“In his attempts to give the Cincinnati Art Museum a new image, Aaron Betsky has sparked an aesthetic battle royal—and unleashed a torrent of criticism that gets to the heart of public art, private money, and the still touchy politics of identity.
Editor’s Note: Benedict Leca’s title was misstated in the original version of this story. He is currently serving as curatorial consultant for the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The correction has been made below.
Numerous factors affect the speed and accuracy of a .30-caliber bullet sailing through the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Air currents: negligible
Barometric pressure: stable
Museum director: unpredictable
No factor may determine the size of the hole left behind, and the accuracy of the aim, as much as the temperature of the man in charge.
The scene: a different kind of by-invitation-only event one Monday night last October. Present: an expert marksman, artist Todd Pavlisko, and director Aaron Betsky. Also present: a representative from the museum’s insurance company and a Cincinnati police officer. All are gathered to witness Crown, an artwork conceived by Pavlisko. The rifleman will fire a shot down the length of the Schmidlapp Gallery—the museum’s central hall—aiming at a target approximately 100 feet away. High speed photographic equipment will record the event for use in a video installation.
Sounds simple enough, except Crown caused a large-bore ruckus when it was announced last year. Critics were miffed that a rifle was being fired in close proximity to priceless objects. (The museum assured all concerned that the bullet would never be closer than 12 feet to the art.) City Hall weighed in, as did The Huffington Post. Through it all Betsky insisted the museum not only had the right to proceed but that it was important to do so.
And so the trigger was pulled. The bullet zipped through time, space, and the Schmidlapp Gallery, its shockwaves reverberating off of the prone body of an adult male mummified in Egypt sometime before the birth of Christ, Frank Duveneck’s The Whistling Boy, and an 18th century French commode before crossing into the Great Hall, where it was intercepted by a 24-inch-thick cube of cast brass, the force of its impact pushing out rings of metal in the shape of a king’s hat. With Crown, it was as if Betsky was making a swashbuckling declaration about the museum collection—heck, about the whole history of art—questioning its sanctity, its pretentions to permanence. Gainsborough. Warhol. A Cycladic idol. What is any of it worth, in an era of speed and shock?
When the moment was over, the reverberations continued. Crown was lamented in a letter to The Enquirer. After the Newtown massacre in December, some complained that it was in bad taste, a glorification of guns in what should be a sacred space.
The director has a quarrel. He is sitting in a small glass cube of a meeting room, in the recently redesigned Art Academy building, recalling the hubbub five months after the event. “It’s nice to see how many people care about our collection,” he says, smiling. “And to see that people from whom you don’t expect it have concerns about issues of gun violence. We think that the care and preservation of our collection is of course of paramount importance, but we have an educational mission too, and hope that by looking at our collection it can inform an understanding about our current debate and reality. Art helps you understand where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going.”
So: Where are we? The finished video was scheduled to go on view in May, but after the criticism continued, Betsky quietly pulled it from the calendar. When asked, he was vague about whether anyone will ever see it, saying he was unhappy with the quality of the video art work. (For his part, Pavlisko blames “shortsighted…leadership on the hill” for cancelling his work.)
The staging of Crown comes as a small but fired-up cluster of folks with money and the luxury of time are watching every move Betsky makes, probing for mistakes, working to depose a director they can’t abide. They blame him for a string of high-profile departures from the museum staff, including a beloved and successful curator. Last summer, that curator’s exit precipitated a protest inside the museum and an unheard of attempt to contest the handpicked slate of candidates for the board of trustees.
“There’s a group of people in this town who are frightened of change and ignorant of how an art museum works,” says Betsky. “They will use any opportunity they can to resist the improvement I think we are making to this museum and this community.”
The director can be challenging, sometimes even flip; he wants to entertain. And for the past six years he has led a 127-year-old institution, one that was long run by and for a handful of wealthy Cincinnatians who expressed their love for their city by sharing their good fortune with the masses. Only, the community they loved increasingly does not match the Cincinnati that surrounds the museum on the hill. You can look through the end of a telescopic lens and still find it, but from Betsky’s perspective it’s sailing, like a bullet, faster and faster away.
He has a killer smile. He’s perfected the Euro micro-stubble and rocks a purple tie. He speaks quickly in full, polished sentences and paragraphs. He lives in a snazzy modernist house in Clifton designed by the architect Carl Strauss. His husband, the artist Peter Haberkorn, has filled the home with sculpture made from found taxidermed objects. Aaron Betsky is bold, confident, and very well put together. So how did he end up here?
Seymour Betsky, his father, was a Bronx-born, Harvard-educated literary scholar and critic who knew Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. Sarah Zweig Betsky, his mother, came from a radical Detroit family and was a painter and professor of literature. Aaron was born in 1958 in Missoula, Montana, where his parents taught at the University of Montana. After they were invited to teach in the Netherlands in the early ’60s, he grew up in a suburb of Utrecht. A Yale education brought him back to the states, where he remained to study architecture as a graduate student. By the early 1980s, he was looking for work when an invitation arrived. Would he like to come to the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning to teach?
While he taught students about interior design and theory, Cincinnati taught him about America. It was not the easiest place to be a gay Jewish man. “The city between 1983, when I first arrived, and 2006, when I came to the museum, is like night and day,” he says. “I would say that I have not encountered any overt discrimination or, uh, problem with either my sexuality or cultural background. Are there undertones? Absolutely. Is this still in many ways a divided city? Yes, in many ways.”
Every few months Betsky would talk with his friend Frank Gehry. Gehry would ask when he was going to stop all this teaching foolishness and get down to making architecture. When are you going to hire me? Betsky retorted. When a job was finally extended, he loaded up his brown Colt and headed for Southern California. For two years he worked in Gehry’s office, watching as the architect’s reputation corkscrewed through the roof. He wrote his first book, on architect James Gamble Rogers (who designed the landmark Laurel Court in College Hill), and took a job with another up-and-coming Los Angeles firm, Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates.
He also began writing a stream of pieces of architecture and design criticism for newspapers, magazines, and journals. They reached past standard ideas about what architecture was and made slashing statements that a more cautious critic might have abstained from.
Craig Hodgetts, a partner in the firm that hired Betsky in 1987, remembers one essay in particular. “There was a big cutout billboard of the Marlboro Man [on] Sunset Boulevard, where you entered the Sunset Strip,” he said. “Well, Aaron kind of broke precedent on what an architectural critic is supposed to be [and] wrote a marvelously lyrical piece about the Marlboro Man as a landmark. One usually thinks of landmarks as buildings with great value, great historical endurance. And he, in the tradition of Reyner Banham or the Venturis [Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown], was talking about the real urban fabric of Los Angeles, which very few have ever understood. Aaron got it. He was an important voice out here at that time.
“His passion was architecture and he was trained as an architect,” Hodgetts adds. “But I would say his interest in revealing what’s behind the facade of culture overwhelms his sensibility. He’s got a crowbar, prying those bits of masonry up to see what’s under them. He’s always doing that. And I would say, like most more or less radical sensibilities, which I truly believe he has, he hasn’t endeared himself to the powers that be.”
Later Betsky would say that in L.A. he realized he was “probably going to be a failed architect.” Instead, he found his first calling: as a smart, flexible critic. When the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art offered him the title of Curator of Architecture and Design in 1995, he took it.
The ’90s saw museums increasingly eager to redefine themselves in the interest of maintaining revenue. Blockbuster shows might work for institutions with blockbuster budgets, but another approach was to connect with daily life in ways museums hadn’t much tried to in the past. A curator with a feel for life outside the museum walls had a chance to draw new patrons in. In San Francisco, Betsky made the provocative decision to deemphasize architectural plans and models, and looked for visually stronger ways to exhibit architectural ideas. One groundbreaking design exhibition focused on sneakers as functional art.
He also continued to write, teach, and speak on the side. “We’d go, ‘Jeez Aaron, aren’t you working for us?’” jokes John Weber, former Curator of Education and Public Programs at SFMOMA. “But he was getting tons done for us. He just has so many things going on all at once.” Betsky was known for upgrading his seat on a plane to business class when he was doing museum business. His justification? “If you are in business class you can actually get a lot of business done.”
“Aaron is a very positive guy,” Weber adds. “He’s a very upbeat guy who in my experience always played well with others. He could have sharp opinions but he’s not a negative naysayer. He looks for interesting opportunities. And I think that’s a great mentality to have if you’re leading a public institution. In terms of the academic background part of it—I don’t think you need a PhD, but I wouldn’t hold it against anybody who had one.”
Owen Findsen, former art critic for the Enquirer, sees a historical process at work in recent museum events. “In the late ’90s, there was a big trend for museums to have new wings,” he says. “The deal was, a director would be urged by his board to come up with a new plan. Then he would propose a plan, and then move on to the next museum to carry out the plan they had.” Example: Anita Ellis, acting director of CAM in 1999, first envisioned the Cincinnati Wing, devoted to art from the city; then Timothy Rub came along to cut the ribbon. Rub proposed a sweeping “20-year plan” that would transform the museum footprint—building a new entrance, tearing down the old Art Academy building, constructing a whole new wing. Then in 2006, the Cleveland Museum of Art called—they were in the middle of building something far bigger—and Rub headed north. He has since become the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and is in the process of finishing up their $500 million building plan. Findsen calls it “the five-year hopscotch.”
Betsky was in his sixth year as director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute, an archive and museum in Rotterdam, when he was approached about taking over where Rub left off. It made sense, from certain angles. Here was a man who knew architecture and knew Cincinnati. Indeed, he served as a professional advisor to the committee that picked Zaha Hadid to build the Contemporary Arts Center, and had met some of the key players in the city’s art scene. But Betsky was succeeding a very popular director. “I’d hear all the ladies saying, ‘Oh, he’s just beautiful,’” Findsen laughs. “[Rub] was just the most charming person in the world. And nobody’s gonna follow that.”
Upon arrival, Betsky was charged with proceeding on an ambitious building project, and then…“The economy collapses and nobody’s giving any money anymore,” says Findsen. “That means that he is no longer the right man in the right place, nor does he have the funding to do a lot of spectacular contemporary shows. He is sort of in the middle.”
Findsen puts a very fine point on it. “This is a town where if you didn’t go to kindergarten here, you’re a newcomer,” he says. “You’ve got to know the players. You just don’t know who has the millions. That has a great deal to do with it. I don’t think Betsky is in a place where he can look good to anybody.”
One thing uniting the murmuration of Betsky critics is their confidence. Many seem certain that it’s not a matter of if but when he goes. They point to the fact that he has been working on a month-to-month contract since his initial three-year agreement expired. (Betsky says he’s comfortable with the arrangement, and George Vincent, the chairman of CAM’s board of trustees, says there’s nothing unusual about it in the nonprofit world.)
The detractors come from all walks of art life—employees within the museum, former employees, donors, ex-trustees, shareholders—and their tapestry of grievances is long and many-colored. They complain that Betsky has a temper. That he surrounds himself with sycophants. That he does not have a PhD in art history. That his writing is superficial and would never stand up to an academic peer review. Some note with alarm that he is too interested in art produced within his lifetime. “We have a contemporary art museum,” says Mary Ran of the Mary Ran Gallery. “They have great parties. They have a great gift shop. But nobody goes to their exhibitions!” The people of Cincinnati, Ran explains, “don’t want to sit and look at negative art with negative energy.”
The list goes on. They hate the Pinocchio statue that stands at the front door of the museum. They hate the black fringe curtains that now hang in the Schmidlapp Gallery (some compare it to a tango dress). They hate that he used to park his car in his assigned slot even when he was out of town, just to make it look like he was hard at work. Once he realized the staff had noticed, they say, he retaliated by doing away with assigned parking. (Betsky claims he got rid of assigned parking because it was too much of a meritocratic hassle.)
“I sized him up pretty quick when I looked at the museum and saw the little red signs by the baseboards outside the restrooms,” said Stanley Cohen, a former donor. The offense: too cheeky, apparently. Since then, Cohen has stopped giving money or art to the museum.
Betsky notes the board had a complete understanding of his résumé when they hired him, and that they hired him because of it. “I believe my background, knowledge, and skills have allowed me to contribute in ways other people maybe would not be able to,” he says. “Yes I have an unconventional background for a museum director. But it’s also becoming less and less clear what a conventional background is.
“The art museum has changed over the last six years,” he adds. “We have honored and extended our superb collection and have an active program that addresses a wide variety of constituencies. We are able to invest in people and capital, and this place has become better. Now, that has meant making some changes, from trivial things like programming and imagery to things like buildings. There are some people who believe any change, big or small, must not happen.”
Change is hard, but sometimes sociocultural change is a little harder in Cincinnati. Don the hazmat suits, it’s the crisis of modernity! The dissent burst into the open last April, when the museum announced that Benedict Leca, curator of European painting, sculpture, and drawings, was leaving to become curatorial consultant for the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario. Leca is in some ways the reverse image of Betsky. He was born in Casablanca and grew up in France and Texas. He’s got the PhD in art history. Where Betsky sometimes can’t help but show how hard he’s working, things seemed to come more easily to Leca. He brought dazzling, ambitious, and successful exhibitions of Gainsborough, Rembrandt, and Monet that boosted attendance figures. On the eve of his departure, a group of protesters occupied his Monet exhibit, unfurling a banner that declared their disbelief. No wonder the Enquirercalled him a “rock star curator.”
“Men and women both had crushes on Benedict,” says Jennifer Arbaugh, a former volunteer. “He lights up the room.”
Leca was good at raising money for the museum, and he wasn’t shy about making it known. Having procured a $67,000 check from a donor that made the Monet exhibition catalog possible, Leca once walked into a weekly development meeting, tossed the check into the air, and watched as others quickly bent to pick it up. It couldn’t have helped their relationship when Leca, having received the job offer from Ontario, requested a promotion and Betsky demurred. Supporters of his, led by the industrialist Carl Bimel, then raised $2 million to give Leca an endowed chair at the museum. It was a provocative move, and possibly one that sealed his fate. Some on the board have suggested that Bimel’s offer was mere talk, but a funny thing happened after the museum left the money on the table: In May 2012, Bimel made a $2 million contribution to the Purdue University football program.
Leca has not been the only museum star to leave. Chief Curator James Crump announced his exit shortly after mounting the career-spanning exhibit of photographer James Welling in February. Chief Conservator Per Knutås and others have also left. The director says it is all normal art world transit.
“Look, Benedict Leca came here as a very ambitious young man and did fantastic work, but was very impatient and driven and made it clear almost from the beginning that he had his sights set somewhere else,” says Betsky. “That’s what good curators do. They do great projects and if you’re lucky they stick around. But in a way, also if you’re lucky, they move on and make you proud.”
A painting acquired by the Cincinnati Art Museum last year: Frederic Remington’s A Map in the Sandfrom 1905. A party of dusty cowboys in the Old West has been drifting on the plains for a dangerously long time. They stop to approach a stranger who knows the lay of the land. Their horses point in all directions. The stranger, an Indian, draws a map in the dirt. Perhaps this is salvation, or perhaps something else. It’s hard to know, as the sun beats down.
Some of Betsky’s critics are like the cowboys in this picture. They’ve been at it a long time, so long the way forward is unknowable. Is this a circle or a straight line? As I started calling known critics for this story, I began to get an unusual stream of anonymous e-mails and letters. The general tone was one of extreme (at times verging on paranoid) concern: Did I know what would happen to me if I reported the truth of the museum? Was I prepared to be socially ostracized and have the magazine attacked? Did they get to you? One critic even urged me to “follow the money.” At last, I had my own Deep Throat.
The manic pitch obscures reasonable criticisms. Betsky is involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. He has taught at DAAP. He travels around the world giving talks, and has consulted on the design of Skolkovo, a “city of science and arts” planned outside of Moscow. He continues to write, including a blog for Architect magazine. “I am extremely careful to always be sure that my primary obligation and interest is the art museum,” he told me. “And I like to think—and can show—that my lecturing and teaching and writing has extended my effectiveness and the art museum’s visibility and effectiveness.” Since the economic collapse of 2008, he says he has stopped using his museum travel fund and has found other sources to pay for travel.
It’s a job all but defined by fund-raising these days, and inevitably somebody who is off lecturing is going to hear that they aren’t reaping enough money. In 2010, the trustees brought in David Linnenberg to take the lead in fund-raising. The critics like him about as much as Betsky—they see him as the board’s cat’s-paw, reporting back what goes on inside the museum to those who control the purse strings. They also suggest he is waiting on deck, should Betsky jump or get pushed.
Linnenberg reportedly has his own brand of swagger. When he was promoted to chief administrative officer he addressed a staff meeting of about 200. “We’ve got to get Aaron out,” Linnenberg announced—pausing for effect, grinning at the way “out” might be perceived—“into the community more.” According to one employee who was present, “Everybody looked at each other in amazement.”
“Dear God—for real?” says Linnenberg. He points out that he and Betsky work together well, and that it was Betsky who promoted him. “I want to get Aaron out into the community the way [zoo director] Thane Maynard is,” he clarifies. “Not out of Cincinnati.”
Betsky also seems to have the support of the board. “I think he does a nice job of balancing the many demands of his job,” says chairman George Vincent. “We’ve run a surplus every year for the last five years. And the endowment is at a record level in a very difficult economic time. Expenses were cut, exhibitions were right-sized to make them profitable, and we worked hard to bring up attendance.” Last year the museum had its third highest attendance number ever: 295,661.
But a big reason the museum can say it is doing well is that it has not been spending or growing like comparable institutions. Betsky sees his peers as museums in metropolitan areas with roughly 2 million inhabitants—Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. But Cleveland is finishing up a mammoth renovation that predates the economic downturn and will cost out at $350 million. St. Louis more recently announced a $162 million project. Even in Louisville, the Speed Art Museum has raised just north of $42 million for a $79 million project. Compared to that, the touted $11 million renovation of the old Art Academy building does not seem so grand. Success here is predicated on cutbacks, layoffs, and carefully watched expenditures.
Betsky explains the difficulties by saying the entire history of the museum has been one of reliance on a small set of big buck donors who are giving about as much now as they always have. Among the patrons the museum relies on, however, a number have become discouraged. “Some people think it doesn’t matter [that donors are bailing out],” one former board member says. “‘We’ll just keep getting new donors.’” He sees that as a poor way to plan for the future of the institution, and in his opinion Betsky is “totally incapable of raising money and never really has.”
In Betsky’s first year, the Rieveschl family took back a famous piece hanging in the museum—Dodo with a Large Fanby Ernst Kirchner—which had been labeled a “promised bequest.” It sold at Christie’s for $12.92 million. Carl and Alice Bimel have given so much money to the museum that the Alice Bimel Courtyard is named after the late benefactor. Carl Bimel says he remembers the moment he made up his mind about the director: “Betsky told me he wanted to bring Mapplethorpe back.” Robert Mapplethorpe’s photo exhibit The Perfect Moment included beautifully wrought but graphic images of homosexual S&M culture and was a touchstone of the culture wars when it was shown (and notoriously shut down) at the CAC in 1990. Bimel was worried that Betsky was going to pull the photos out of the closet again.
“I went home and told my wife about it,” he said. “We called our lawyer the next day and changed our will. What he’s doing, so much of the stuff he has aimed at kids—he is really hurting Cincinnati in the long run and will continue to. I don’t want to give a goddamn thing to that son of a bitch.”
It’s the dear old culture wars, looking a lot like the last few Clint Eastwood movies: Anyone still standing is running on bile and gristle. But putting Mapplethorpe and the young ones aside, there’s the very real problem of how to grow more donors. According to Tamara Harkavy, founder and director of Cincinnati ArtWorks, it’s a conversation she has regularly with Betsky, the Taft Museum’s Deborah Emont Scott, and Raphaela Platow of the CAC.
“Here’s the pie,” she says, “and if you look at the pie you will see the same names on my list [of donors] as you see on the Taft’s list and the CAC list. I’ve struggled internally with growing the pie, and I go back to Thank God for these people who have made huge contributions to this city. But the challenge is: the folks are dying off. It’s old money and with them goes their ability to write a check.”
There’s a plumb line that runs through the dissenters’ argument, a tangible sense that in modernizing the museum Betsky is breaking with the institution’s history. Drop that line all the way to the mucky bottom and you find a few shades of dissent that taint the criticism of some—though not all—who oppose him. Anti-Semitism and homophobia have become noticeable to various observers. One Betsky critic told me that, ultimately, it wasn’t the director’s fault what was happening to the museum; blame really goes to the Jews who had migrated from the board at the CAC to CAM.
A former board member told me that Betsky has only lasted this long because current board president Craig Maier, head of the Frisch’s restaurant chain, is afraid of a gay boycott of Frisch’s. “Seriously, should Aaron not have been an openly gay man he probably would not be there now,” this person said. “But the head of the largest law firm in the city”—chairman George Vincent, the managing partner at Dinsmore & Shohl—“was not going to say we had to get rid of him.”
At a dinner party in Clifton soon after he arrived, a guest in attendance, who has come to oppose the director, says Betsky declared he was “proud to be both the first Jewish and gay director of the museum.” The guest was appalled, saying it proved he came to town with an agenda. Mary Ran, the eponymous gallery owner, recalls him saying that the attacks were based on these issues of identity. “Well, look, the art world is gay and Jewish,” Ran says dismissively, and his critics don’t like him for other reasons.
When I bring it up, a very strange thing happens: Betsky gets uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Asked if he remembers expressing pride in being two important firsts, he pauses, says he doesn’t remember but that it doesn’t sound like him. “I don’t go around saying I’m proud of being gay—because I’m not proud of being gay,” he says. “I happen to be gay and would like it to be irrelevant to what I do. And to some extent whether or not I’m Jewish is irrelevant [too]. Now, having said that…” And then he goes on, torturing the language, struggling to find a place where he can be proud, and perhaps invisible, at the same time.
“I think Aaron has two personas,” says Sara Vance Waddell, head of SMV Media, a former board member, and a friend. “Sometimes Aaron can be stoic and keep things to himself. You don’t always know what he’s thinking.”
But at Music Hall in late March, Betsky showed a side of himself he usually keeps in check. It was the annual Spectrum Pride brunch, honoring Waddell and her partner Michelle for their support of Cincinnati arts. Betsky and his husband Peter were there, and when the museum director got up to say a few words, the audience had every reason to expect the deft, erudite culture guy most of them knew. What they got instead made some cry. Betsky talked about the attacks on him, and about the way his identity had been used as a wedge to try to drive him out of town.
“I heard Aaron say it loud, with tears in his eyes, that there is this criticism of being gay and Jewish and head of an art museum. That it’s hurtful and there is no place for it,” said Tamara Harkavy.
“Aaron caught the entire room off guard,” said Vance Waddell. When he was done, those in attendance stood up and clapped.
On May 20, at CAM’s annual board election, shareholders will vote on candidates to fill the open seats. The insurgents plan to mount another rebel slate, and hope they’ll do better this time. Should Betsky address the meeting, it will be as the polished, bulletproof director on the hill.
“I’ve been here for six years and of course I’ll never truly be a Cincinnatian,” he joked the first time we met. “I don’t have kids in high school. I do love my chili though.” That’s the director we are meant to see: self-aware, witty, conscious of the landscape he inhabits. And then he veered off script with a mildly impolitic remark about Graeter’s. In the end, it’s who he is: A critic. And a critic stands alone.”