Creatives in Clifton

Performing arts flourish in unique Gaslight District venues

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click to enlarge Filmmakers and appreciators gathered at a recent Sunset Salon at Clifton Cultural Arts Center.
Filmmakers and appreciators gathered at a recent Sunset Salon at Clifton Cultural Arts Center.


n a recent Wednesday in September, the crowd in the foyer of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center (CCAC) ate, drank and talked quietly as the New Horizons Orchestra performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the sun set through stained glass windows. 

Inside the adjacent art gallery, five filmmakers (Jesse Byerly, Russ and Amy Faust, Melissa Godoy and Andrea Toricce) and two film festival organizers (Kat Steele, Tim Swallow) prepared for their close-up. With Steele moderating, they participated in the first panel discussion in CCAC’s 2014-2105 Sunset Salon series. Panelists discussed their work, and then short trailers or clips played on the opposite wall to illustrate the discussion.

“The point of a salon as we understand it is to both educate and entertain,” says Emalene Benson, the CCAC programs and office coordinator who has been organizing the Sunset Salons since last year, when she took over the event series from another coordinator.

“They were already programs based around ideas and discussion. We started to make them less lecture-style and more panel-style, and as part of that shift, we changed the name,” Benson says.

Each season of the salon series has five themed events on Wednesdays featuring experts speaking on a panel. Following September’s “Film” will be November’s “Song” and then “Wine,” “Improv” and “Bourbon” in January, March and May, respectively.

According to Leslie Mooney, the executive director at the CCAC, the salon brings diversity to the center. “We have a lot of programming for children and families but hardly anything for adults,” she says. “We’ve averaged around 40 to 50 adults in the salons.”

She noted that they could fit up to 100 in the gallery, which is less than the auditorium in the CCAC’s upstairs. But space for audience members was less important than feel.

“The gallery has a more informal vibe and connects our salon with the art exhibit,” Mooney says.

If salons require an informal and beautiful space and a start time around sunset, the Tongue and Groove Salon at the Clifton House Bed and Breakfast, less than a mile away from the CCAC, also fits the bill. The house sits on a ridge above Terrace Avenue in the Gaslight District and boasts jaw-dropping historical interiors that owner Nancy Niehaus proudly decorates with works from local artists.

The Clifton House has hosted the Tongue and Groove salon series since 2011. Niehaus’ friend Tracy Connor first suggested exporting the salon model based on an event series held in Los Angeles, her former home.

“I have a friend from L.A. named Conrad Romo who told me about his salon called Tongue and Groove,” Connor says. “I asked him if I could start a Tongue and Groove Cincinnati and he said, ‘Yes, of course!’ ”

After her conversation with Romo, Connor immediately thought of using the Clifton House for the salon. When she first visited Cincinnati from Los Angeles and stayed at the B&B, Niehaus invited her to a party to meet artists in Clifton.

“Nancy is a social catalyst,” Connor says.

One of those artists was Kay Sloan, a local author who now reads at the Cincinnati Tongue and Groove salon a few times a year. Sloan praises both the audiences at the salon and the B&B.

“The house itself is art, and it’s an invitation to art,” she says.

There are only two Tongue and Grooves in the country, and while L.A’s occurs monthly, Cincinnati’s version happens once per quarter on a Sunday. In contrast to the Sunset Salons’ panel discussions, Tongue and Groove features musicians and writers, curated by Connor, who perform 10-minute literary readings and musical performances for two hours, with an intermission.

Connor agrees with Sloan’s assessment of the Clifton House. “If (Niehaus) wasn’t as generous of a host as she was and her guests weren’t as eclectic as they were, then I don’t think the opportunity for me to do this thing would have happened,” she says.

Niehaus gently deflects compliments about the house and the salon, which sold out its 70 seats by its third event.

“It’s just a house until the people walk through it,” she says.

She keeps physical mementos of many of those people in her library, which houses shelves of books by poets and authors who have performed at Tongue and Groove or just stayed at the B&B.

She justifies her faith in her guests with stories about their generosity and talent. The Clifton House often hosts parents of university students because of the proximity of the B&B to Cincinnati’s major colleges.

“We had these parents staying in the house the weekend of Tongue and Groove,” Niehaus says. “Their daughter was an opera singer at the University of Cincinnati’s conservatory, and she told me, ‘Wouldn’t I love to sing in this house!’ I said that I would love to hear her do that and she sang at the salon, and she brought everybody to tears.”

These surprise moments animate the Sunset Salons at CCAC as well. At the “Film” salon, Benson was happily surprised at a turn in the conversation led by Andrea Torrice, who challenged the audience to ask the Greater Cincinnati Foundation to support filmmakers in the same way that it supports other artists in the region. The increased audience participation after that comment was noticeable to Benson.

“We’re always surprised by the direction things go,” she says. “Some of the folks who often came to our salons last year who were usually quiet were much louder this time, and maybe it’s because we were talking about advocacy.”

No matter the subject, the two salons that bracket Clifton offer a commentary on the neighborhood’s artistic engagement.

“The salon brings out the creative side in so many Cliftonites,” Sloan says. “Clifton’s a little Greenwich Village in Cincinnati.”

Connor is more emphatic.

“We’ve crippled a lot of artists by demanding this geographic commitment to these coastal cities,” she says. “What’s gorgeous about Cincinnati, especially Clifton, is that it has an enthusiastic and dedicated audience that will come out and see art.”

The next TONGUE AND GROOVE SALON will take place Oct. 26, and the next SUNSET SALON is scheduled for Nov. 19. More info: The Clifton House Facebook Page , .

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