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The historic home of the Taft Museum in Cincinnati reopens just in time for the 200th anniversary | Art and culture

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The Taft Museum of Art is celebrating the reopening of the historic home following a multi-million dollar infrastructure repair and upgrade project. The 200-year-old Lytle Place mansion closed just under a year ago, though adjoining portions of the structure remained open during construction.

“The overall project was about $12.7 million. Before the pandemic it was $10.7 (million) and we took a break and when we started the project again everything was up 20% for obvious reasons,” he says. Deborah Emont Scott, Louise Taft Semple President and CEO.

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Dignitaries cut the ribbon for the bicentennial infrastructure repair project at the Taft Museum of Art. [Tana Weingartner / WVXU]

Renovations include upgraded fire and security systems, upgraded climate control systems, and a fortified base. Seventy percent of the historic wood siding was preserved, as well as other window work, metal work, and more.

Scott says there are still a few projects to finish, like the installation of an ADA accessible ramp along the front of the building.

    Scaffolding going up at the Taft Museum as infrastructure improvements began.

Scaffolding going up at the Taft Museum as infrastructure improvements began. [Courtesy Taft Museum of Art]

The museum marks the 200th anniversary of the historic mansion with a bicentennial celebration, including tours, entertainment and free admission on June 26. The museum itself also celebrates 90 years of existence.

In addition to infrastructure improvements, the museum has reinterpreted its collection, much of which was packed during construction.

“We challenged ourselves with the question, ‘How do we make a collection built in the early 20th century relevant to a diverse early 21st century audience?’ says Scott. “We reinterpreted the entire permanent collection, quadrupled the number of extended labels that used to be present. We also added a lot of ‘more to the story’ tags where we talked about issues of class, gender, and social events that had an impact on life at the time.”

    Stanton Millworks employees work on the windows of the historic house.

Stanton Millworks employees work on the windows of the historic house. [Courtesy Taft Museum of Art]

“The museum also re-examined its archives (and) the museum provided the most up-to-date research and scholarly knowledge for the next generation of visitors,” a statement added. “This included the introduction of a new digital interactive, memories of a mansionproviding access to educational resources previously unavailable to the public, and renaming and restructuring galleries to provide more inclusive information.”

The reopening comes as longtime President and CEO Deborah Emont Scott prepares to retire at the end of the month. Her position will be filled by Lindsey NeCamp while the museum looks for a permanent replacement.

    Duncanson's murals in the lobby of the historic house.

Duncanson’s murals in the lobby of the historic house. [Ryan Kurtz / Taft Museum of Art]

The historic Duncanson murals that adorn the home’s entry foyer were covered and monitored during the renovation.

Cincinnati artist Robert S. Duncanson is considered the best-known African-American artist of the Civil War era. The eight murals inside the Taft House were commissioned by one of the house’s previous owners, Nicholas Longworth, who, according to the Cincinnati Art Museum, recognized and fostered Duncanson’s talent. They are considered “the most significant pre-Civil War domestic murals in the United States,” according to the Taft Museum of Art.

Duncanson’s artist-in-residence, Ajanaé Dawkins, spoke about the importance of Duncanson and her work during the ribbon cutting. She provided her comments after her to WVXU:

“When I first saw Robert S. Duncanson’s murals, I was struck by their grandeur. As I looked at them, I thought of Audre Lorde’s essay, Poetry is not a luxury. I think of it in the context of Robert S. Duncanson and remember that art in general is not a luxury.

“As great as all of this is, it is not a luxury. It is critical that we remember the American landscape as it was through the eyes of African Americans. It is also essential that we allow this space to expand our imagination.

“Robert S. Duncanson’s mother, who we know was a slave, probably could not have imagined a world in which her son would travel the world and leave his mark on history. She probably could not have imagined that he would have received a good compensation for your work or develop a friendship with someone like Nicholas Longworth.

“I hope that entering this space today will challenge us all to think beyond the limitations of our current imaginations when we think about what is possible in the world we live in and how we can contribute to those possibilities.”

    A conservator reviews one of Duncanson's murals.

A conservator reviews one of Duncanson’s murals. [Courtesy Taft Museum of Art]

The museum has a traditional collection with many European influences. The museum opened in the 1930s with works from the personal collection of Anna Sinton Taft and Charles Phelps Taft.

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