State of the Arts: What's Missing?

Greater Cincinnati's arts scene is strong, but here are a few ways it can be made even stronger

Sep 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The charge to arts leaders and our writers was simple, yet also complex and difficult: “What is the one thing you would change or add to the local arts scene to make it better?””

Well, maybe it wasn’t worded quite so bluntly, but that was the point. There are plenty of exciting things happening locally in the arts. And there are dynamic new bricks-and-mortar things that are either realities or on the verge of happening: renovations of Washington Park and Music Hall, the new SCPA, downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel, the streetcar system designed to aid Over-the-Rhine’s cultural and architectural revival, The Banks development and its neighbor, Cincinnati Riverfront Park. 

So what’s next?

We were hoping for some really bold, daring, visionary ideas. For instance: Wouldn’t it be great to see Cincinnati exorcise the last censorious demons of 1990 by hosting a new Robert Mapplethorpe show? And who better to organize it than James Crump, the Cincinnati Art Museum’s chief curator, who made an excellent documentary about Mapplethorpe’s relationship with partner and arts patron Sam Wagstaff, Black, White + Gray?

But we didn’t get anything that outré. And besides, the Cincinnati Art Museum has its hands full right now working with Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on a major retrospective of Cincinnati-born Pop artist Tom Wesselmann, who died in 2004. (The museum also needs to get on with its delayed expansion.)

Yet we did get some very interesting replies. There’s definitely a hunger for more in all areas of the arts. 

If there was a theme that came up repeatedly on the visual-arts side, it was the need to improve the quality of Cincinnati’s public art and architecture. Carl Solway, longtime contemporary art dealer, worries about the quality of the architecture at The Banks mixed-use riverfront development. And the installation/mixed-media artist Alice Pixley Young, who has had shows at downtown’s Weston Gallery and Art Academy, laments the shortage of good public sculpture: “Not just pigs and murals (no offense, ArtWorks, we need these programs, too), but we also need contemporary public sculptures and murals by emerging and established artists.”

Among my own suggestions — it’s time for Cincinnati City Council to pass a “Percent for Art” ordinance, as other cities have done. That would mandate that 1 or 2 percent of the overall budget for most capital projects be spent on (usually) site-specific art. City Manager Milton Dohoney prepared a 2008 report on this for then-Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell, but nothing has happened since. Of course, as contributor Jane Durrell notes, Council also badly needs to restore its grant programs to individual artists and nonprofits.

And the Contemporary Arts Center might want to consider how Columbus’ Wexner Center for the Arts is using its spaces — as well as other city venues — to host cutting-edge, multidisciplinary performances and film screenings. Maybe there’s some way the CAC could find the right venues here — the Emery Theatre, the Aronoff Center’s theaters or the new SCPA?  — to broaden its event-oriented offerings, thus becoming even more of a leader in local cultural progressivism.

Another Ohio city with an arts idea worth investigating is Cleveland, where, in 2008, residents approved the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture levy, a 10-year tax on cigarette sales to improve the “health and quality of our arts and cultural sector.” That has certainly helped Cleveland fund a successful, high-quality film festival, something we don’t have but many people want. And it would take some pressure off our Fine Arts Fund and individual organizations to raise money privately.

The following are the responses we received from artists, arts leaders and writers, representing a wide range of disciplines and perspectives. 

Raphaela Platow, Director & Chief Curator, Contemporary Arts Center: Cincinnati, in fact our entire region, has a lot to offer when it comes to the arts. There is a cornucopia of activity happening at all times in the theaters, museums, multi-purpose art facilities, galleries, bars, restaurants, public spaces, universities, cultural centers, backyards, streets and rooftops. Having lived here now for three years, I am still in awe of how much is going on and how multifaceted and diverse the artistic offerings are that present themselves on a daily basis. By no means do I want to minimize the efforts and diligent listings that our newspapers produce, but I do wish there was a central place for information on everything that’s going on — not only in Cincinnati, but also in the culturally rich cities nearby: Louisville, Columbus, Indianapolis and Dayton. This would help foster a more conscious collective understanding of how much our geographic and cultural location has to offer. Furthermore, it might help change the minds of those who adhere to the belief that beyond the coasts and a few major cities there is nothing but backwater.

Alice Pixley Young, local artist: We have some public art around town and (Theodore M. Berry International) Friendship Park boasts a fantastic collection, but how about for the rest of the city? Indianapolis has a program that has facilitated public sculpture by regional artists as well as temporary exhibitions by artists who are exhibiting at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The CAC did something very similar this year with Shepard Fairey creating wheatpaste murals throughout the city. This has been wildly popular and by all accounts the community was excited by this project. Many people who had perhaps never thought much about art before were thinking about it and talking about it. Whatever your thoughts on Fairey’s work, that’s a pretty successful outcome. 

Rick Pender, CityBeat theater critic: I love what Cincinnati theater has to offer, but I want more. More theater. More creativity. More diversity. How about a well-funded company that would regularly produce African-American works or Irish theater or gay-themed plays? Several theaters do such works, but no one provides a steady diet. Cincinnati Shakespeare gives us some classics, but there’s so much more: Molière, commedia dell’arte pieces, Gilbert & Sullivan operettas or American classics. And how about nurturing creativity? What if we had an organization like Chicago’s Victory Gardens or the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis where playwrights find a friendly environment to develop and workshop new plays? How about an incubator for Fringe works that could be tried out here then moved on to festivals around the country? What if we had a company with no permanent home that performed in found spaces around the city? What if a company developed shows to be presented in libraries and company cafeterias at lunchtime, so people could enjoy theater on their own schedule, not just at 7:30 or 8 in the evening? That’s what I want: more.

Jane Durrell, CityBeat contributor: The arts in Cincinnati need something they used to have: the city’s Individual Artist Grants Program, unique in the Tristate area but a recent casualty of the economy. Is this a short-sighted budget move in a city actively courting “the creative class” and the “young professionals” who like cities with lively arts scenes? The current exhibition 20 Years/20 Artists, at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, is proof of the vitality of the program in its visual arts manifestations, but the Individual Artist Grants Program strengthened all arts disciplines: Music, dance, writing and theater among them.

Artist Kate Kern, a former grant recipient and current member of the Arts Allocation Committee (on hiatus, but not disbanded) points out that the grants often played a useful role for small arts organizations, as work might be done in conjunction with them. Projects had to have a built-in benefit for the city as part of their goal. Among the interesting elements of 20 Years/20 Artists are statements explaining what the grants have meant to each individual’s work. As one person says, “It’s not easy being an artist.” The truth is, a vibrant city needs them.

Carl Solway, owner, Carl Solway Gallery: For the Banks development project, there’s been local conversation about the mix of usage, there’s been discussion about who is going to get money, but absolutely no public discussion about what it’s going to look like. There is an Urban Design Review Board, but they’re powerless and I think we’re going to get something at best mediocre and maybe worse unless there’s some public dialogue about the need for it to be exceptional. If we had an extraordinary well-designed landmark project to stand there, it would transform the national vision of the city as well as the city’s vision of itself. It’s not too late, but it’s going to be too late soon.

I think it would be great to close off Walnut Street, between Sixth and Seventh streets, and transform this one block into the “Arts Plaza,” a public … space with outdoor cafes, street performers and a much-needed downtown green space. Already, along this one block are the CAC, the Aronoff Center and soon the 21C Hotel with their art collection and art-oriented hotel. Public art already helps define this area with the Julian Stanczak wall relief running the entire length of Sixth, heralding an entrance to the Arts Place. The Nam June Paik “Metrobot” could be installed on this plaza, too, as the information kiosk for all the arts in the city. This would make a clear statement that the arts are in downtown. The buses could easily be re-routed down Race Street, instead of Walnut Street.

John Fox, CityBeat Editor and Co-Publisher: Plain and simple, Greater Cincinnati needs public funding for the arts and culture. Given the current economic climate, no one wants to discuss raising taxes or diverting existing public funds to bolster area arts and cultural institutions, but the reality is that local property taxes already support two such institutions: the Cincinnati Zoo and the Cincinnati Museum Center. Area voters are asked every five years to continue (and in some cases increase) funding to support those organizations, and for the most part the tax levies pass.

The Denver metropolitan area uses a 0.1 percent sales tax collected in a seven-county areas to support its zoo, nature and science museum and arts organizations. As Steven Rosen points out in his intro to this article, Cleveland uses a cigarette sales tax to support its arts and culture. Instead of making the Cincinnati Zoo and Cincinnati Museum Center go to voters for funding approval by themselves, let’s group all of Greater Cincinnati’s arts and cultural institutions together and devise a way for the public at large to provide funding.

But let’s not raise taxes, even by 0.1 percent. Instead, a fairly large influx of new funding will be arriving in this area after the four Ohio casinos come on line in a few years. By law, each casino will pay the state 33 percent of its gross revenues every year, and the tax money will be distributed to all 88 Ohio counties in proportion to their population; half of a county’s yearly take goes to its largest city if the city’s population is greater than 80,000 (i.e., Cincinnati). The four host cities also split 5 percent of the yearly tax revenue. That’s a lot of new money flowing into Cincinnati every year for, well, forever.

Right now, before Cincinnati City Council decides to dump the entire amount into its budget black hole, can we shave off an amount of that new tax money and put it toward annual, sustainable, dependable funding for the local arts? Say 10 percent. Or $10 million. Just something fixed that can’t be manipulated later and taken away.

If we truly value our arts and culture institutions, we should find a way to fund them as we do schools, roads, safety and other aspects of public life we deem “necessary.”

Deborah Emont Scott, Director/CEO, Taft Museum of Art: I have been struck by how responsive and enthusiastic audiences here are — cheering opera crowds, packed lecture halls, sold-out Fringe Festival performances. Cincinnati has a vibrant and diverse arts community, with so much to do on any night of the week, particularly downtown. But I would love to see a central visual arts district. In other cities, having a specific area for galleries contributes to the unique character of that neighborhood and makes that area a true destination, both for local arts lovers and out-of-town visitors. The most obvious place for this would be Over-the-Rhine, where there currently are galleries and art spaces, notably the Pendleton Art Center and Carl Solway. Drawing on existing, diverse and dedicated audiences, such a district would be a great way to reach out to even more people in the region, expanding our regional arts community.

Victoria Morgan, CEO and Artistic Director, Cincinnati Ballet: We need participation. We need fearless people to experience the intrigue of dance. We need curious people to be open to the enrichment, creativity (and) vibrancy that dance brings to our community. We need to keep growing in our relevancy. We need an environment that fosters the ideas and stories we tell through dance.

It’s easy just to say that we need money or financial support. But we need so much more. We need love and respect. Dance is not merely entertaining, something you could take or leave. Dance is integral to how we understand life.

Matt Morris, local artist and CityBeat contributor: It’s a myth that our art scene is conservative; there is a wealth of progressive installation art, conceptual art and wondrous and strange work being made that doesn’t even fit into a named category yet. Maybe we could use larger or more sophisticated venues to see this work as it is being made locally. Or perhaps there could be more forums to learn about and discuss the avant-garde. But rather than issue a direct edict, I thought a little encouragement (was) in order.

Every individual’s personal experience with art is valid. No one should be told what the correct experience is when looking at art. Sometimes, when contemporary artists show us something that is utterly foreign to our everyday experience, it can be perplexing, scary even. But we don’t need any help to arrive at a proper response to art. 

Readers, when you see art, let yourself experience what you are experiencing as fully as possible. When you don’t immediately understand what you see, be patient and keep looking. Don’t feel pressure to like something; that doesn’t matter. The best way to celebrate the intelligent, uniquely personal art being shown in this city is to allow ourselves to have equally unique and personal reactions to it. 

Aaron Betsky, Cincinnati Art Museum director: Public support. We define ourselves through our culture, our culture is what we share, what makes us part of a community. Culture should not be the province of the elite. It should be supported and enjoyed by all of us. Our arts institutions should work together to be efficient and effective cultural nodes. I believe the arts infrastructure in this city should be treated the same way our roads, our sewers, our schools and our security is: As a necessary and shared service we all support.

We need to make sure that everybody in this area can get here, both physically (better public transportation, school buses) and in terms of knowledge (publicity and marketing, integration into school curricula). Then we need to make sure we can all get in, again both physically (ideally, all our programs should be free) and by breaking down the barriers that make our art institutions seem too forbidding. Finally, all of us at arts institutions need to make sure that once our community gets in, they get what we are presenting. We need better education and explanation. 

Arts institutions are centers where you can gather to learn, to meet others and to find out through art where you have come from, where you are and where you are going. They are also among the few places in our society where you can take a break from the demands of everyday life, where how much something costs or how it works (should not) matter, and where you can come to yourself.

Michael Evan Haney, Associate Artistic Director, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park: Besides an economic upturn, more money for the arts and bigger more diverse audiences, something I would like to see encouraged is more cross-disciplined collaboration. I have had many terrific experiences when working with modern dancers, Jazz musicians and artists outside and within the theatre world. It’s always a great learning opportunity for everyone involved. To experience first-hand how another art form is created and to exchange ideas on a mutual project is valuable and exciting to any artist. We are all part of the Cincinnati Arts Community and I think the more we can share and collaborate the healthier we will all become.

• Jason Gargano, CityBeat Managing Editor: Why can’t Cincinnati have a thriving, well-programmed film festival? As distribution continues to crater for everything but Hollywood’s highest-profile, studio-backed offerings, there’s a vacuum for films that celebrate art over commerce. It’s ironic that as it has become easier and cheaper than ever to make a film, a lower percentage than ever gets any kind of theatrical release. Film festivals have picked up the slack in recent years, providing an alternate distribution system that plays to audiences eager for unique, diverse visions beyond the latest lowest-common-denominator multiplex product. While not everyone can be a Sundance or Cannes or Toronto — large festivals that pimp world premieres and stars galore — there is a vital network of smaller festivals in cities similar to Cincinnati (Cleveland and Nashville, to name two), festivals that enhance and galvanize their communities in numerous ways. Sure, it would take a great deal of organization and effort (not to mention some forward-thinking sponsors), but the relative success of endeavors like the local version of the 48 Hour Film Festival proves that there is ample interest. I’m aware of the fledgling Cincinnati Oxford International Film Festival, which is taking over the Esquire Theatre Oct. 8-16. I appreciate the enthusiasm its organizers have put into its previous incarnations (which, for the record, have been poorly attended and thinly programmed), but it remains to be seen whether it can take the next step and become the type of viable, robust film festival Cincinnati deserves.

Ed Cohen, community theater director: (I’d like to see) various theatre companies work better in coordination with each other, seeing themselves less as competitors and more as joint participants in a larger venture. I think the LCT (League of Cincinnati Theatres) was an attempt at this and they’ve had good ideas along the way, but ultimately the (local theatre) groups’ interest waned in part because they didn’t see the League as a direct or immediate benefit to them. What jumps out at me is that the small professional companies (which at this point are Know, The Covedale/Showboat, The Carnegie, New Edgecliff and Cincy Shakes) draw from a very similar pool of designers, directors and performers. What I’d like to see is an ongoing effort in terms of scheduling and the assignment of those individuals so that everyone gets the most out of what is still a very limited number of participants. This could take the form of brainstorming about complementary programming and scheduling, among other things.

Selena Reder, CityBeat contributor: On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I was struck by the public sculptures, murals and mosaics. Let’s welcome visitors to Cincinnati with art at our doorstep. I would like the planned Ohio River Trail to be peppered with sculpture from New Richmond to downtown. I want the developers of The Banks to commission a larger-than-life nude cast in black bronze at the banks of the river. I want relief sculpture carved into the new condos at The Banks and the new retail and office buildings to be covered in murals depicting the people that make up our city. When I pay double to park downtown I want to feed meters covered in art and poetry. Let’s have more art that is tactile and aural — work that does not have to be experienced through the use of sight. I do believe Cincinnati has a strong public arts offering, let’s just do more. Let’s be bold, let’s take risks, let’s fool the eye, question our beliefs and re-examine our identities through art. Let’s get Cincinnati excited about art in the way I was thrilled by the murals and mosaics of Philadelphia.

Felix Eboigbe, local sculptor: What Cincinnati needs to enhance the arts is beautiful sculptures and paintings inside the downtown lobbies and offices. They should have one day in the week devoted to fine art called Art Day. Local artists would display their work in the lobby of all the skyscrapers in downtown. There can be a tour guide (to) walk people around and to educate visitors about each artist’s work. It should be promoted by every TV news channel, newspaper and radio station in Cincinnati. What else is needed in Cincinnati in the arts is to have old buildings in Cincinnati reduce the rent in any vacant storefront to make it accessible for artists to display their work.

Julie York Coppens, CityBeat contributor: It seems contradictory, but I’d like to see the arts in Cincinnati become both a habit and an occasion. More ordinary, and more rare. More a part of our lives, and more once-in-a-lifetime. Too many cultural events fall somewhere in between; they’re neither accessible enough nor exciting enough for most Cincinnatians to know about, much less attend. We need to put more art in people’s way — the “Play Me, I’m Yours” piano campaign is a brilliant example — while making sure that every time people go out of their way for art, that experience is essential and unforgettable. The CAC’s Shepard Fairey project, for instance, combined a public art campaign that’s been hard for Cincinnatians to miss, with an outstanding gallery installation, street parties and other events that no one wanted to miss. A huge investment of time and money, sure, but what a payoff. That’s what can happen when arts organizations think big, while keeping an eye on the small — the one-on-one connection that can lift someone out of the everyday. If we could do that for every adult and child here just once a season, in a theatre or on a street corner, this would be a city transformed.

Tamera Lenz Muente, CityBeat contributor: Over the past several years, local newspapers across the nation have done away with art critics, either laying them off or reassigning them to more general news beats. Our own Cincinnati Enquirer is no exception. Cincinnati’s newspaper of record has been without an art critic for several years. The theater and classical music critics do a fine job with the few visual art stories, but an art community needs more than occasional reporting. Readers’ comments are encouraged on the Enquirer’s Web site, but that is no substitute for knowledgeable, thoughtful criticism and the potential for reader interaction rises when presented an idea with which to grapple. Regular art reviews create meaningful dialogue and strengthen an art community; they help the general public better understand the work done by artists and the importance of art to society; and they raise the bar for artists and art institutions. As much as critics get a bad rap when they are tough and do their job well, a critic-less world is a sad one for artists, art viewers and the entire arts community. 

Mike Breen, CityBeat Arts & Entertainment Editor: If I rubbed the magic lamp and a genie granted me one wish for the local arts scene, it would be for something long-term that would preserve and sustain the future of the arts in Cincinnati — mandatory arts classes in schools. With budget cuts and failing school levies becoming the norm — and arts studies often being the first thing to be axed — many children will no longer be exposed to the arts in a meaningful, substantial way. With little to no arts taught in schools, we could lose a detrimental amount of future artists and arts patrons. Maybe even more important is that learning about the arts (from visual art and music to theater, dance and beyond) can exercise and stimulate the brain in ways useful in other studies/career-paths; learning about the arts can open up a whole new world for a child, teaching them varying modes of personal expression and different perspectives on life. Maybe creativity doesn’t enhance every job a kid might one day get and maybe arts education “isn’t for everybody,” but if the opportunity isn’t even presented, how will we ever know? Who knows how many genius artists the world misses out on because some well-to-do community decides it doesn’t want to pay another $2 a year in taxes to support schools where they live. With the concept of longer school days and school years gaining increased support, it would be great to see some of that time filled with arts education. 

What do you think would enhance the arts in Cincinnati? Send your suggestions to STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]