An asymmetrical, zig-zagging flight of stairs rises near the intersection of Eden Park Drive and Gilbert Avenue from the sidewalk, flanked on either side by greenery as it weaves through a hillside.
This is the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Art Climb: 164 steps and nine stories high with 16 landings. The stairway also includes four “art plazas,” which CAM’s Director of Marketing and Communications Jill Dunne says are “earmarked for artwork.” (Those spaces may be filled this summer. Dunne says that they’re in talks to borrow three large-scale pieces from Hamilton’s Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum.) Throughout the climb are light beam structures, meant to guide users toward the museum.
The multi-year project will unfold in phases with the total cost ringing in at $20 million (paid for with private funding and New Market Tax Credits). Construction outside of the Art Climb encompasses a new front drive, art and paths.
Due to the hillside’s steepness, the Art Climb is not ADA accessible, according to the CAM’s website, which has caused controversy. Future phases will include ramps elsewhere on museum grounds; the stairway’s top landing — the one closest to the parking lot — will be made ADA compliant via a ramp.
Unveiled May 7, Dunne says the Art Climb saw over 5,000 people use the stairway during its first four days. When she first took to the steps, she said she was “within tears” — and not just because she was out of breath.
“We’re really proud. I think it looks really great,” she says. “It’s just something so different and smart of us, I think, to really open up outside our walls and give people something to do outside.”
Because of the pandemic, the Art Climb did not have a public opening celebration, though one is tentatively scheduled for later in the year. Still, stroll by and you’ll likely see visitors utilizing the off-white steps in a number of ways — running, exploring with their families, taking a break on a landing to read, photographing.
Though unintentional — COVID-19 and social distancing certainly weren’t on their minds in the process of planning the Art Climb — Dunne says that the stairway has given people a way to connect with the museum while their building was closed.
Working alongside Turner Construction, the museum partnered with Emersion Design and Human Nature for the architecture and landscape design. Dunne points out that the stairway was the “brainchild” of Director Cameron Kitchin, who joined the museum five years ago. It falls in line with CAM’s strategic plan laid out in 2016 and set to finish this year. More specifically, it’s an initiative toward their goal of expanding community impact and outreach.
Criss-crossing down the hillside, the Art Climb was intentionally mapped out to land near a Cincinnati Metro bus stop. It’s meant to physically connect the CAM to surrounding neighborhoods, including Walnut Hills, by removing barriers. Located in the northern part of the museum’s grounds, invasive honeysuckle and diseased ash trees were removed in the construction process, though a release notes that effort was put toward retaining as many healthy trees as possible.
Until the museum reopens its indoor space to the public on June 20 (and on June 18 for members), Dunne says she is happy that Cincinnatians are able to connect with the CAM’s exterior via the Art Climb, which joins over 400 sets of public steps in the city.
“We’re a hilly place and the fact that we have a new set of steps to join so many historic, beautiful steps that have been there throughout the years, we’re excited to be a part of that,” she says.
Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams, cincinnatiartmuseum.org