman, Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid.
Hadid described the design of her new building as a "three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of interlocking forms," according to a museum brochure. Indeed, it's a twisting maze of curved glass and cement, with metal stair ramps created by a roller coaster company somehow connecting the five levels of the structure. There are no right angles. Instead, walls protrude outward or inward and all ceilings are of varying heights. It's like walking into a circus of mirrors. The New York Times called it "the most important American building to be completed since the end of the Cold War," when the new CAC was unveiled in May.
With works hanging high on the walls or under staircases, curators have an interesting time putting together exhibitions. "You can't really do a chronological or linear exhibition," says Matt Distel, assistant curator. "It has to be more issue based."
A yearlong show called "Crimes and Misdemeanors" reexamines the political art of the 1980s and '90s. Hans Haacke's "Helmsboro Country" (1990) is a box of Marlboro cigarettes, now called Helmsboro, with a picture of the former US senator from North Carolina in the middle. The work was a response to Senator Jesse Helms's attack on the National Endowment of the Arts. Glenn Ligon tackles the controversial Mapplethorpe show with "Red Portfolio" (1993). White words against a black backdrop describe what you might see in a Mapplethorpe photograph. One of the nine panels reads: "A photo showing one man holding another man's genitals."
Upstairs, Polly Apfelbaum spent two backbreaking weeks installing her colorful velvet fragments into 15 large designs on the museum floor. Artists like Apfelbaum work best in this new setting, morphing luminous works within the given spaces -- say, around a column. Distel says her intricate patterns are not random, however.
"She carefully places each piece of fabric in position," he says. Apfelbaum's show runs through this month.
William Howard Taft might be Cincinnati's most famous son, but it was his half-brother Charles who left the city a legacy of art. Inside his home, a Federal-style wooden structure dating from the 1820s, Charles and his wife, Anna, assembled a diverse collection of fine and decorative art, from European paintings to Chinese porcelain. There are works by Rembrandt, Sargent, and Whistler, yet the most revered prize is the highly detailed ivory "Virgin and Child," created in the 13th century.
New gallery space, a lecture hall, and a garden have been added to what is now the Taft Museum of Art by architect Ann Beha, whose resum includes work on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the Dixon Gallery in Memphis. Benefactors like Charles Taft and Nicholas Longworth thrust Cincinnati into the art limelight, but modern-day philanthropists such as Lois and Richard Rosenthal, after whom the CAC is named, are helping the city thrive in the 21st century.
Newton-based writer Stephen Jermanok writes about the arts for Art & Antiques, Town & Country, and Boston magazine.
Cincinnati Art Museum
953 Eden Park Drive
Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission free, made possible by a gift from the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Foundation.
Contemporary Arts Center
44 E. Sixth St.
Hours Sunday, Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Monday, 11-9; Saturday, noon-6. Admission $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors, $4.50 for students and 3.50 for children 13 and under.
Taft Museum of Art
316 Pike St.
Expected to reopen May 15. Hours Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 11-8; Saturday, 10-8; Sunday, noon-5. Admission $7.
Toledo Museum of Art
2445 Monroe St.
Toledo, Ohio 43697
Open Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Friday, 10-10; Saturday, 10-4; Sunday, 11-5.