Dennis Kiel to Leave Cincinnati Art Museum

Everyone’s been pretty quiet about what’s happening at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). This week Director Aaron Betsky did a little “reallocating of responsibilities based on the needs of the permanent collection,” according to Associate Director of Communications Preeti Thakar. Granted, this kind of thing happens all the time when new people take charge of an institution. In this case, though, the museum is losing one of its finest curators, Dennis Kiel.

Kiel came to the CAM after earning at master’s degree in art history from the University of Cincinnati. His first major undertaking for the museum was the exhibition in 1987, The Hollywood Photographs of George Hurrell. The show was a blockbuster. The Smithsonian soon picked it up, repackaged it (“Made it smaller,” says Kiel from his office at the CAM) and moved it across the country.

“It even got a review in The New York Times,” Kiel says, “but they didn’t mention my name.”

He’s being funny — and candid — though he can’t talk about the change as much as I’d like him to. He speaks about the numerous exhibitions he has curated in his 24-year tenure at the museum. Like his Borrowed Time: The Album Cover as Art, which I reviewed for CityBeat in 2005.

Music, in fact, is a big part of Kiel’s connection with art and image. Just starting out at the museum, someone asked him if he wanted to be in charge of the music for the opening, members-only events.

“I didn’t know I could do that!” he remembers thinking.

Instead of hiring the same Classical musicians, Kiel hired the electronic music band Perfect Jewish Couple. He invited all the Art Academy students, who had memberships but didn’t know they were allowed to attend the event. The museum, thanks to Kiel, got a lot younger and a lot more fashionable.

After lectures he often played music that related to the work just discussed.

“A lot of times people talked more about the music than the lecture,” he says, adding that the music brings a kind of intrigue to the whole artist lecture. “Add a little mystery and they will come!”

Kiel is arguably the curator most dedicated to arts of our region. Photographer Anita Douthat, who had a joint show with Cal Kowal at CAM, says, “Kiel … enjoys the most active relationship with the regional arts community of anyone on [the CAM’s] curatorial staff. In the last seven years, he organized four comprehensive exhibitions of work by photographers from the greater Cincinnati area.”

Who else can claim such a triumph?

Kiel isn’t just a curator — he’s a major part of the Cincinnati art world. You’ll see him at openings and not just his own, a rarity. He teaches the History of Photography at Northern Kentucky University. He, Kowal and Tom Schiff instituted the Lightborne Lecture Series at CAM, which has brought the likes of Sandy Skoglund and Nancy Burson to Cincinnati. He co-curated an exhibition with Dennis Harrington at the Weston Art Gallery, Altered States, which was immediately picked up by the Ohio Arts Council in Columbus. He co-founded the Cincinnati Film Festival in 1979.

Thakar points out that the restructuring moves on the CAM curatorial staff “were not made because of any one particular staff person’s abilities but rather to better manage the collections as a whole.”

Betsky has also promoted several curators: Anita Ellis is now Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs, and Debbie Bowman is the Deputy Director of Finance and Operational Affairs. Thakar points out that there will be a new curator of photography and that Kiel is encouraged to apply.

Either way, Kiel will be around until March 1.

— Laura James

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