I like museums. I really do. And it's not only because I love the art that's in them. I like museums because each museum has a distinct personality. Cincinnati is particularly fortunate to have three very different art museums that complement each other perfectly.

There's the grand old lady on the hill, the Cincinnati Art Museum; the elegant aristocrat on Fourth Street, the Taft Museum of Art; and that unpredictable, ever-youthful upstart on Sixth Street, the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC).

The more I learn about each museum's story, the more my visits mean to me.

Our three museums share a similar mission to provide a smorgasbord of visual art, but each has its own focus. The Art Museum seeks to offer a vast menu of the arts covering all centuries and cultures. The Taft serves to protect a historic residence and the important collection that was gathered by its residents. The CAC's task is to keep Cincinnatians on the leading edge of art "” think Mapplethorpe and the recent Shepard Fairey exhibit.

Cincinnati Art Museum

If I want to stroll through the arts of the ages, I go to the Cincinnati Art Museum, where I can spend time with the arts of ancient Persia, China or Egypt in the first-floor galleries before going upstairs to contemplate European painting and 20th-century Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Art can be anything here, paintings and sculpture, of course, but also furniture, ceramics, graphic design, photography, even automobiles.

Praised as the "Art Palace of the West," when it opened in 1886, it is the oldest museum building west of the Alleghenies.

Like many city art museums, its goal is to be encyclopedic, acquiring art works of every description from across the globe. Its first donors provided art bought to decorate their houses, so there are many aristocratic English portraits and European and American landscapes. Museum experts describe the collection as "domestic."

Later patrons added 20th-century modern art, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Miró. More gifts and acquisitions have brought the collection to the edge of the 21st century. Local collectors' passion for hometown art provided enough fine and decorative arts to fill an entire "Cincinnati Wing" of the museum.

Gifts are enhanced by museum purchases to broaden the collection, which today includes more than 60,000 objects, far more than can be shown in the present building.

But no museum wants to rest on its permanent collection. Why would visitors return more than once if nothing changed?

New works of art are constantly acquired to fill gaps in the collection, and temporary exhibitions enhance the museum experience. And, as time passes, the very definition of art can change. Fifty years ago, the museum did not consider photography an art form worth collecting. Today, it is a major focus. This summer, it even exhibited a 1956 Ford Thunderbird. Why not? Industrial design is one of the most important forms of art in the modern world.

Much of the distinctive original building has been concealed under later, less distinctive additions. Only the former Art Academy building illustrates the work of Cincinnati architect James McLaughlin. Much of the original interior remains, including the restored Great Hall, which was thought to be lost when it was subdivided into small galleries in the mid-20th century.

Potentially, the Cincinnati Art Museum could join the Taft and CAC as a significant work of architecture. The building is in much need of expansion. The plans have begun and designs completed, but the economic recession has delayed, if not ended, the dream.

Contemporary Arts Center

Even the Contemporary Arts Center is old. Founded in 1939 as the Modern Art Society, it is one of the first of America's growing number of contemporary art centers.

It is a museum that is not a museum. It owns no art. Long ago, CAC trustees decided that any permanent collection must grow old. Instead, all of the exhibition space is free to present a continuing series of the newest trends in visual art. It got off to a great start in 1939 when it brought Picasso's great 1937 painting "Guernica" to Cincinnati.

When you see a new exhibition at the CAC, expect the unexpected. It may be audacious, obscure, even irreverent, because new ideas in art take time to sink in. That's the joy of discovery.

The building is as much a part of the story.

The Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art has been called "the first great building of the 21st century" by The New York Times. It is the first building in America designed by Baghdad-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid. She is one of the most influential architects working today, and, according to Forbes magazine, one of "the world's most powerful women." Architects travel from all over the world to study the building, which is a work of art itself.

Taft Museum of Art

At the Taft Museum of Art, I step back in time to 19th-century Cincinnati and get a feel for the life of the old aristocracy. I enjoy a feast of great European painting and Chinese porcelains.

The Taft is an elegant mansion built around 1820. While not quite the oldest residence, it is Cincinnati's oldest grand residence. Four different families lived there during its century as a private residence, and it hosted some of the city's most important visitors. It is not, as many people think, the home of President William Howard Taft, though he was a frequent houseguest. The last owners were his half-brother, Charles Phelps Taft, and wife, Anna. Both avid art collectors, they donated their home and art collection to the people of Cincinnati in 1927. (Note that it is a gift to the people of the city, not to the city itself.)

Often the building that houses a museum can be the most important object in the museum collection. That's certainly the case with both the Taft and the Contemporary Arts Center.

The Taft is a "house museum." It is an important example of Greek revival architecture in what was once the West. Originally a villa on the edge of town, it is an irreplaceable treasure that houses an incredible art collection.

The Tafts gathered world-class collections of European paintings and Chinese porcelains. Even the Cincinnati Art Museum does not have paintings by Rembrandt, Goya, Whistler or Turner that the Taft offers. Murals were painted on the walls of the house in the 1840s by Robert Scott Duncanson, the first African-American artist to achieve international renown. The murals alone are an important part of history.

The Taft collection of art cannot grow. The idea is to preserve the house and the collection as the Tafts left it. Nothing can be added. But the museum does offer temporary exhibitions designed to keep visitors coming back.

Now, if you'll excuse me. There's some art I've got to see. 
Owen Findsen, author and lecturer, was a reporter and art critic for 39 years at the Cincinnati Enquirer. He is a member of the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in graphic design. He studied photography with Kazik Pazovski and painting with Paul Chidlaw. Findsen has taught design and art history at UC and has lectured widely on art history and Cincinnati history. He has twice led an art history tour of Umbria in Italy.

Don't Miss
Must-see Local Art at Weston, Carnegie

To catch up with the best in the local arts scene, there are two must-sees: the Weston Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the Carnegie Arts Center in Covington. Commercial art galleries, artists' cooperatives, etc. are a story for another time.
The Carnegie Arts Center reminds us that there are two sides to the Ohio River. The five galleries offer continuing exhibitions of area artists. The restored Carnegie is one of the libraries that Andrew Carnegie built in the early 20th century.

Among the Gems

Cincinnati Art Museum
Enjoy the Joan Miró mural, probably the largest object on view. It's colorful, whimsical, and it was made for Cincinnati. This museum is the whole package "” a rich and varied collection of art in a grand building hillside in the incomparable Eden Park. Savor a salad in the Terrace Café and make a day of it.