By Laura A. Hobson

As the son of a carpenter from a working class background with family based in Norwood, Aaron Cowan, 42, has risen progressively through the ranks to become director of the Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) Galleries at the University of Cincinnati. There, he manages two distinct galleries, the Dorothy W. & C. Lawson, Jr. Reed Gallery and the Philip M. Meyers, Jr. Memorial Gallery, both designed to attract artists from all over the country.

Even as early as the third grade, he was a finalist for a poster he created in an art contest. As a result, he was put in an art honors class at school. While Aaron graduated from Norwood High School receiving a diploma, he found himself interested in carpentry as well as making art. He often went to the Cincinnati Art Museum by himself.

The first person to go to college in his family, Aaron chose The Art Academy of Cincinnati graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts majoring in sculpture in 2006. He went on to pursue his master’s degree in fine arts specializing in painting from the University of Cincinnati in 2008. At the same time, he received his Museum Studies Certificate. His early training working with his father as a carpenter helped him with sculpture.

Initially from Kentucky, Aaron’s father Charles was not altogether happy about his son’s pursuit of art, preferring a business trade instead. Over time, it became more apparent that Aaron had a talent for art and would make a career out of it. His intern work included serving as part of the installation crew at the Contemporary Arts Center from 2004-2005. The following year, he was the interim chief preparator, performing such duties as fabrication, display design, art handling, lighting, crate building, scheduling and supervision.

By 2007, he was named director of the 840 Student Gallery at UC. Here, he expanded his responsibilities to include curating, layout, jury selection, press and promotion, and program development. In addition, he was a gallery manager in the Meyers Gallery. In 2009, he joined the Taft Museum of Art doing installation and art handling.

Aaron didn’t put all his energy into his work. He found time for marriage and his children, Lillian, now 15, and Eli, 12. A second marriage to Meredith, 32, a social worker at Strategies to End Homelessness, resulted from a chance meeting at a softball game in 2006. With the variety of backgrounds, Aaron and Meredith complement each other’s interests.

In 2008, he became preparator at the Country Club Gallery located on Findlay Street in Over-the-Rhine. His duties involved project development, collection care, registration and liaison to the artists. The gallery has since moved to Los Angeles.

From there, he became preparator at the Cincinnati Art Museum from 2009 – 2010. Aaron saw the job of director of DAAP Galleries posted and applied. With the variety of experience he had at galleries and museums, it was a good fit. This position covers a broad spectrum of duties including staff supervisor, curator, public relations, exhibition design, lighting, project development, event coordinator and designer for the Reed and Meyers Galleries.

Located on the fifth floor of the DAAP’s Aronoff complex, the Dorothy and C. Lawson Reed Jr. Gallery is the larger of the galleries. Opened in 1996 with a donation from Mr. and Mrs. Reed, it is not part of the school. Its purpose is to seek out programming broad in scope. Cowan programs exhibitions about architecture, art and planning for The Reed Gallery. Rarely does he do a student show in the Reed Gallery because the 840 Gallery, located on the fifth floor of the main DAAP building, is designed solely for students. Currently in the Reed Gallery is “Martin Tucker – Remembered,” a tribute to the retired professor, who focused on the ordinary objects of daily life.

In contrast, the Philip M. Meyers Jr. Memorial Gallery is more centrally located on campus, situated in the Steger Student Life Center in the heart of UC’s Main Street. The exhibitions there address two main objectives: first, to expose the wider university community to the practices within DAAP and second, to present exhibitions that address the practices of other colleges within the university, generally historic or scientific in focus. Current DAAP students staff the Meyers Gallery in order to provide them with a wide range of knowledge and understanding of exhibition techniques and practices. In the Meyers Gallery through October 6 is “Les Albums des Jeunes Architectes et des Paysagistes,” which recognizes the best portfolios of architects and landscape architects under the age of 35 practicing in France.

Composed of representatives from each of DAAP’s schools, a committee meets once a month to discuss issues and choose exhibits. Currently, the galleries are booked one to two years in advance. The committee delivers shows that have the most impact on internal audiences at DAAP. Aaron mentions that DAAP also participated in the 2012 FotoFocus festival, a month-long biennial celebration of photography in various venues. Receiving the most national attention was “FauxReal: A Forger’s Story,” an exhibit about art forgeries. The most popular show in terms of attendance was “Charley Harper: A Bird’s Eye View,” a retrospective view of the local artist’s career.

Funded by DAAP with a somewhat modest annual budget, the galleries also seek financial assistance from outside sources. Now, there is a fair amount of competition to exhibit in the galleries. Aaron says he seeks other exhibits by seeing outside art shows, talking to university professors and attending meetings such as the American Alliance of Museums Association.

Getting to UC is not difficult. Finding a parking place close to DAAP means parking on Martin Luther King Drive in Clifton or using one of the three nearby garages. Improved signage, currently in the development stage, will help the visitor find the galleries once on campus. The galleries are free; the events are free as well. Over 10,000 people per year visit the galleries.

Aaron cites his primary mission to expose students to practices in the visual culture. He describes the galleries as comparable to the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Gallery in downtown Cincinnati and the Carnegie Gallery in Covington, Kentucky both in scale and approach. While DAAP’s galleries are not commercial, some pieces will be for sale this fall. Proceeds will go to travelling scholarships for art students to attend professional association meetings.

Another related gallery is the Sycamore Gallery located within the heart of downtown Cincinnati at 628 Sycamore St. This gallery hosts the annual master of fine arts thesis exhibitions as well as special programs throughout the calendar year. Unlike other DAAP gallery venues, the Sycamore is a flex space used on distinct occasions. Pop-up exhibitions that take place here cover a broad range of interests and are selected on a case-by-case basis. Aaron serves as a coordinator for this space.

In this era of collaboration, Aaron is working with a number of institutions and private collectors to expand the DAAP Galleries’ reach. These include the Cincinnati Art Museum, the 21C Museum Hotel and the ArchiNATI annual festival dedicated to celebrating the buildings, parks, places and spaces that make up Cincinnati. As a result, one of his goals is to focus on the outside community. As he notes, “These relationships are built over time.” Another long-term goal is to develop a university collection of art.

The gallery spaces are sometimes used for receptions. For example, DAAP alumni held a few events at no charge. Outside groups would have a charge. Aaron says this function is growing slowly and will contribute to the exposure of the facilities as well as to the budget.

Challenges include scheduling the exhibits as well as the care and storage of art. He is acutely aware of the timing, work in transit and work on the walls. Aaron dreams of having more traveling exhibitions, but recognizes the budgetary constraints.

The DAAP Galleries are a work in progress. And, Aaron Cowan is leading the way.

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