Best Of 2021

After having to cancel in-person concerts, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, maestro Louis Langree and CEO Jonathan Martin totally revamped and re-envisioned their season, presenting works by Black composers — Contemporary and Classical — and featuring Black soloists at almost every concert during the virtual autumn season, streamed from Music Hall. Anthony Davis’ You Have the Right to Remain Silent was disturbing and profound, and the conversation afterward with the composer and soloist Anthony McGill was just as important.

Best Of Cincinnati Arts & Culture (Staff Picks): Cincinnati's best arts and culture as selected by CityBeat staff

Best Of Cincinnati Arts & Culture pig

Staff Picks

Best Way to Work Your Quads While Making Your Way to the Cincinnati Art Museum

Best News for Broadway Stans Who Don't Want to Throw Away Their Shot

Best Amusement Park Accolades

Best Enclosed Encounter in Which to Meander with Marsupials

Best Animated Skyline Chili Cameo

Best Star-Studded Stand-Up Sets in Rural Ohio

Best Artistic Celebrity Troll

Best Goodbye to Thunder-Sky

Best Economic Lifeline for Local Artists and Performers

Best Way to Name (But Not Claim) a Theater Seat

Best Job Pivoting Arts Programming

Best Literary Instagram Live

Best Local Tech Innovation for Luddites

Best Socially Distanced Swimming Experience

Best Open-Air Art Displays

Best Reason to Continue Collecting Shoes

Best Dog Park Comeback

Best One-Night (Theater) Stand

Best Retrospective Art Exhibits

Best Adorable Pup-litical News of 2020

Best Mouse King on TV

Best Neighborhood to Find Tiny Fairies

Best Addition to the Fountain Square Ice Rink

Best Virtual Gallery for Soon-to-Be Art Grads

Best Showing by a Cincinnati Artist During the Presidential Inauguration Luncheon

Best Place to Live (or at Least One of the Best) If You Want to Work on a Feature Film

Best Drive-In Musical Theater

Best Print Museum with a Purpose

Best Inclusive, Free Boxing Classes

Best Locally Produced Public Television Documentary of 2020

Best Dads Doing Good for Little Skaters

Best First Exhibit at Bunk Spot’s New Location

Best Streaming Silent Movies with Organ Accompaniment

Best Literal Street Art

Best Fireplaces to Watch on YouTube

Best New Collaborative Drive-Thru Holiday Light Show

Best Pivot from a Film Fest to a Pop-Up

Best Flower Field Trend

Best Pride Party Pack

Best Dance Team Anniversary

Best Drive-In Movie Theater Pop-Up

Best Digital Events Celebrating Cincinnati’s Jewish Community

Best Exhibit to Bring Awareness to Human Trafficking

Best One-Woman FEAST.

Best Retro Way to Enjoy Local Theater

Best Explosive Street Art Exhibit

Best Mural Commemorating the Rich History of Lincoln Heights

Best Mural Milestone

Best Art Replay

Best Take-Out Popcorn for a Movie Night at Home

Best Stephen Sondheim Publication by a CityBeat Theater Critic

Socially-distant bumper cars on ice. Here’s hoping they become an annual attraction.

Since 1998, Rabbit Hash, Kentucky has been electing dogs as mayors of the unincorporated hamlet instead of humans. And on Nov. 3, 2020, a six-month-old French bulldog named Wilbur caused a national stir when he was declared the new ruler, unseating the former mayor: a pitbull named Brynneth Pawltro. Adding to the attraction, Rabbit Hash’s election system is openly corrupt — voters can cast their ballot more than once, and each vote equals a monetary donation to help with the town’s historical upkeep. And while previous elections have attracted news coverage (and even a one-hour TV special on Animal Planet), the 2020 election seemed to be just what people wanted to read while the country tore its collective hair out waiting for the presidential election results. Thankfully, Mayor Wilbur is anything but divisive. And he’s ready to take charge of Rabbit Hash. “The duties of the mayor,” says his owner Amy Noland, “are to show up in town and gnaw on a bone.”

Best Amusement Park Accolades
Photo: Provided by Kings Island

Kings Island’s Orion giga coaster — one of only seven giga coasters in the world — won USA Today’s Best New Amusement Park Attraction in this year’s readers poll, beating out rides at Disney, Six Flags and Universal Studios. To be specified as a “giga coaster,” a ride must have a height or drop of 300 to 399 feet. To put that into perspective, Kings Island’s Eiffel Tower is 315 feet; Orion’s first drop is 300.

The Simpsons’ episode “The Road to Cincinnati” follows Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers on an “800-mile” voyage to the Queen City for an administrators’ convention. As it’s set in Cincinnati, the episode features some iconic local spots including the Roebling Suspension Bridge, Duke Energy Convention Center and a flying pig wearing a Reds uniform — holding a sign which reads, “Welcome to Cincinnati: Birthplace of Pete Rose’s Gambling Problem.” There was even a cameo by the Clifton Skyline (although the 3-ways were served in bowls and not on plates). Apparently, while researching the episode, The Simpsons’ crew scored some “sweet mail-order Skyline chili,” and when the pandemic hit, Executive Producer Matt Selman happily took it home to ride out “the end of times.”

1. Contemporary Arts Center

2. 21c Museum Hotel

3. Pendleton Art Center

See all winners from Best Of Cincinnati 2021

1. Cincinnati Art Museum

2. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

3. Contemporary Arts Center

Anila Quayyum Agha (b. 1965), All the Flowers Are for Me (Red), laser-cut lacquered steel and lightbulb, 60x60x60 in, Alice Bimel Endowment for Asian Art, 2017.7
Photo: Courtesy Cincinnati Art Museum
Anila Quayyum Agha (b. 1965), All the Flowers Are for Me (Red), laser-cut lacquered steel and lightbulb, 60x60x60 in, Alice Bimel Endowment for Asian Art, 2017.7

Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha’s super popular sculptural installation All the Flowers Are for Me (Red) returned to the Cincinnati Art Museum (on view until May 30, 2021). First on view at the CAM in 2017, this immersive artwork features a decorative 5-foot laser-cut cube, which illuminates and splays geometric and floral shadows across the floor, walls and ceiling of the gallery.

Hundreds of celebrities have received strange drawings from local comedian Alex Leeds of Dumb Celebrity Drawings, who has the uncanny ability to convey simple-yet-esoterically contrived irreverent jokes and jabs at their intended recipient. And celebrities tend to autograph and return the drawings with a shocking frequency. Some recent items of mail? Alec Baldwin signed a drawing of Tina Fey dressed up as Sarah Palin for SNL; Willem Dafoe signed a picture of his face on the Dafoe Code; and ’90s Hip Hop star Coolio autographed and sent back an illustration of a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Just another reason to support the USPS.

1. “Fiona and Bibi at the Cincinnati Zoo”

2. “Cincinnati Toy Heritage”

3. “Charley Harper's Beguiled by the Wild”

4. “Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon”

5. “Ezzard Charles: The Cincinnati Cobra”

6. “Democracy!”

7. “Mr. Dynamite”

8. “Dream Big and Fly High”

9. “Homecoming (Blue Birds)”

10. “Swing Around Rosie”

1. Cincinnati Pride

2. Flying Pig Marathon

3. My Furry Valentine

1. Panegyri Greek Festival

2. CincItalia

3. St. Cecilia Parish Festival

This holiday season, Cincinnati’s Dad Skate Squad — a group of 40-plus skateboarding dads (and sometimes their kids) who started riding together each week during COVID-19 with the goal of “spreading positivity and good vibes in our communities and putting smiles on peoples’ faces” — turned into the “Santa Skate Squad” to donate new skateboards, skate shoes, helmets and other accessories to kids in need. They partnered with local nonprofits like the Brighton Center and CityLink to help distribute the goods.

For the past 39 years, Marquicia Jones-Woods has devoted her life to the children of the West End. Born and raised in the neighborhood, Jones-Woods — known affectionately as Ms. Quicy — began her outreach when she was just a teenager. She started hosting beautification projects with the kids — painting rocks and benches, planting flowers, picking up trash — and taking them to Bible study, where they could get a free meal. Then she added in the arts, creating short plays and dances to “keep them engaged,” she says. “The dance piece took off.” Thus the Q-Kidz Dance Team was born. But it’s about more than movement. The community studio on Linn Street also offers a support system — a place where kids can get hands-on attention, positive reinforcement, even help with homework. “It’s really not about dance. It’s about providing a better life,” Jones-Woods says. Q-Kidz performs frequently locally — you’ll see them onstage at Music Hall, the Aronoff Center, in the Opening Day Parade, BLINK — and they travel across the country to cities like New York, New Orleans, Atlanta and Los Angeles to take part in (and win) dance competitions and events. Q-Kidz dancers have also been immortalized on film in the highly acclaimed 2015 indie movie The Fits. The organization will turn 40 this May.

ish, Cincinnati’s nonprofit Jewish and Israeli arts and culture group, created a calendar of creative virtual and streaming events to connect community this year — especially important because they were unable to host their annual in-person ish Festival. Programming ranged from High Holidays in a Box (featuring local honey and artwork to celebrate Rosh Hashanah) to ishUES interactive art and culture workshops to The Secret Singer, a local version of The Masked Singer, just in time for Purim.

The popular Newport Dog Park was forced to close in 2020 due to overcrowding and infrastructure issues, which led to greener pastures. The community teamed up with the City of Newport to raise funds and resources to reopen the park even bigger and better than before — just 500 feet away and behind the Campbell County Public Library’s Newport Branch. The off-leash dog park is twice the size of the former park and features a separate space for small dogs. Concrete pathways and community walking paths wind throughout, along with “pet-friendly benches” and landscaping. The new park also features a dedicated parking area for visitors, plus a water fountain.

Hollywood Drive-In Theater
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Hollywood Drive-In Theater

Over Memorial Day weekend, the College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation transformed the neighborhood’s historic Hollywood Theater parking lot into a drive-in experience for the community — the Hollywood Drive-In Theater — with films played on a large screen tacked to the back of the building. Originally, the event was planned for one evening, but it was so popular that the pop-up drive-in stayed active all summer. Films ranged from local fest fare and Marvel hits to cult classics, and moviegoers could even grab snacks from College Hill businesses at the parking lot refreshment stand.

Every summer, C.A.S.T. (Commonwealth Artists Student Theatre) brings together teens from area high schools to perform musicals, but 2020 presented some big challenges. The smart folks in charge overcame them by staging a production of Newsies — drive-in style — in the parking lot at Coney Island. Audiences sat in or on their cars as the socially-distanced kids danced from platform to platform and sang their hearts out.

As a result of the economic fallout from the pandemic, nonprofit ArtsWave offered financial relief in the form of emergency grants, interest-free loans and other funding to local artists and performers in need through their Community Campaign. They also put together a broader COVID toolkit with info on how to find and apply for additional funding at federal and state levels.