Adapting Adeptly

The Art Academy of Cincinnati celebrates a decade in Over-the-Rhine

click to enlarge Art Academy President John M. Sullivan says no one could have expected OTR to change so fast.
Art Academy President John M. Sullivan says no one could have expected OTR to change so fast.

V

enice will be no farther away than 444 Reading Road on Friday evening, when “Venezia Carnevale,” a Beaux Arts Ball hosted by the Art Academy of Cincinnati Alumni Council, takes place at the Bell Event Center.

Gondolas and an expansive landscape painted by academy students will be part of the scene for an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the school’s move from Eden Park to Over-the-Rhine and honoring those who made the move possible.

“It was the right place at the right time, although at the time no one could have known how fast the neighborhood would change,” says John M. Sullivan, Art Academy president, who moved to Cincinnati two years ago to head the venerable art school, founded in 1869.

Now located at 1212 Jackson St., one block east of Vine Street and the Gateway Quarter, the Art Academy had a long association with the Cincinnati Art Museum and was housed next door to the Eden Park institution in its own building for decades. The move to OTR was a major change and involved cutting its ties to the museum in order to become an independent college of art and design. It now grants degrees in graphic design, illustration, painting and drawing, photography, print media and sculpture, as well as a master’s degree in art education.

Art Academy graduates can be found in art-related jobs throughout the city as well, continuing to make their own art. They tend to look back on their educations with pleasure and gratitude. Mike Beeghly, a 1979 graduate, is now a designer who deals with “brand identity in the built environment” and is pleased to reminisce about learning under illustration instructor Charley Harper. Beeghly says Harper used to conduct live tutorials to show students how he created his iconic illustrations.

“Watching him work and listening to him casually talk about what influenced his creative process must have been like sitting next to Socrates expounding on philosophy,” Beeghly says. “Only Charley was probably much funnier.”

Harper was himself a mid-20th-century graduate of the Art Academy, and he attended at the same time as famed wild-life artist John Ruthven. The two became firm friends.

Patrick Kunnen, a graduate from 1978, speaks of four years spent with people from all over the place, from different ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds. “People I ordinarily would have never interacted with,” he says, “and teachers who drove you crazy with their expectations. I lost my fear of the unknown and learned to push on through every problem — learned to let go.”

Another graduate from the Eden Park days, Jan Brown Checco, was working with OTR youngsters on a Keep Cincinnati Beautiful project called “Vine Street Murals and Can-paign” at the time the Art Academy was preparing to move downtown.

“I was concerned for the art students who would soon be living and studying in this challenging neighborhood,” she says. But the response to the project she was involved with convinced her that students would be welcomed. Art is “something that uplifts everyone’s mood,” she says. “Art can do that.”

The small classes and “personal education” stick in the mind of Jack Hennen, a 1989 graduate, when he speaks of his Art Academy education. “The most valuable takeaway,” he says, “is the creative process I learned at AAC. It has allowed me to be quick and thorough at problem solving.”

That trait no doubt influences the predilection of Joe Wilhelm, production manager at Rookwood Pottery, in hiring academy graduates. “They are hard-working, knowledgeable and bring a passion to whatever they are working on,” Wilhelm says. “We know here at Rookwood that if we hire an Art Academy graduate, we are hiring a quality individual.”

The Art Academy, with its current enrollment hovering around 200, has the capacity to grow to around 250 bachelor of fine arts students, according to Joan Kaup, the school’s vice president for institutional advancement. About 85 percent of students are from the Greater Cincinnati area, she says, noting that moving to OTR increased the academy’s physical footprint from 40,000-square-feet to 112,000. Now, juniors and seniors each have a studio with natural light, and students have 24-hour access to their studio spaces.

In addition to its degree programs, the Art Academy also offers classes to children, teens and adults year-round through its Community Education program. The public can stop by the school during public hours (they vary, depending on what’s going on) to inquire about classes or to take a look at temporary art exhibitions. These shows usually feature the work of current students or noted graduates.

Kaup mentions that among famous alumni is Elizabeth Nourse, who graduated early in the life of the school, in 1880, when it still was associated with the University of Cincinnati and called the School of Design. Nourse spent her painting career in France and is frequently linked with Mary Cassatt, both of whom became outstanding practitioners in a field then dominated by men. She is among the six Art Academy alumni whose work contributes to the six Master Series ArtWorks murals in downtown Cincinnati. Five of these pieces are already in place; the sixth, reflecting Nourse, will be unveiled soon.

Sullivan, in his expansively windowed office on an upper floor of 1212 Jackson St., speaks of the appropriateness of the location and the situation of the Art Academy at this point in time.

“Long-term debt has been eliminated; it’s a stable institution,” he says. “We provide higher education for professional practice. Students are ultimately employable, but we are not a career school.”

Sullivan goes on to speak of the building’s energy when school is in session and of students’ interest in pushing an expansion of film and video classes.

“We’re content providers and makers,” he says. “It’s amazing to me what students accomplish.”

A school that goes back to 1869 necessarily moves with the times, but the Art Academy seems adept at it. ©

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