Some Thoughts on the CAM Expansion

I finally got to see the expansion model of the Cincinnati Art Museum that’s proposed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects, and I have a few questions. If anyone has seen it, or has read about it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

First, is a new tower the right strategy for the site? One of the charming features of Mt. Adams is its massing of small structures on the hillside. Why not a mass of smaller connected forms that build on each other? I understand the want of visual monumentality for such a project and such a client, but is the “ivory tower high above the freeway” the best statement for the CAM to make? I think it may run the risk of seeming elitist, in a town that’s not necessarily geared toward the arts in the first place.

Presumably, the proposed sculpture garden would tie the CAM’s campus into its park setting but, right now, it seems very disjointed to me; I can’t understand how the old and new pieces would translate into a coherent visitor experience. A permanent site for large sculptures is exciting, though I’m imagining something along the lines of the DeCordova Sculpture Park, and the scale and setting of this plaza will actually be nothing like that.

Intent in contemporary architecture isn’t always obvious, so a certain degree of obviousness [The Ascent ascending, for instance] can actually be a good thing. But a tulip? I know this model is a sketch, not a commitment, but why present the public with such a seemingly arbitrary form? Coming from a Dutch firm, this almost seems like a joke, and I can’t help but be reminded of another Dutch firm and the jokes embedded in its work. Or, Claes Oldenburg.

This is certainly an exciting time for the CAM as it envisions the possibilities for its future. It’s exciting, too, for those of us who care about such matters. I’d love to hear thoughts from others who have seen the model and thought about the context of this project.

The photo above is via Sara Pierce’s blog. For more details of the plan read her New Cincinnati Art Museum Plan: I Have to Ask, What ARE They Thinking? and So, What Did Aaron Say about the Art Museum Expansion/Renovation?

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8 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the CAM Expansion

  1. The last I heard of the proposed renovation, the community was still fighting to keep the old Academy building from being demolished (which I supported). I’m a little out of touch here, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Take the following with a grain of salt, as I have yet to see the model in person:

    After reading yours & the corresponding articles, I think overall it sounds like a good plan. I have a long but subtle history with the place – my great uncle attended the Art Academy, I worked at the museum during special events when I was younger, and my ex-girlfriend worked in a high-level position for quite a few years – all which allowed me into the inner sanctum of the place (literally and socially). Thus, I’m glad they decided to stay in Eden Park (where it was founded), but (as is stated elsewhere) they have always been hidden in the trees & separated by the highway from the traffic they want, and have never had enough space for parking or they’re expansive unseen collections.

    In their constant search for ways to increase traffic and notoriety, they recently tore down some trees and lit the side of the building facing the highway – a small step. I think the tower – whatever shape it takes – will aid in this and become a welcome addition. Though I do agree that it is somewhat of an arbitrary form, at least it steps outside Cincinnati a bit, which is nice. But to explain its intent isn’t out of the question – why a tulip? Is this supposed to somehow relate to Eden Parks flowering park setting? I agree, Maya, that (if only) because it’s a Dutch firm, it needs to be something other than a tulip.

    In response to the magnitude of the structure, I think it can be incorporated nicely – even if it’s through something simple like a coherent exterior material reflective of the main building in some way. And if it’s not integrated well, I think that alone will reflect Cincinnati’s current disjointed amalgam of architectural styles. Either way, the Mt. Adams/Eden Park/East Walnut Hills area is peppered with condo high-rises and buildings of varying sizes, in addition to the erratic topography of the area, so I don’t think the tower would be totally out of place in my opinion. It will, in the end, give the museum what it wants – a giant metaphorical billboard.

    And yes, this plan “up on the hill” may seem elitist, but after all, isn’t that what museums house and ultimately portray? In fact, isn’t that what the fine arts in general have represented throughout modern history? Maybe that’s the perception because there aren’t significant crowds for the events that some people attend on a particular day. Personally, I would disagree that Cincinnati isn’t geared toward the arts – Cincinnati is conservative, but we have an extremely rich arts history and have an enormous current offering for a city of our size, with an incredibly generous citizenry filling the funds every year (http://www.nptimes.com/07Mar/npt-070315-1.html). I think the fact that we have so many different arts organizations, events, and museums, with the consistently high standards that they strive for and achieve, says a lot about the people and the culture here – it’s what makes us stand apart from the rest.

  2. I don’t buy it. There may be a need to increase visibility, but does it need to be so literal? It seems to me that an expansion, more work on display and greater accessibility (in terms of audience and pedestrians) can be accomplished without a sore thumb, or tulip.

    Matt, I think that you are right about museums being inherently elitist and Cincinnati having a rich arts history. I would argue that this model is dying. While there is definitely a place for this “high culture” increasingly people and institutions are blurring the lines between the high and low and thereby reaching a broader audience.

    I would like to see this institution become more down to earth and rely less on symbolic architectural gestures and more on the daily experience of its visitors. I suppose some of the plan is geared towards this, but the symbolism does seem kind of arrogant. I wish that the plan would reach out to the rest of the neighborhood more by growing towards the other energy in the area. I don’t know what that would entail, but I am sure there are connections to be made. From the descriptions it seems like it will become more insular.

  3. First off, I just want to make it clear that I’m not hating on the CAM or the architects. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since Betsky’s hire, and it’s really exciting for me to see this model as one solution to the CAM’s issues. A museum’s expansion is a rare opportunity for its broad repositioning, and that’s exactly what’s happening here. That said, there’s nothing inevitable about this proposal [not yet, anyway], which is why I’m discussing it.

    Matt, you’re absolutely right that, for a city its size, Cincinnati has a rich and varied arts scene with many institutions. That said, the arts are certainly not relevant to everyone, and perhaps not even to most people [which may be true everywhere].

    In recent years, many cultural institutions have been rethinking their roles and audiences and consequently developing new kinds of programming to broaden their appeal. Local examples include: the CAM’s One World Wednesdays, the CAC’s 44 series, the bloggers’ convention at the Mercantile, and the Taft’s “No Sleep Til Brooklyn.” I’ve criticized some of those specific efforts [remember the CAM’s walking tour of its best make-out spots?!?], but I completely agree with the principle. Given this expansion project, the CAM has a chance to not only get more space and increase physical visibility, but perhaps rethink the sort of art institution it is and how it’s experienced by visitors.

    And so, I question the tower. I wonder if its scale will be perceived as a bold move or an arrogant one, as a move to integrate into its surrounding community or to set itself apart. It’s interesting to try to understand, through whatever this model implies, how exactly the CAM is trying to change and grow. Is the goal a populist reinvention [like the Brooklyn Museum] or a starchitect-aided move up into the “world class” of arts institutions [I’d cite the Denver Art Museum, but I haven’t seen it since its expansion]?

    [I have to add that, while Neutelings Riedijk Architects is an accomplished firm, it is not the typical “starchitect” name for such a high-profile project, which makes watching the progress from the sidelines infinitely more interesting to me.]

  4. Thanks for responding, mike. Some thoughts:

    What is it that you don’t buy? That they’ve decided against the subversive marketing efforts of tagging buildings with their logo?
    I think in today’s world ‘visibility’ does need to be literal. Especially with the amount of marketing that we’re all bombarded with everyday, you have to go that extra step to get noticed and maintain a psychological, everyday presence. Even in the early days, if you look at old pictures of the museum & Roookwood Pottery (for example – the other old institution on the hill), there was nothing really to block the view AND there was the incline leading right up to their doorstep. If that isn’t literal I don’t know what is. Obviously everyone knows that the museum exists (existed) and most know where it is and how to get there – exception: tourists. It is not easy to find your way to – and through – Eden Park or Mt. Adams if you’ve never been there.

    In terms of accessibility through display as an alternative to actual construction (shows, events, expanded catalog, etc.), this has been done for YEARS. In fact, most arts org in the city have been doing this – free docent tours, expanded kids areas & events, ‘popular’ shows, weekend social events, expanded technology, better signage, lower prices, group discounts, pop culture inclusion, not to mention donors like the Rosenthals bringing free admission to the museum and free arts classes to the inner city. Everyone tries to get the attention of the populous, everyone tries to increase attendance, and everyone (in the arts) needs money. Unfortunately, for example, the old CAC found that these efforts were still not enough, so they brought in a famous architect to add the rich diversity that Cincinnati skyline to build a new building. Not a lone monolith like the tulip would be, but pretty darn literal in terms of marketing.

    You are right that the elitist perception is dying, but it is in no way lifeless. Have you ever walked through the Taft Museum? Try it without wearing a suit. Ever been to functions at the CAM (not the weekend liquor-fests, the real functions)? They’re not lowbrow events pandering to curious onlookers – they’re for a certain class; mainly their friends. The general events and kids-functions are fine, and friendly, but if the “high culture” model is dying and a broader audience is being reached, why are they expanding at all? Because either their attendance really isn’t that great, or they just want to expand their physical presence and fill their coffers. Justifiable either way in my opinion because I enjoy their offerings.

    You’re right that the daily experience is important – the most important thing, really – but in my opinion (as with a lot of the arts) the experience is what you make of it. Walking through the museum (which is incredibly unique and enjoyable, with an incredible collection for a place like Cincinnati) is a self-guided event most of the time. I’m going to go out on limb and say that’s not their problem. I may be wrong, but I’d venture to say that a lot of people don’t think as deeply as you and Maya. We live in a Nascar-loving, extreme-conservative, self-deprecating Bible-belt, and no amount of marketing is going to bring them to an art museum or opera every weekend (if at all), like they are drawn to a Bengals game. In spite of that, look at everything we have!

  5. I guess what I don’t buy is the intent to become more visible. But I wouldn’t fault the decision makers for that, or claim that the plan doesn’t accomplish that. You make some good points about where the institutions sit with regards to the populace. CAM (and its architects and directors) are responsible doing what it takes to maintain their place in the shaping of Cincinnati’s civic culture and they believe that this institution is important as a symbol for the city.

    One thing that stood out to me about Sara’s article was the whole ownership issue. That idea that it is “our” museum is only true in so far as there is an “us”. I guess I am just not a part of that “us”. I am not really a fan of the “high arts” or Architecture, but enjoy watching as a spectator of urban spectacles.

  6. Have you ever noticed that Christ Hospital has the most visible beacon in the city? Why is that? I think the Museum is correct in trying to call attention to their dramatic site on top of a cliff overlooking the city. The tulip works for me, especially if gracefully lit from the interior, like light shining through petals.

  7. I had not, but my impressions of Cincinnati are heavily skewed. I had to Google that building just to remember what it looks like.

    I agree about playing up the drama of the site although, again, this kind of form isn’t the only way to accomplish that. The tulip could definitely be cool; I guess I’m more bothered because I know this was done a Dutch firm than I am by the form per se.

    Aside from that, I do wish that the campus would align itself more with the neighborhood. Last week, I walked to the CAM, and it’s not an obvious walk. You essentially walk up a winding driveway and eventually spot the back of the building, and then walk around and past the parking lot to enter. I would love to see that addressed, and I think the sculpture garden could be configured as a visual connector.

  8. Pingback: Oh neat! The proposed CAM expansion…. « Stop Working, Start Living

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