Monday, January 9, 2012

The Destruction of a Building.

This is part 2 of a series of posts about the travesty that is the "updating" of the Art Academy building.
A drawing of the building from 1885 showing the building before it was attached to the museum complex.
Again, I am just going to continue the discussion with a second letter I sent out on Wednesday, October 26, 2005 after they offered up a presentation of the building as if it were a rickety old barn about to fall over. It was a presentation with an agenda.
Concerned Citizens of Cincinnati:

The Cincinnati Art Museum is proposing a Facility Master Plan for some ambitious growth. The museum is presenting ideas and options at six stations located throughout the museum complex. Essentially there are two plans, of which the most clearly touted option involves destroying the wonderful and historically important Art Academy. Built in 1887, it was designed by the great Architect, James W. McLaughlin.

Please go to the museum, have a look at the plans and voice your opinion.

I attended the member’s forum held on Monday and would like to share my thoughts. I definitely have some concerns about the Museum’s presentation.

The Master Plan presented to the members on Monday was biased and manipulative. Instead of presenting a range of options, the Museum offered only two — in effect, a “right” one and a “wrong” one!  This Master Plan could well have said right at the beginning, "If you are foolish enough to think the Art Academy building should be saved, we are here to help you understand how ridiculous that would be."

As I viewed the stations, I saw and heard a lot of "Ours isn't as big as theirs" comparisons to other museums, calculated to demonstrate our inequities. Since when does size matter?  We have a top notch museum!  These discussions of needed growth at all costs sound like those of a company catering to its stock holders who demand, "We must grow or die!" Did I miss something?  The museum is still a non-profit organization isn't it?  It's not the size of your museum that matters; it’s how you use it. Why should the CAM be concerned about how flashy, new and competitive it is? That is a job best left to the Contemporary Art Center. The trend in numerous museums is a move away from deep, quiet and studied scholastic thought, towards flashy pop culture. Is this really the direction the CAM should go?  This flashy plan could result in the bulldozing of building that, while it may not be glistening with new glass and steel, has a stately presence that is timeless.

The Art Academy build is a fine example of American Romanesque Architecture.  Its beautiful exterior is the jewel of the entire museum complex.  One plan keeps the building, yet butts an addition along the façade.  The second, and most developed plan, destroys the Academy building and replaces it with a giant rectangle. We would be replacing an architecturally significant building with a box. 

The Cincinnati Art Museum Facility Master Plan is using some bombastic rhetoric to push for a larger and snazzier plan that expands over the soon-to-be razed Academy building. One reason the museum offers for razing the building is that, "The Academy has been considerably compromised and left in bad condition." Has it really? Three beautiful floors remain. While it has been altered, it is a strong presence that is still quite beautiful and well worth saving. Cathedrals in Europe have been considerably altered and governments still work to preserve and save them.

When we were directed toward station 3 in the Academy building where we expected to hear the pros and cons of saving the building, the tour conveniently led one through the unimpressive back hallways of the Academy building itself. There, in the Academy building, which, in all fairness, is in need of restoration, I listened for the "pros" but did not hear any.

Information was given in a very negative way, discussing only the problems and concerns of the Old Academy building. Missing was an option that restores the Old Academy building to its original glory?  There was no discussion of its great history, or of the days when it was one of the nation’s top training centers for young painters.  A number of paintings produced by graduates of the early Academy hang in the museum’s collection. While the interior may seem unimpressive after walking through the decorated walls of the museum galleries, remember, it was built to be a working studio building for training painters, and for that function it is one of the finest surviving examples. 

Another complaint frequently brought up as an unsolvable problem, is that the Academy building is built a half floor off from the main building. I’ve always been under the impression that getting from one level to another is a fairly simple architectural idea.  It is probably one of the earliest innovations in architecture, right after the idea of constructing a roof! But here we sit and scratch our heads over 6 or 7 feet.

Questionable statistics were often used to push the CAM’s agenda, perhaps the most egregious being their complaint that they are only able to show 3% of the Museum's collection.  This sounds compelling enough, unless you’re aware that all but the smallest museums display only a fraction of their collection. It is interesting to note that this was one of the few statistics utilized by the Museum that was not compared to those of other museums. In fact, the largest portion of the CAM collection is made up of drawings and prints that are light sensitive. They are safely stored in controlled environments for preservation, and are only placed in the galleries for a limited time. At present the museum shows the best of its collection. This is as it should be.

The final station, explaining the need for educational space was laughable. Here again the numerical comparison of the CAM to various other museums was disingenuous. They claimed to have only 1700 square feet of educational space. Apparently the only space now available to the museum for education is a small room which was last used as the museum café.  When I asked about the huge differences between the square footage, I was told that the other museums may be including their lecture halls.  OK, why are we not including our lecture hall?  What exactly is the Cincinnati museum using their lecture hall for? I called the Toledo Museum of Art, and their huge number (40,000 sq feet) includes a Fine Arts center in which the University of Toledo offers art classes. So this is not really a fair comparison. I have always considered the galleries hung with art as educational space.  I asked the Toledo museum what they label as educational space.  Interestingly, they feel that almost all of their spaces serve an art-educational purpose.

It seems to me, and to several other attendees who later voiced their opinions, that there was no serious attempt to make a professional, viable plan to preserve the Academy building. On the other hand, the plan without the Academy building was expertly landscaped and polished with all the bells and whistles. Their presentation was carefully crafted to discredit the option saving the Academy building. It is the classic Straw Man argument, useful in a debate, but falling far short of the kind of considered discussion that this situation calls for.
Cincinnati deserves to see a third version of the plan, one that includes the Historic Art Academy building, with the bells and whistles too.  If one wants to consider destroying a building with such historic presence, it ought not to be done lightly.  I believe we must save the Academy building!  Once it is gone, it is gone forever.

Please know that I support and understand the museum's quest for more gallery space. I also recognize that he last few updates to the museum have been quite positive. The Cincinnati Wing is a shinning example of what this museum is capable of and how proud we should be of its past.  How many other cities of this size can field such an impressive collection of work by local artists? The Art Academy building is the seed from which that talent germinated! Despite this fact, I find their current plans to be utterly inadequate. So inadequate in fact, that one could make the case that this is not just about trying to save a building, but is a major social and political issue concerning the goals of our public institutions.

The point could be made that I should just appreciate the two choices, and that the museum could just as easily not have offered us any chance to review their plans.  Such an argument would ignore the fact that the Cincinnati Art museum is not a private institution but a public one.  The museum's administration is not made up of elected officials that have the power to make major decisions for us. They should not make major decisions, and then veil them in a seemingly democratic process while offering up only two woefully unequal choices.

Webster defines museum as "a building, place, or institution devoted to the acquisition, conservation, study, exhibition, and educational interpretation of objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value." If the current administration is not able to see how the Old Academy building fits into that definition, maybe we need to look at what the ‘mission statement’ of the museum is and reconsider how we spend our tax dollars and to whom we should give our generous donations. 

Richard J. Luschek II, Painter

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