Ask any museum curator about the most significant show they've put on in, say, the past decade, and you'll hear talk of Rembrandts and Renoirs. Ask the guy on the street to recall HIS most memorable exhibition, however, and you'll more likely hear talk of "Titanic" artifacts and Vatican treasures.

This, in a nutshell, is the business dilemma facing Greater Cincinnati's museum directors: Stick with the masters, or cater to pop culture? Draw bodies in the door, or embody the history of fine art? It's a dilemma accented by February's opening of "Diana, A Celebration" at the traditionally staid Dayton Art Institute, a surefire blockbuster that's likely to attract museum-goers away from central Cincinnati venues.

"Diana" may not have much to do with fine art, but it makes for fine marketing: The exhibit will include the royal wedding gown worn by the Princess of Wales as well as iconic memorabilia and designer dresses by Versace, Chanel and others. No less than nine galleries will be devoted to Diana's childhood, engagement, royal wedding, her fashion style, personal home movies and rare jewelry.

Which begets the question: is the mission of museums to educate, or to entertain? Is the bottom line to enlighten and challenge, or boost ticket sales? Certainly, museums are "not-for-profit" organizations. But that doesn't translate to "no profits"; a museum, like any reputable business, must meet its payroll and pay the furnace bill.

"I think it's interesting because it kind of touches on a big debate in the museum world," observes Linda Shearer, director of the Contemporary Arts Center downtown. It's a debate about the value of intellectual shows versus those exhibits that could be accused of pandering to the public.
Shearer points to the growing lack of distinction between the not-for-profits and profits, noting that Clear Channel"”a huge, very much for-profit corporation"”has begun programming museum-quality exhibits such as the Museum Center's "Saint Peter and the Vatican: Legacy of the Popes" (the largest assemblage of fine art and artifacts from Vatican City ever to tour) and "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit." Both of these are the two most popular museum exhibits in recent Cincinnati history in terms of attendance (see related chart).

Currently, Shearer and the CAC are doing their part to draw bodies in the door, exhibiting "A Thousand Tears Too Late: A History of Cincinnati Soul," which pieces together the journey of privately pressed 45-rpm soul and R&B records made in this city during the late '60s and early '70s, on labels such as Fraternity, Bubbles, Go Ko, Split, Karat, Soul Sauce and Empire State. Concurrent exhibits are "Sacred and Profane: A Collection of Sonic Art" and "Star Star: Toward the Center of Attention," which examines the insatiable desire of celebrities for the spotlight.
Although the arts center doesn't keep specific records on exhibit attendance, Shearer says "Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art" is the CAC's most popular exhibit since the move into their acclaimed new building in 2003.

Other draws include "Incorporated" (showcasing a history of infiltrations, insurgents and sabotage actions utilizing contemporary art), "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Skateboard Culture" (showing how 50 artists are influenced by street culture), "Crimes and Misdemeanors: Politics in U.S. Art of the 1980s," "My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation" (catering to fans of "Speed Racer" and "Astro Boy"), and even "Better Living Through Chemistry," where musician David Byrne of the rock band Talking Heads presented his visual look at a world trying to sell itself salvation.

"Diana is a subject that people have a fascination with, and it will probably be a very successful show," Shearer continues, noting the inherent "gossip" factor. But she steps back to note the museum world's concern over the continuing "Disneyification, for lack of a better word."
"It's an interesting question," agrees Timothy Rub, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. "There are traditional divisions that museums have always observed between fine art and popular culture."

That said, the Cincinnati Art Museum finds itself currently displaying a very pop-culturish exhibit, "Borrowed Time: The Photograph as Music Album Cover" (which includes I-Pods playing rock music as an accompaniment to the show). There was even "Borrowed Time: The Concert," a museum benefit event last month featuring local bands such as the Hiders, Ruby Vileos, Lens Lounge, Sohio and Sweet Impala performing classic rock covers.

"The divisions have begun to blur," concedes Rub. "Museums have to become much more inclusive and engage bigger audiences."

The Cincinnati Art Museum has clearly been trying to do its best to balance the two extremes. On the one hand, one other current exhibit is "Cat Chow," which displays "wearable" art made from unlikely materials. On the other hand is the recent"”and significant-"”exhibition "Petra: Lost City of Stone," which featured 200 Jordanian artifacts, archeological and religiously significant objects created several centuries before Christ. Even with "Petra," marketing types were quick to hype that the architectural ruins of the city, as it happens, were used for location shooting for the film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Other CAM exhibits that have catered to public tastes  include "Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama" (showcasing photos from tabloid newspapers that depicted the seamy underside of New York City life in the 1940s); "The Editorial Eye: Cartoons by Jim Borgman and Jeff Stahler"; "Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats"; displays of decorative arts by Faberge; glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly; costumes by Bill Blass, Dior and Halston; and "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," which included screenings of Parks' movies "Shaft" and "Shaft's Big Score."

Be it mummies, Rosetta stones, Madcap Puppet shows, pyramids, Thank van Gogh It's Friday (TvGIF), yuppie parties and even "Naked at the CAM" (an all-night party and scavenger hunt encouraging patrons to cavort among the institution's nude sculptures), the venerable art museum is clearly willing to push its marketing envelope. It's a case of "Show Me the Money" as opposed to "Show Me the Monet."

"The museum profession's joke," reveals one former Cincinnati Art Museum marketing official, "is that the perfect title for a blockbuster exhibition would be 'Treasures of the Lost Golden Impressionist Cats of Egypt'."

Rub says it's all a matter of balancing those shows that boast "broad popular appeal" with those addressing the fundamental mission of a museum to showcase "the arts of different cultures and historical periods."

The town's premiere art museum certainly isn't caving entirely to the whims of the masses. The well-regarded "Strokes of Genius: Masterworks from the New Britain Museum of American Art" presented more than a hundred works by American masters such as Georgia '™Keeffe, Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer. Other premieres have included "Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens," "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood from the Classical Past," "American Watercolors: Whistler to Wyeth," "Treasures for a Queen: Works by James McNeill Whistler, Jim Dine, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Others," "American Paintings at Procter & Gamble," and "European Masterpieces: Six Centuries of Paintings" (showcasing works by Rembrandt, Picasso, El Greco, Gainsborough, Monet and Cezzane).

But such brave attempts are programmed in the face of competition from the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati Museum Center, the Taft Museum of Art, and even smaller venues such as the Fitton Center for Creative Arts and the Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum"”both in Hamilton"”as well as the Middletown Fine Arts Center and Covington's Carnegie Visual & Performing Arts Center.

The Cincinnati Museum Center, alone, has brought in such popular shows as "Nicholas and Alexandra: At Home With the Last Tsar and His Family" (the first exhibition of the Romanov family's art and personal belongings to tour in America), "Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body," "Jurassic Park: The Lost World," "Space Station" (where you could touch actual moon rocks and visit a Mars Base Camp of the future), "The Science of SuperCroc," and "Baseball as America" (the first touring exhibit from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.).

And now comes business competition from the north, in the form of the Dayton Art Institute and "Diana."

"Cincinnati is a great market for us, since it's such a short drive from Cincinnati to Dayton," notes Kim Patton, director of communications for the institute. "We always see attendance from Cincinnati for our larger exhibitions." (Specific numbers breaking down Cincinnati attendance were not available.)

It doesn't necessarily help local museums when nearby facilities stage blockbusters, such as the Toledo Museum of Art's "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth""”one of the most-visited traveling Smithsonian exhibitions of all time"”or Dayton's "Diana." Or perhaps it does help. Some curators will tell you ANY exhibit that lures Joe Average into the marbled halls and refined galleries is a good thing...that such visits, any visits, will kindle in Mister Average a love of museums that will encourage him to return again and again...that museums don't REALLY compete with each other, but with the family television set and the lazy Barcalounger.

Then again, perhaps"”like tourist dollars"”the money spent at museum turnstiles is finite, the available entertainment dollars siphoned from a limited pool of any given family's discretionary funds. Dayton or Toled'™s gain, to put it crassly, might be the Cincinnati museum world's loss. In fact, of the top 10 exhibition draws over the past decade or so, four of the biggest regional draws were programmed by the Dayton Art Institute. This month's "Diana" will almost surely top that powerhouse list.

"We clearly all want more museum visitors," concludes the CAC's Shearer. "Everyone has to figure out what's right for their audience. To figure out, 'Who are we doing this for?' "