15 Arts & Culture Stories That Made an Impact on Greater Cincinnati in 2021

These Arts & Culture highlights from 2021 touch on everything from celebrities and celebrations to big changes.

Dec 26, 2021 at 2:09 pm
click to enlarge Installation view of Vincent van Gogh's artwork at The Lume at Newfields in Indianapolis - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Installation view of Vincent van Gogh's artwork at The Lume at Newfields in Indianapolis

This past year, Cincinnati saw new trends, welcomed back old favorites and planned for the future. These Arts & Culture highlights from 2021 touch on everything from celebrities and celebrations to big changes.

Vincent van Gogh Is Everywhere
This year, immersive Vincent van Gogh exhibits from multiple international presenters have been traveling to cities across the U.S. The exhibitions create all-encompassing, multi-sensory indoor environments by pairing the latest in digital technology with images recreated from van Gogh’s paintings. Newfields, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, converted its entire fourth floor into The Lume for its van Gogh show, on view through May 2022. And now, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience (from a separate producer than the Lume show) is coming to Cincinnati. This digital “light and sound spectacular” will encompass 20,000 square feet, display van Gogh’s most popular masterpieces and include a virtual reality experience. As of press time, the location for the show — which opens in June 2022 — is still secret. vangoghexpo.com/cincinnati.

Live Theater Returned to Cincinnati Stages
Cincinnati theaters welcomed audiences back indoors this fall with the return of fan favorites and world premieres to local stages. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati opened and closed Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline on March 11, 2020; the show had a one-night run due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the set remained on ETC’s stage until Pipeline opened the 2021 season on Sept. 22. The Playhouse kicked off its 2021 season with two world premieres: playwright Keith Josef Adkins’ historical play, The West End, set in Cincinnati in 1941; and Need Your Love, a musical about the life of underrated King Records star Little Willie John. The Playhouse also brought back the full staging of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the holidays (after it presented a one-man radio play version last year). Speaking of the holidays, Drunk Santa returned to the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s zany annual production of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!). To ensure live music, theater and other events can continue to happen during the pandemic, area venues — from major destinations like the Aronoff Center, Memorial Hall and Music Hall to smaller clubs like MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine — came together this year to require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test and, frequently, masks for entry.

PromoWest Pavilion at OVATION - Photo: Ron Valle
Photo: Ron Valle
PromoWest Pavilion at OVATION

New Music Venues Opened on Both Sides of the River
The state-of-the-art Andrew J. Brady Music Center (25 Race St., Downtown, bradymusiccenter.com) at The Banks opened in summer 2021 with a sold-out concert by the Foo Fighters. They played the 8,000-person-capacity outdoor stage, but there’s also space for 4,500 fans indoors. And while many entertainment arenas sell naming rights to companies or arts organizations to feature the name of a big donor, this spot is named for a longtime Cincinnati music educator and musician. In fact, the venue recently dropped the “ICON” from its original name to further elevate the tribute to Andrew J. Brady. Across the river, the new PromoWest Pavilion at OVATION (101 W. Fourth St., Newport, promowestlive.com) features three individual concert spaces — an outdoor amphitheater, an indoor music hall and an indoor club — and boasts “state-of-the-art” lighting and acoustic systems as well as a moveable stage. It can accommodate up to 2,700 fans inside and 7,000 outside. The additions are a huge win for local music audiences as both venues were stacked this year with big-name touring acts from across multiple genres. And 2022 is shaping up to continue that trend.

J'Nai Bridges as Carmen in the Cincinnati Opera's 2021 summer production - Photo: Philip Groshong
Photo: Philip Groshong
J'Nai Bridges as Carmen in the Cincinnati Opera's 2021 summer production

The Cincinnati Opera Was Finally Able to Celebrate Its Centennial
The Cincinnati Opera’s entire summer season was held outdoors this year for the first time since 1971, when the company decamped from the Cincinnati Zoo to Music Hall. The decision to move performances to Blue Ash’s Summit Park came in the wake of COVID spikes at the end of 2020, said opera Artistic Director Evans Mirageas. In fact, the company had to cancel its entire 2020 centennial season and instead marked its 100th anniversary in 2021, a year late. The opera performed three classics on the Summit stage in July: Carmen, Tosca and The Barber of Seville. The company announced it return to Music Hall (and SCPA) for 2022, with more fan favorites and two world premieres, Fierce and Castor & Patience. cincinnatiopera.org.

Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati

Cincinnati Got a Hard Rock Casino
Cincinnati’s freshly rebranded Hard Rock Casino Cincinnati (formerly JACK Casino) opened in July. And, yes, that means you can get your official Hard Rock Cafe Cincinnati shirt from the in-house eatery. Bonus: Hard Rock in fact “rocks” with plenty of live concerts. As with other locations of the chain, the Cincinnati casino is full of celebrity memorabilia. Inside you’ll see iconic keepsakes worn or owned by a wide genre of artists, including outfits from Stevie Nicks, KISS and Lady Gaga, plus you can get a look at Eddie Van Halen’s 1996 933 Porsche. Local artist Jenny Ustick also created a vibrant mural for the space, representing famous Ohio musicians. 1000 Broadway St., Pendleton, ​​hardrockcasinocincinnati.com.

The Truth Is Here: MUFON Set Up Headquarters In Cincinnati
Cincinnati is once again home to nonprofit UFO investigation organization Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON (MUFON left Cincinnati in 2012 to relocate to Irvine, California but has now set up headquarters near Lunken Airport). Launched in 1969, MUFON has more than 600 trained investigators and 4,200 members across the world to help investigate UFO sightings and collect the data, promote UFO research and educate the public about UFO phenomenon. Executive Director David MacDonald says making the move to Cincinnati permanent is valuable because of the city’s proximity to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and because it was once home to famous UFO pioneer Len Stringfield. mufon.com.

Court Street Plaza - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Court Street Plaza

Court Street Plaza Unveiled Its New Look
3CDC unveiled its $5.5 million Court Street Plaza revitalization project in June. The plaza — located on Court Street between Vine and Walnut streets — is a pedestrian-friendly urban promenade with enough space to accommodate outdoor dining, events and pop-ups and boasts public art. With wide sidewalks and a “festival-style street,” the area can easily be closed to cars and vehicle traffic as needed. New bars and restaurants have popped up along the development including the Ernest Hemingway/Key West-inspired cocktail lounge Pilar (pilarcincinnati.com), and Mid-City (midcitycinti.com), from the team behind popular Over-the-Rhine bar Longfellow. courtstreetcincy.com.

Will Nick Lachey don his Piglet costume when The Masked Singer comes to Cincinnati in 2022? - Photo: screenshot
Photo: screenshot
Will Nick Lachey don his Piglet costume when The Masked Singer comes to Cincinnati in 2022?

Nick Lachey Won The Masked Singer
When The Masked Singer TV show welcomed a celebrity disguised as a pig to its slew of singers, citizens of Porkopolis took notice — especially since we’re the hometown of one of America’s top-selling boy bands, 98 Degrees. “Piglet” ended up winning season 5 of the show and was revealed to be none other than Cincinnati native Nick Lachey (who also runs a production company called Flying Pig Productions). Lachey later told People magazine that he went on the show at his kids’ behest and that his daughter recognized his voice immediately. Our big question now is: Will Lachey grace the Taft Theatre stage when The Masked Singer tour comes to Cincinnati in June?

The Cincinnati Zoo Welcomed a Surprise Baby Panda
While Fiona typically takes the crown as the Cincinnati Zoo’s miracle baby, everyone — including zoo staff — was surprised when Lin the red panda gave birth to a new and entirely unexpected cub in July. Lin had a miscarriage in May and the zoo said, to their knowledge, this was the “first documented case of a red panda losing her pregnancy and then having another embryo come along and implant in the same year.” And speaking of Fiona, her mom Bibi got a new boyfriend this year. “Huge, dark and handsome” 18-year-old Nile hippo Tucker was transported from the San Francisco Zoo in September as a potential mate. 3400 Vine St., Avondale, cincinnatizoo.org.

Cincinnati Was Named One of the Best Cities to Make a Movie
Cincinnati was named America’s No. 13 Best Place to Live & Work as a Filmmaker by MovieMaker Magazine this year, making it the fourth straight year the Queen City has earned the honor. The city moved up one spot from its No. 14 showing in 2020. The magazine highlights Cincinnati’s downtown skyline, low cost of living and Ohio’s 30% motion picture tax credit as chief among the reasons for the city’s emergence as a stalwart that has lured films such as 2015’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; 2017’s Killing of a Sacred Deer, starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell; and 2019’s Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. And we saw plenty of celebrity action in 2021, including Academy Award-nominated dream team Luca Guadagnino and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) filming Bones & All and Oscar winner Regina King filming Shirley, the story of America’s first Black congresswoman.

The CSO Appointed a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra appointed Harold Brown as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer in March. This position marked a first, not only for the CSO, but also for a major American orchestra. Brown’s position will review all of the CSO’s policies to ensure equity; expand internship opportunities to encourage, mentor and retain Black, Indiginous and people of polor; develop and strengthen relationships with underserved communities; and implement cultural competency/implicit bias training for musicians, staff and board members. The CSO’s new Andrew J. Brady Internship Program was launched this year to give “students from backgrounds not significantly represented in the orchestra industry” experience in orchestra management. cincinnatisymphony.org.

Major Arts Stars Stepped Down
Three of the city’s major arts institutions are seeing big changes. Longtime Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director Victoria Morgan has announced she’ll be stepping down at the end of the 2021-22 season — her 25th year with the organization. The CSO announced that Music Director Louis Langrée is not renewing his contract and would depart at the conclusion of the 2023-24 season. (Langrée has taken a gig as director of the Opéra Comique in Paris.) And Raphaela Platow, the Contemporary Arts Center’s Alice & Harris Weston Director, left her role in July to take a new position as the director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

But Cincinnati Arts Organizations Have Big Plans
After almost two years of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, local arts, cultural and educational organizations are cautiously hoping they can finally emerge from nightmare times with new ideas. A number are at least considering — and, in some cases, already constructing — new buildings or redesigning existing ones. That list includes the Cincinnati Art Museum, which has launched a $65 million fundraising campaign to create a sweeping “New View” of the institution’s main entrance, as well as the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library, the Playhouse in the Park, the Taft Museum of Art, the Vent Haven Museum, the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, Lloyd Library & Museum, Cincinnati Type & Print Museum and others.

We Talked a Lot About Dave Chappelle
Comedian Dave Chappelle made headlines during the pandemic for hosting a series of celebrity-packed, socially distant outdoor music and stand-up shows in his hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was the hottest ticket in town (if not the country) in 2020, and he brought the shows back in May of this year. He also screened his Untitled documentary about the stand-up series, made with Oscar and Emmy-winning filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, at the Heritage Bank Center in 2021. And he’s reportedly opening a comedy club in Yellow Springs. But it wasn’t all rosy for the storytelling comedian after he intentionally misgendered a transgender friend who had died in his Netflix special The Closer. In an anything-but-funny moment, Netflix employees staged a walk-out to protest Chappelle’s anti-trans jokes as well as his ongoing anti-cancel-culture comedy sets.

click to enlarge Wasson Way near the I-71 overpass - Photo: Provided by Wade Johnston
Photo: Provided by Wade Johnston
Wasson Way near the I-71 overpass

The Queen City Is One Step Closer to Its CROWN
It was a good year for biking in Cincinnati. Afar magazine named the Little Miami Scenic Trail as one of the five best urban trails in America and the bike trail was also a factor in Forbes naming Cincinnati as a top 2021 destination for travelers. The Cincinnati Riding or Walking Network (CROWN) also surpassed a major milestone in June when it secured $6 million of an $8 million goal to complete segments of a 34-mile mixed-use walking/biking path. Led by Tri-State Trails, Wasson Way, Ohio River Way and a public-private partnership, CROWN aims to connect over 100 miles of pre-existing and to-be-constructed trail systems while boosting economic development, improving transportation options, stimulating businesses and promoting healthy activities. CROWN will serve as a “hub” to access the aforementioned Little Miami Scenic Trail, Wasson Way (which recently opened Phase 5) and more. crowncincinnati.org.

Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest on the news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.