Christina Vassallo, New Energy at the CAC

Cynthia Osborne Hoskin

The initial impression of Vassallo is inspired energy, delivered in a nimble, intelligent, and engaging manner. One significant comment from her is, “If there is one strength I have, it is as a convener, bringing people together, hearing conflicting interests, and creating something that might not precisely serve everyone’s purposes or needs, but the sum of its parts is better than any individual contribution.”

With a master’s degree in visual arts administration with nonprofit concentration in hand from New York University’s Steinhardt School, she launched herself into the New York art world with an interest in the intersection of art and civic dialogue. Her undergraduate and graduate work at the same institution did not define her as non-adventurous so much as illustrate her reluctant relationship to standardized test taking; NYU early on had done away with GRE scores. 

“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I have found my place; they understand me!’” Realizing after graduation that commercial gallery work was not her thing, she says, “I was still more interested in how an arts organization can participate in the civic realm.”

To test the fertile soil of New York’s art prospects in 2010, Vassallo volunteered for what she describes as a wacky, amazing art space called Flux Factory in Queens, one of the city’s five boroughs, and became a curator and grant writer for them. As it transpired, she was in the right place at the right time. 

“I was lucky. In 2011, the executive director was getting ready to leave and could name her successor (and) so recommended me to the board. Since I had the degree in how to run an arts organization, I got the job. The operating budget was small back then—about $250,000 a year. As a first job, it was an amazing opportunity, because at such a small institution everyone’s doing everything. 

“It was an incredible place and foundational to the way I am as a leader, as it was already questioning everything, like asking people what pronouns they used long before the universities started doing it. It was that far ahead of the curve in understanding different ways of being and living. As a growing artist collaborative, we had a requirement that you had to work together to create work. You could always have your own art practice, but you were also an integral part of the collective. We had seventeen artists living and working together in the building, although I didn’t live there. I needed a little bit of separation.”

Reminiscing about the projects the Flux Factory launched, Vassallo says, “I remember my first exhibition as the executive director was a massive project with a theme based on opening up the city’s waterways, so we worked with artists to create boats as artworks that would actually float on the Hudson River—kind of crazy when you think about it. Street artists, Swoon and Constance Hockaday, participated. (Swoon exhibited at the CAC, 2017-2018: https://tandempress.wisc.edu/watch-swoon-at-the-cincinnati-contemporary-arts-center/ and http://www.constancehockaday.com).

“Later on in my tenure there I did a project called Kitty City where we paired school-aged kids with architects, urban planners, artists, and we even had someone who was a cat psychologist, to design and build a city for cats with entirely recycled materials. What really tipped off the idea was the poor doors discussion in New York City at that time. 

Poor Doors (https://www.citysignal.com/history-of-the-poor-door/) is the term for when a developer who is creating a very large building in the city is required to allocate a certain percentage for low income housing. According to Vassallo, some of the developers were pulling nasty tricks in their design plans that resulted in those who were living in the low-income apartments having to enter through a separate door and being denied access to amenities like gyms and pools, so the Flux Factory project became about building more empathetic, more humane cities. 

“To address this in our programming, we thought cats were a great stand-in for human rights, especially when you’re trying to break down complex issues for kids, so the kids designed and built a whole city in our space. We then worked with a no-kill animal shelter to populate the city with actual cats with the opening becoming an adoption drive. The cats walked freely around the city we had built for them—the type of project that we could do while working under the radar as a small operation.”

Clearly our newcomer to the Cincinnati art scene is not bereft of imagination or the ability to coordinate disparate groups into effective collaboration. Of course, she is now dealing with different opportunities and constraints. 

“Of course, I think the risks inherent in a project like Kitty City aren’t appropriate for the CAC, but there are definitely other ways we can be adventurous in our programming and take the kinds of risks that I’m interested in exploring now.”

There came a time when Vassallo felt she had done everything she could for the Flux Factory and so launched a search for the next step. “A mentor of mine asked if I was sending resumes outside of New York City, and I said, ‘Of course not’. When you grow up and go to school in New York and are in herds who are brainwashed into thinking that it’s the only place where you can operate as an arts professional, it’s hard to see beyond the Hudson River. She politely but firmly suggested I send my resume elsewhere, and suddenly it seemed like the rest of the world opened up.”

Vassallo’s next position was as Executive and Artistic Director of SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio for six years until 2020. SPACES describes its mission thus: SPACES commissions artists from around the world—at all stages of their careers—to make new work that is responsive to timely issues. We use these projects as a jumping off point to create educational initiatives that help develop a more informed citizenry. We also distribute grants to artists outside of our residency and exhibition programs.

When Vassallo left for the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, SPACES board president John C. Williams said, “Christina has done an exceptional job leading our organization…When Christina arrived in Cleveland to join SPACES, she was very quickly embraced by the entire community for her energy, enthusiasm, and vigorous support of artists. She led a major capital campaign for our new facility while guiding the team to its remarkable new location. Her leadership, curatorial vision, and engaging demeanor have raised the stature of the organization and will be sorely missed by SPACES and this entire community.”

In remembering her time there, Vassallo says, “As I mentioned, working at Flux Factory was foundational to my leadership career, as it really taught me how to generate buy-in from people who feel very protective of the organizations that they love. It’s a way of working to fully understand the lay of the land and then gently but confidently creating a vision for it influenced by the users of the space—your audience, your board, your staff—so I brought that with me to SPACES. It was larger, but a small proportion of the size of the $1,000,000 operating budget we eventually had. I did some exciting exhibitions there, including a citywide exhibition called The Color Removed in 2014, a thought exercise and a provocation to Clevelanders to think about the frayed relationships between communities and between community members and police. It asked what it would be like to give up your orange objects, and the reason why it was framed that way was Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy who was killed by police. The justification for that killing was that the orange safety tip had been removed from his toy gun. Then the question was: OK, if we remove these signs and symbols of safety, do we all feel the same level of safety? Of course, the answer is no.

“The biggest thing I did for SPACES was relocate the organization. The neighborhood that it was in wasn’t serving the organization’s needs. They had bought their building 20 years before my arrival. I helped do the site selection, ran the capital campaign, and renovated and redesigned the space for galleries. That was an exciting time.”

At the CAC for only two months, Vassallo has spent her time on a listening tour, “talking to every staff and board member and friends of the CAC, as well as former staff, to gain their perspective,” pursuing her belief that a vision will only stick if it is co-created. She observes that the world is a very different place from its pre-pandemic state and the protests reverberating from the George Floyd murder in 2020. 

“What all that did was produce a ripple effect and expose the fault lines in nonprofit practices, showing us how vulnerable we are, so you know what we need to do now is create new models under which to operate that will keep us solvent and relevant.” Vassallo’s prerequisite for developing a powerful vision is to remain flexible in accomplishing the mission. One immediate focus for her is building up the Contemporary Art Center’s curatorial staff and immediately finding an individual “who has big ideas and the practical experience to be able to implement them. It is a national search for somebody who lives in or is willing to move here to Cincinnati. 

“I am excited about being able to do projects that are more on the civic scale out in the public realm beyond the museum walls,” she adds.

“This Zaha Hadid building (1950-2016, famous Iraqi-British architect described by The Guardian as “the queen of the curve”) is so spectacular and important and deserves so much respect, not only for the building itself but the process that led up to it, that we tend to feel beholden to it in our programming. Such a large amount of space can be tough and expensive and intimidating to fill, especially from the artist’s perspective—especially with a solo show. We need to grapple with that issue a little and think about moving into the public space with our exhibitions—how you would do that.”

She uses the example of the project at Flux Factory of the boats that artists built. “We had a presence in the galleries for the exhibition, but we also had a lot of boats docked on New York waterways. The artists made both, so I’m not saying we would discuss something outside the museum space exclusively—more that we could spread citywide and coordinate a theme, so that the schools were working on it at the same time the artists and the museum were.”

One thing is certain, Cincinnati and the Contemporary Arts Center will find no shortage of ideas from Christina Vassallo complemented with a will to collaborate with all stakeholders. The future of this wonderful contemporary museum looks bright and exhilarating!