“A young Californian has come out of the west. . .to take over the curator’s post in the Print Department of the Cincinnati Art Museum” reported the art columnist for the Cincinnati Post, September 24, 1971. The new curator was Kristin Spangenberg, this month marking her thirty-ninth year at the Museum, and I was the art columnist.

Both of us were new at our jobs—it was my first month at the paper, and Spangenberg had only just arrived—but she brought more experience to her position than I brought to mine. In addition to a master’s degree in art history she had held intern/curatorial assistant posts at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan’s print and photograph department in New York. My philosophy was “learn on the job” but Kristin had learned on more jobs than I had.

She had not, in fact, set out to be a curator. Growing up in Palo Alto, California, Spangenberg entered the University of California at Santa Barbara to major in Latin American history. An interest in art intruded and she spent two years at the San Francisco Institute of Art experiencing across-the-board studies in making art. Memorably, her painting instructor was Richard Diebenkorn. An art history master’s degree from the University of Michigan was preceded by a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Davis, where her courses included a year of stage design. That seemingly unlikely field is in fact informing a current major project, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company, opening February 29 of next year and running through July 11.

“It’s required learning a completely different history, that of the entertainment industry, very convoluted,” says Spangenberg, who goes on to explain how the Museum happens to have a virtually unique collection of an evanescent popular art form. ” When Cincinnati’s Strobridge Lithographing Company was sold in 1960 this group of 216 posters, dating from 1882 to the late 1930s, was not part of the sale and they ended up at the Museum.” The posters were kept in the library, seldom consulted, for many years. “They’re a slice in time from outdoor advertising,” she says. A fire at the plant in 1887 wiped out everything, making the earliest rare indeed.

Asked if attitudes toward what constitutes her field have changed over the years, Spangenberg says the director’s attitude is crucial. She’s worked under five different Cincinnati Art Museum directors, arriving near the end of Philip Adams’ long tenure. In that time she’s curated “probably 150 shows, 75 percent or so drawn from the collection and from the region” and supervised a number of important catalogues. “We’ve always focused on the strengths of the collection, so rich here. That’s a reason I’ve stayed so long,” she notes, adding that half the Museum’s works are on paper. “Herbert Greer French set the tone with his standards of acquisition and connoisseurship.” The long-time Museum trustee was ipso facto the first curator of prints for the Museum. His superb collection of Old Master works became the core of the print collection on his death in 1942.

Adams, whose interests lay elsewhere, did not foster high maintenance, close records or publication of works on paper. They tended, like the library-housed circus posters, to be found here and there in the Museum. Millard F. Rogers, director from 1974 to 1994, “transferred the responsibility of the drawings, watercolors, and pastels to a newly created Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs,” Spangenberg wrote in the introduction to the 1978 publication French Drawings, Watercolors, and Pastels, 1800-1950.

The handling of photographs is illustrative of evolving attitudes. When Spangenberg arrived “photographs were all over the place,” she says. In 1989 the hefty catalogue Photographic Treasures of the Cincinnati Art Museum accompanied an exhibition of the same name, and the department by then had an associate curator, Dennis Kiel, for whom a primary duty was photographs. Now, under Director Aaron Betsky, photography is an independent department headed by James Crump, who is also chief curator.

Among significant expansions of the department on Spangenberg’s watch has been the attention paid to contemporary Eastern European printmakers. In 1975, working with the Jacques Baruch Gallery of Chicago, the Museum presented one of the first U.S. exhibitions of work by these artists, cut off by the Iron Curtain, and the first catalogue of their work. “We had shown a few in the 1950s Biennales, and included them,” says Spangenberg, referring to an earlier innovative project of the department. From 1950 through 1962 then print curator Gustav von Groschwitz organized Cincinnati Biennials of Contemporary Color Prints and attracted international attention.

The Museum continued acquiring contemporary Eastern European prints and in 2005 a major gift, the Anne and Jacques Baruch Collection, added substantially to the holdings. In 2008 an exhibition of works by Jiri Anderle, Illusion and Reality, was drawn from the Museum’s own collection, the largest repository of the artist’s work in the United States. Spangenberg speaks with pleasure of visiting the artist in Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Soviet world.

The Howard and Caroline Porter Collection of Twentieth Century Japanese Prints is “one of the finest of such material in the world,” Spangenberg says. The Porters had long association with the Far East and after the death of her husband Mrs. Porter continued working closely with the Museum in building the collection. Three shows had been presented before Spangenberg’s arrival, in 1967, 1969 and 1971, and the association continued throughout Mrs. Porter’s life. The Porter Collection, now at the Museum, contains 2750 prints by 255 printmakers.

Spangenberg lives outside New Richmond with her husband, John E. Gilmore, who is a photographer. The decidedly country location is good for Gilmore “who finds subjects immediately out the door. We see deer, wild turkeys, raccoons, even a mink and once a broad-winged hawk,” she says. The curator herself has a twenty by forty foot garden, full of “tomatoes, squash, eggplant, broccoli ” and a butterfly garden that also provides subjects for her husband. The couple, married since 1987, met through a singles group that specialized in gourmet dinners at one another’s houses. When it was Spangenberg’s turn Gilmore stayed on to help with the dishes. Among the decorations in their household are two wall mounted 10-point deer heads. Spangenberg got hers by accident, driving home from a nighttime Museum event, but “John got his the regular way.”

When asked about the effect of changes since our first interview so long ago, Spangenberg says museums today are challenged “to find a balance between incorporating new technology without sacrificing scholarship.” Also, in competing with the multitude of claims on people’s attention, museums move ever more directly into the world of entertainment and focus alters. She hopes staffing will allow the department’s study room, which attracted several hundred visitors yearly, to reopen and she would very much like to see an endowment to underwrite the curatorial position for her department. “That nails it down,” she said. No plans for retirement; Spangenberg is too busy working on what’s at hand. What’s at hand right now is the circus poster exhibition, but something else is sure to come along after that.

– Jane Durrell


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