Ask what Aaron Betsky — director of the Cincinnati Art Museum — hangs on his office walls, and the reply you get is “hand-me-downs.”

Well, the equivalent of “hand-me-downs” in the art museum world, anyhow: paintings with dings, artworks with imperfections, dusty masterpieces that probably have languished too long in the art museum’s basement.

“That’s a Gauguin,” Betsky says, pointing to one of the smallest paintings. “It’s awaiting [restoration] studies by the experts. And that’s a George Innes landscape.” As if by way of apology, he adds, “It’s smudged, and needs a little bit of work.”

“Needs a little bit of work.” That, in a sentence, could describe the aging Cincinnati Art Museum. And that’s precisely why Betsky came here two years ago, succeeding Timothy Rub and leaving a prestigious post as director at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.

Not that he needed a lot of encouragement when, as he laughs, “the headhunters started circulating like buzzards.”
 

THE BETSKY FILE

Age: 50
Author: Zaha Hadid: The Complete Work. (Hadid designed the Contemporary Arts Center.)
Background: Taught at the University of Cincinnati in the 1980s.
Resides: In a 1956 wood-brick-and-glass home, designed by Cincinnati master architect Charles Strauss.
Latest Accomplishment: Appearing on a world stage as director of this year’s 11th annual International Architecture Biennale in Venice.
Cincinnati has “a great art museum that my predecessors did a tremendous job with, opening it up to the public for free. I am excited to build on that and expand on that.

“When I arrived here, there was a facilities master plan,” he notes. “This campus has not physically expanded since 1962, close to a half century. The museum had come to realize it needed to change.”

Betsky talks of growing the institution from 35,000 to 50,000 square feet, of adding 30 percent more gallery space, of building a spectacular new entrance off Eden Park Drive as well as new space for special exhibitions, and of using “every inch of space in the building, including the Art Academy.” Offices would move into the old academy structure because “the museum should be about the art, not about the offices.”

“Especially in these difficult economic times, it’s important to realize that art is not a luxury. It is a very profound way in which we can understand ourselves as a community,” observes Betsky, adding that the museum board selected the firm of Neutelings Riedijk Architects, based in Rotterdam, to design the multi-phase Eden Park campus renovation and expansion.

The economy is a challenge, certainly, and the board of directors plans to address the situation — to expand, or not to expand — in the new year. “We’re taking sort of a breather. ... We’re trying to figure out how we can cut things back without too much hurt,” is how Betsky puts it.

John F. Barrett, CEO of Western & Southern Financial Group and chairman of the museum board, adds this: “We have every intention of expanding the campus. It may not be this spring, however, with the markets in turmoil right now. It’s our sense not to contact people when their net worth is down 40 percent. The timing couldn’t be worse.” Barrett points out that Betsky’s role extends well beyond the museum’s physical plant. Arts programming and curating is a critical part of the job.

“Certainly one of the things I’ve tried to do is use our collection to, I hope, entice the community to come here,” Betsky says, extolling some special exhibits.

“In Long Time, No See, we get a chance to show some of our great treasures. In Three Rembrandts [we found] a partnership with The Louvre.” Then there’s China Design Now, which recognizes the explosion of Chinese culture in graphic design, fashion and architecture.

“Cincinnati forgets it is very much a part of a global culture, a global economy,” he remarks.

Still to come this month is a Dali/Picasso/Miro retrospective from Israel. “It’s really a wonderful collection of work, and we’re the only American venue.”

Beyond programming and campus redesign, an art director is charged with staffing. One of Betsky’s major changes: bringing in Patricia Hynes from New York, with her two decades of experience in development for major urban museums. Other new recruits include Benedict Luca, curator of the reorganized Department of European Painting, Sculpture and Drawing; James Crumb, curator of the Department of Photography; and Stephen Jaycox, deputy director of external relations.

“The Cincinnati Art Museum should help us understand where we came from and where we are going,” Betsky says. “I would want it to be the first place in Cincinnati that anyone would want to spend an afternoon, especially for young creatives to come see the world.

“We hold it in trust for the children in the community — this incredible art and art crafts, these great works that our ancestors produced.”