an Francisco used to be a destination for aspiring artists until the high cost of living started driving creatives away. In its wake, suddenly Cincinnati’s affordability and desire for artists have pegged us as a potential new art frontier.
Artists Calcagno “Cal” and Geoffrey “Skip” Cullen had both gotten their M.F.A.s from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning by 2008 — she grew up in upstate New York; he’s from here — and shortly thereafter got married and moved to San Francisco. Besides creating their own art, the couple has years of experience in arts education and teaching: Cal worked as an education associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and currently teaches part time at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and Skip taught at the Art Institute of California-Sunnyvale. But after five-and-a-half years on the West Coast, they decided it was time to head back to Cincinnati and take a gamble on opening their first gallery, Wave Pool.
“The reason we moved out to San Francisco in the first place is because everything supposedly happens on the coast,” Cal says. “So moving back we were like, ‘We want to bring the energy of the coast to the Midwest,’ and so Wave Pool is kind of like the Midwest version of a beach.”
In October the couple and their infant daughter moved, found an old firehouse in Camp Washington and transformed it into a gallery, a book nook that sells artist-published books, an artist-in-residency space and a woodshop, making it a multipurpose center to involve the community.
“We’re placing our bets on Camp Washington,” Cal says about why they chose the up-and-coming neighborhood, which is close to the Brighton arts district.
“Brighton’s gone through these periods of galleries shooting up and then shooting down and it’d be nice to have some sort of permanence,” Skip says. “We’re close enough to Brighton and Northside and other areas, and we thought, ‘We like Camp Washington.’ ”
Cincinnati’s art scene cannot compete with San Francisco’s saturation, but the benefit Cincinnati does have over the West Coast is available spaces and lower costs.
“They’re [San Francisco] losing artists left and right because no one can afford to live there anymore,” Cal says. “When we first moved there, they still had kind of a bohemian scene and now so many of our friends are being forced out of the city. It’s just depressing.”
And there’s so much opportunity here, Cal adds. “There’s hope for Cincinnati to become a spot because of the resources and architecture,” she says.
One opportunity Wave Pool offers is their ongoing artist-in-residency program. Artists must apply for the program and, if selected, they get to work and live in Wave Pool for about a month.
“Most people think of an artist-in-residency as a place where an artist can go and focus on their work and nothing else, and in this residency, yes, in some parts it’s that but in other ways it’s a lot about community,” Cal says. The Cullens expect the artists to produce socially engaged works surrounding Cincinnati-centric topics.
Cal’s work also focuses on socially engaged art. “[Socially engaged art] is art that really engages with people in the community and tries to make connections between people and develop a community — that’s really what I’m interested in,” she says.
In 2011 she self-published a thick book entitled New York City Letters, where she typewrote 500 letters and sent them to random people in NYC in hopes of receiving responses. She says out of every 50 letters, she received maybe a couple of responses in return.
In December, Wave Pool hosted a one-night photography pop-up show, Tri-X-Noise, from Punk band photographer Bill Daniel. The minimalist show gave gallery-goers a sneak peek of the type of art Wave Pool will exhibit when their first official show, Most Likely To Succeed, a group exhibit featuring works of art from Kristin Farr, Chase Melendez and Christine Wong Yap, opens Feb. 6.
“We don’t want this to become just another museum on a hill where people aren’t interacting with the art,” Cal says. “We want people to feel the push-pull with contemporary artists and be able to interact with them directly. I think our goal is for this space to be a community hub, for this place to be a space for artists to come and see really great work, to engage with contemporary artists both locally and nationally, for it to be a place where people feel really welcome and feel like they can come and express themselves.”
Even though for the past few years they’ve been absent from Cincinnati’s art scene, Cal feels good about the city and thinks it’s becoming more DIY, while Skip thinks the scene is growing at a slow and steady rate.
“It’s getting better,” he says. “It takes time.”
In order for Wave Pool to swim, they’re a project under fiscal sponsorship from Fractured Atlas, an organization that gives money to the arts. “We get to use their nonprofit status to fundraise for grants. We accept donations so we’re basically working as a nonprofit without having to go through all of the paperwork of the 501(c)(3) business,” Cal says. “They’re definitely helping us in a lot of ways, but eventually we may need to become our own 501(c)(3).”
Through Wave Pool, Skip and Cal both think they can concurrently assist artists and educate the masses about contemporary art.
“I get this question all the time: ‘What kind of work do you make?’ ” Cal says. “It gets more and more complex, and the more and more complex it gets the more people are like, ‘I don’t understand it so I’m not interested.’ To make a space to show that work and to have it be really accessible, to present it in a way where people find it fun and engaging, is kind of what we want to do so that we can grow a bigger audience for contemporary art in Cincinnati.” ©
For more information on WAVE POOL (2940 Colerain Ave., Camp Washington), visit wavepoolgallery.org.