Matt Distel, Director of Visionaries and Voices

Matt Distel, a lively compact young man, is a curator, gallery director and general man about art. Anything written about him only scratches the surface of his penetrating involvement in the art life of Cincinnati, from the DeLeia to the CAC, from Country Club to Publico to The Weston, Distel has had his hand in curating, organizing, and invariably being at the center of what is happening in art, both here and in other cities. On December 9, 2011, Material Witness, curated by Distel, will open at the Alice F. And Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, examining “artworks in which the exposed structural components dictate the conceptual and formal readings of the objects.” (Terry Berlier; Matthew Flegle; Peter Haberkorn, Philip Spangler and Chris Vorhees) “That gallery”, says Distel “is the hardest working regional arts organization I’ve ever seen. Dennis Harrington is a role-model inspiration for how to do that.” He also has great admiration for the work the Cincinnati Art Museum is doing and says, “That they are showing a growing interest in contemporary art is a great foil for the Contemporary Arts Center. James Crump is a brilliant curator.”

Distel’s newest focus is the Directorship of Visionaries and Voices, whose mission statement reads: The mission of Visionaries and Voices is to provide artistic and cultural opportunities for artists with disabilities, and to build an inclusive environment where all artists feel valued. We value a world in which artists with disabilities not only create and share their works of art, but also are able to learn, work, collaborate, exhibit, teach, and celebrate with other community members.

V&V is a bright cheerful space at 3841 Spring Grove Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45223, (513) 861-4333 in Northside, where a buzz of activity signals the production of art, as Distel and his staff go about their work. So what led up to this new choice, and where has Distel been before now?

“I basically came out of college not knowing what to do with an art history degree other than go on to get a graduate art history degree,” says Distel. Starting in a business program and then switching to art, Distel graduated from Miami University. “I enjoyed academic pursuits, but I wanted to do something more concrete, so I started curating shows without knowing what that meant. I had become friendly with a lot of studio people and started organizing shows with them. It was work I liked. Knowing I couldn’t afford a gallery, I went into people’s houses and took down their art and put up an exhibition, loosely themed it and threw a party. All of that led to opening up a gallery space.”

For him it became a grass-roots effort to organize artists. “Unfortunately, we sold a lot of work at the first exhibition, which made me think I could keep doing that,” he laughs. Kristen Rogers was his partner, and he says, “We just kept at it!” Distel did the first couple of home shows on his own, and Rogers was one of the artists in the shows. “The more we talked, the more we started organizing them together and decided we need a home base of operations.” They rented studio space in Camp Washington in 1996, called the gallery DeLeia, and started more gallery programs. They continued to do “outside projects” as well. As Rogers and Distel were both wrestlers in high school, these included wrestling matches as well as, according to the March 1999 edition of Cincinnati Magazine, “a slumber party, a chili cook-off, a have-your-feet-massaged-and-nails-done spa, and a ‘Remote Control Smash-Em-Up Derby’ featuring a Barbie car retrofitted with flame throwers.” For instance DeLeia would organize a team of wrestlers and then challenge other arts organizations to compete. “That was to determine supremacy in the arts!”

When Distel, no heavyweight even now, started wrestling in high school, he was in the 80-pound class but was about 20 pounds too light for that. “By the time I finished my career, I think I was about 112!”

Matt Distel and Visionaries and Voices Artists

They toured the wrestling gig: “We did stuff in Cleveland, Dayton, Cincinnati a couple of times, and finally got beaten by a group from the Carnegie Mellon graduate program in Pittsburgh, so ownership of the piece transferred to them.” Whoever won the match, owned the piece. Carnegie Mellon did not carry it forward.

“It was all pretty loose; we didn’t have funders; we were just doing it when we could. It wasn’t well-thought-out; we weren’t thinking we could make a living, just keep it sustainable.” Eventually he ran the gallery with wife, Laura Herman. The gallery closed in 1999, and Distel then worked for the Robert Schiffler Collection, which was in Greenville, OH – a contemporary art collection mostly from the mid-nineties. “They would have a big open house every year that would bring in writers, artists, thinkers, curators, critics from around the country. It was how I cut my teeth on the contemporary art world. I feel I was very focused on the artists.”

He was also doing free-lance curating and free-lance art handling during this period (1994 − 2002) for such as The Contemporary Arts Center and The Weston Gallery. “We had a network of people who came out of art school. I was one of the few who had an art history background. Most were artists — this is how they support themselves. You can’t make a living selling art in Cincinnati, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you’re right at the top. Everybody else has to teach, do light construction, drive a truck or do something for support.” Distel translated the Schiffler work and the free lance curating into working at the Contemporary Arts Center. “That was really my first real, professional experience curating. It was Tom Collins (the senior curator there) who hired me. Charles Desmarais was the director.

“I was hired almost a year to the day before the new building opened. About six months after the new building opened (Charles had already left at that point), Tom took the director’s position at the Contemporary Art Museum in Baltimore. That was when I was Assistant Director. There was a sort of mass exodus after the opening. It was an exhausting experience. I was the only other person in the curatorial department, so they promoted me to running that department, which included the education and exhibitions departments. It was seat of the pants learning — Tom had been great about showing me the ropes. I learned a lot by working under him and Charles. That was the first time I had to put together an exhibition season and decide how things would work in the building. That is not the easiest building, and no one had ever done it before; it had all been theoretical. Although I’m really proud of the shows we did, I feel that some of the things I did failed in an interesting way. By the time I left the CAC, I had figured out how to do it.”

In 2007 Raphaela Platow was named Alice & Harris Weston Director and Chief Curator of the CAC. Distel feels that she has a good grip on how to use the building. “I don’t know that anything I did impacted what she does. The direction she has taken it is probably the right one — the one that works the best. Her shows look really beautiful.

“I always describe the building itself as a member of the family — most days you like it, but some days you really, really hate it like only a family member can frustrate you!” He says that some days the shows almost hung themselves, and other days “you just work and work, fight and fight. The thing I was most proud of is that by the time I was finished, I’d figured out that you shouldn’t build walls in that building; you need to stay away from trying to create symmetrical environments within it or do it really judiciously.”

Recalling the opening of the CAC, when there were about 12,000 people in the building and thousands left outside, he says, “It was one of the scariest times in my life. It felt like a crush.” He started opening doors and ushering people out.

When Distel left the CAC, he took a job running a small museum in New York’s Hudson Valley (The Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art), and that was near where Tom Collins ended up as Director of the Neuberger. It wasn’t a great fit for me, and we were also having a son at the same time, so we came back to Cincinnati after about a year.” Linda Shearer was the director then, having come from The Williams College Museum of Art.

“What a wonderful woman!” says Distel. “She was amazing to work with, an exceptional woman.” She left, and Toby Camps, the senior curator after Distel, also left. “The timing meant that I could consult there for the year during which Rafaela was hired, so I overlapped with her a little bit, but in the mean time I had been working on getting Country Club Gallery off the ground with Christian Strike.”

Within a year he and Strike expanded into Los Angeles and the gallery recently teamed up with the Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago. “Christian was the person who brought the exhibition Beautiful Losers (May 2004) to the CAC. He was the co-curator of that show along with Aaron Rose. That was one of the biggest, best attended shows the CAC had ever put on.”

Mural on Visionaries and Voices Building

That show was described thus by the CAC: In the 1990s, a loose-knit group of American artists, many just out of their teens, began creating art that reflected their lifestyles. Influenced by popular underground youth subcultures of the day–skateboarding, graffiti, street fashion and independent music–they began to make work in a variety of media that over time has come to define a unique aesthetic. The catalogue is available at Amazon (

Distel continues, “Aaron initially pitched the show to Charles, who gave it to Tom, who gave it to me to sort of manage. By the time the show happened, Tom and Charles had left, and I helped the CAC implement the show. That’s when I met Christian, although we had known about each other for years. He was running Escape Magazine, and there was an overlap in our circles of friends.”

Strike is still the owner of Country Club, and the LA gallery is still running, although Strike remains based in Cincinnati. There is a show in LA that Distel had hoped to help arrange, of an artist named Bob Flannagan, the longest survivor of Cystic Fibrosis, literally the ‘kid on the poster’. “It is really difficult work, and I’m glad to see it have a home. I became familiar with his work through the Schiffler connection. He learned how to deal with the pain by becoming a masochist, so it’s difficult sexual work and an incredible human story. He was a writer, a musician, a poet, and had an influential show at the New Museum in the 90’s. His partner/dominatrix was a photographer (Sheree Rose), and she is part of the show.” He adds, “Strike also has a company called Iconoclast.” (Iconoclast Editions is a project-based studio working in collaboration with artists to produce a wide variety of multi-media endeavors. Iconoclast produces exhibitions, publications, and artist editions. Since 2002, Iconoclast has produced a multitude of exhibitions, books, editions and other projects including the widely acclaimed touring museum exhibition, Beautiful Losers.)

So how did Distel cycle his life to Visionaries and Voices where he has recently become Director? “Country Club was great,” he says, “but I really felt this need to get back to curating that wasn’t tied to sales in the same way. The commercial art world is a much different animal than I expected. I totally believe in the mission and am proud of what we did, but what I didn’t understand was that being the director of a gallery was similar to being a curator but with a sales component. As a curator, you’re a consumer; as a gallery director you’re the seller. There has of course to be a theoretical component — why you are showing the work you are showing. I enjoyed that but had a longing to get back to the more grassroots, non-profit kind of world.”

Talking about V&V, he says, “I think to a certain extent we are still a bit of an enigma in Cincinnati. People don’t quite know what to make of us in terms of whether we are a studio or a gallery. My position is that these are really serious artists with a wide range of approaches. That is how they identify themselves as artists. Other than the disability component, there’s not much difference between us and any other studio in Cincinnati. We don’t have teachers on staff; instead we have what we call studio coordinators, so it’s artists working with artists. It’s really about maybe teaching a new skill or technique — for instance an artist might present a project and need to learn to weld to complete it.” The Studio Coordinator would help with that.

He continues, “We have two studios, and they are different. This Northside studio is big; Tri-County is smaller. Tri-County doesn’t have a kiln, so we try to get artists who are interested in ceramics down here. There is nothing as formal as a class, and the coming and going is dictated by their schedules and the ratio of staff to artists as mandated by the state and county.” Funding comes from the Department of Developmental Disability Services — county and state. Distel says that they have started working on arts funding, “and that’s the direction we need to go.”

Previously, Distel had put some of the V&V artists in shows at CAC. “We represented Antonio Adams, who was one of the founders, and also an artist, at Country Club. There was a handful of artists here that were best in the area, and I think probably now there are more than that. We are aspiring to create more and more great artists.” There are 140 artists in the program, mostly from Hamilton Country with a few from Butler and Warren counties.

Distel says V&V started as a network of friends and caseworkers, founded by Bill Ross and Keith Banner. “They, along with Raymond Thundersky and Antonio Adams, started the organization. It grew organically, and then they started receiving DDDS funding. There were a lot of referrals from county boards that expanded the programs. Most of the artists have development and cognitive disabilities.

“There is a piece of the motivation that is across the board for all artists — a reason why art is where they land. It has something to do with communication, staking out a position, presenting a point of view, commenting on something. There is a reason artists choose art to do that. It might be because they don’t want to talk about it — they want to write about it or make art about it. So the impulse with our artists, some of whom are completely non-verbal, is the same.”

“What we do here is to facilitate. I do think there are problem solving skills that our artists have, in their daily lives, which are beyond what you and I might have. I think it comes across as inventive in innovative ways, and it is interesting to see how it makes its way out onto the page, the canvas, the sculpture, or the video.”

On a broader scale, Distel looks at the landscape and the present depleted funding for the arts and just shakes his head. “It’s such a small line item. There are new metrics about how the arts impact various economies and quality of life, but now arts organizations are having to scramble and re-evaluate themselves.”

The skills it takes to work in the arts, Distel believes are critical to general good thinking: “a capacity for learning, a capacity for problem solving, and a capacity to receive and process criticism. That’s something I’m not sure everybody comes out with by going for a business degree!” he smiles.

–Cynthia Osborne Hoskin

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