Kate Bonansinga is Director of the School of Art at the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. After growing up in Cincinnati, she left to attend college at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. She developed a career as an educator, curator and gallery director at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts in Portland, and later at the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas in El Paso. Thirty-two years later, in 2012, she returned to Cincinnati to take the position at UC. She is also curating the Contemporary Arts Center exhibition “Cut, Fold, Recreate” that opens in April 2016.
Susan Byrnes: How does it feel being back in Cincinnati? What has changed?
Kate Bonansinga: I have been back to visit my family, so I wasn’t completely surprised by the transformation, especially of the downtown area. I’ve always lived in regional cities, except for a brief time in Chicago in the mid 1980’s. I was educated in the Midwest and then went to Portland for eight years. I moved to El Paso for 12 years, and then came back to Cincinnati. I’ve always operated as a contemporary art curator in regional cities, so that’s my frame of reference. Coming to Cincinnati from El Paso was a really pleasant experience because there are more cultural institutions here that hold interest for me and provide an outlet for me to look at and think about art than there were in El Paso. It’s been a real pleasure to come back to Cincinnati. All the places I remember from my teenage years and places I’ve revisited over time are here for me to tap into, plus there are new ones growing every day, it seems.
SB: What are your goals as Director of the School of Art at DAAP?
KB: There are three different programs under my purview: Fine Art, Art History and Art Education. During my time here, Art History and Art Education are undergoing self-critique – how can they be more relevant to today’s incoming student? We have recently linked our MA in Art History to the PhD in Architecture History, Theory, and Criticism, so we will share faculty, students will have a broader array of faculty expertise, and it will make both programs stronger. Art Education is still self-reflecting on what it will become. Enrollment has declined because there are fewer and fewer art teachers in the public schools. During my tenure here we’ve had a lot of programmatic and curricular shifts that have happened. The overarching thrust I would like to see happen is that we prepare our students to do something important in the world once they graduate. These are academic degrees, but the students also graduate with technical and manual skills so that they can literally make a difference once they get out into the world.
One of the things I’ve been working on as the director here is creating more of a platform for students to learn about professional practices. So not only do they learn how to make art, they learn how to create a life for themselves as artists through best practices, be it marketing themselves as artists or creating a skill base so that they can do art-related projects for someone else so that they can support their own art. I think we have an opportunity to do this at UC with the new co-op curriculum that we just instituted. The incoming freshman class will have eight semesters of academic study plus three semesters of work experience by the time they emerge with their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I think that will give them an edge on other recent graduates with BFAs. We’re looking to museums, galleries, individual artists and institutions that have public art programs to hire our students as co-ops. I think there’s a lot of potential for those students once they graduate to have a rich and high quality life as an artist, instead of trying to just scrape by economically.
SB: What is notable about the Cincinnati arts community compared to other communities in cities where you have lived?
KB: Like Portland, Oregon in the 1990’s, there are rich opportunities for entrepreneurs here. I see Cincinnati now as having a lot of possibilities for people deciding they want to do something and making that happen.
SB: Are you involved in developing a relationship between DAAP and the Cincinnati community?
KB: Each year Danilo Palazzo, Director of the School of Planning and I have taught a course about public art and how it can shape the dynamic of a neighborhood. He brings the planning students and I bring the art students. One of the more rewarding things about my time here has been to watch the planning students really think about how to incorporate plans for art into community and urban design, rather than thinking about it after the design has been conceptualized, which is the way good public art happens. For that course, we’ve developed a lot of community partners, not only to help fund the course (the Haile foundation funded the course last summer), but also to contribute to the dialogue so that the students know what the community is looking for. Last summer we focused on OTR, and many of the businesses and non-profits were part of a panel discussion. Through that discussion we created relationships we will continue to foster.
Once the students graduate I hope they hit the ground running and really immediately impact the community that they live in. Many of them choose to remain in Cincinnati because it is a viable place for an artist financially. Not only is it inexpensive but also there are a lot of cultural institutions that are here to feed you as an artist cerebrally and emotionally, so you’ve got the best of both worlds. Cincinnati has a nice balance of those two things.
SB: What are your curatorial interests?
KB:I studied art history in graduate school and I focused on historical Japanese ceramics. My first job after graduate school was at a studio art school called the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts in Portland (now the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts). I developed relationships with contemporary artists who were working there because I ran the gallery and also built their art history program. What interested me about that place was their focus on craft media, and I was interested in clay. Then I developed an expertise around contemporary craft that walked the line between fine art and fine craft. In El Paso, I ran the gallery at the University of Texas El Paso, which I was able to grow into the Rubin Center for Visual Arts. We showed contemporary art. Because El Paso is on the US/Mexico border, I focused curatorially on that issue, and commissioned artists to create pieces about that geographic and political divide. There was a very strong ceramic and metals program at the school, so I did curate and host exhibitions of contemporary ceramics, art jewelry, and textiles, but the major commissioned exhibitions were about that place. I became interested in site-based art and what that means. The book I recently published with the University of Texas Press in 2014 was about several of the projects I worked on in El Paso that were site-based. Basically my two curatorial strands are from the Oregon era that developed my interest in contemporary craft, textiles, ceramics and metalsmithing, and the El Paso era where I was very interested in politicized art that addressed what shapes national and individual identity, as well as site-based pieces.
SB: Tell me about the upcoming show you are curating at the CAC, “Cut Fold, Recreate”. What’s the inspiration for this exhibition?
KB: When Steven Matijcio invited me to curate an exhibition, he reminded me that on the 5th floor will be the work of Do Ho Suh, which consists of very tactile, architectural scale structures made from fabric. He asked me to think about including women, because women had been underrepresented in their exhibitions, and also people of color, and to draw upon artists of the region. I came up with this idea to present artwork made out of textiles that have had a previous life, because I looked at people living and working in the Cincinnati area, and found some artists who were doing that. The tactility of the final product, which is mostly sculpture, would work well to complement the work of Do Ho Suh and vice versa. “Cut, Fold, Recreate” is about artwork that’s made from textile-based objects that have been deconstructed and reconstructed to make something else. Two of the artists are regional. The other goal I set for myself is to contextualize the artists in the place where I live within more of a national or international context. So we also have two artists from Iceland, two from El Paso who I worked with before, and two others I always wanted to work with but never have. It’s exciting for me to bring all of these relationships together.
SB: Any other projects in the works?
KB: I just completed an essay about the 21C Museum Hotel, which is now becoming almost a franchise. They’re acquiring properties in regional cities, and I’m really interested in how regional cities can be fruitful places to live as an artist, experience artwork, and serve as alternative sites for art. So I wrote an essay about that enterprise and how I see it as being a real asset to a downtown core. They look for downtown areas that are in need of revitalization, and I think they are making a big contribution to the cultural fabric of those cities. Beyond that, I’m looking for my next project. I love curating exhibitions, in my previous job that’s what I did all the time, it was my creative outlet.
Susan Byrnes is a visual artist, arts writer and independent audio producer. In 2014 she was the recipient of a Cincinnati Art Ambassador Fellowship.