An Artistic Response to City Problems

Workmen are finished dismantling vending booths. Trash has been hauled away. The 2001 edition of Taste of Cincinnati is over. But for the time being, the media spotlight remains focused on the Centr

Workmen are finished dismantling vending booths. Trash has been hauled away. The 2001 edition of Taste of Cincinnati is over. But for the time being, the media spotlight remains focused on the Central Parkway food festival. A debate continues over whether the April street riots, ensuing protests and the Taste of Cincinnati boycott by the Concerned Clergy of Cincinnati resulted in fewer people coming downtown for the annual Memorial Day weekend event. What's clear is that downtown is languishing.

A few days earlier, at the May 24 groundbreaking of the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati's arts community offered one creative solution to the city's racial unrest.

At a midday party at on Walnut Street between Sixth and Seventh that waved the banner of inclusiveness, the CAC made an effort to prove Cincinnatians from all walks of life can easily get along and rally behind a community project. More importantly, the message was clear that the new $34.1 million arts center will open its doors to every member of the public.

For London-based architect Zaha Hadid, designer of the new CAC facility and the first woman to design an American art museum, her hope is that the concrete, glass and metal building attracts people who ordinarily wouldn't step inside a museum.

Basically, the new CAC is designed in a way that attracts everyone off the sidewalk and into the galleries. Elitism is out the window.

"What the building tries to do is show that the gates are open to everybody," Hadid said in a conversation shortly after the groundbreaking ceremonies. "It is not an exclusive space. It's in the downtown. It's on a prominent corner. It's transparent. There are no gates, so to speak. The idea with the ground floor is that people can go in, look around and walk about. They can go a few times, and maybe the third time they go they might want to go up.

"So the building begins to activate that corner and bring in people who sometimes aren't able to see art in this way. What's great about public projects is that anybody can enjoy these things. They should not be seen as luxuries. They should be part of life. Art is very important to education. Culture and art is instrumental to helping people understand other things."

Some of the groundbreaking party was comically populist. The Ben-Gals cheerleaders shook and shimmied onstage. Robin Lacy and his Zydeco band provided the music. The event was intentionally anti-avant-garde.

For every long-time CAC supporter who grimaced at the event's overall foolishness, a handful of passers-by stopped to enjoy the festivities. For the new CAC to succeed, everyone — especially people who have never stepped inside the current CAC — needs to embrace Hadid's post-modern building as his or her own.

Thankfully, political boosterism was kept to a minimum at the groundbreaking. Mayor Charlie Luken's self-promoting claims for supporting the arts community failed to sway a cynical crowd that knows better. Onstage backslapping among CAC administrators, corporate sponsors and private donors was brief.

The rallying moment came when computer-generated models of the new CAC played across a Jumbotron video screen adjacent to the stage. For many people in the crowd, it was their first opportunity to see Hadid's breathtaking design in the context of downtown Cincinnati. More than football cheerleaders, commemorative coins or candy-filled piñatas, it was the image of Hadid's building that truly wowed the crowd.

Nobody is saying the new Contemporary Arts Center will solve the city's problems when its doors open in spring 2003. Still, the groundbreaking reminds us what's possible when artists and other members of the arts community are involved in addressing social concerns.

The new CAC is one creative response to Cincinnati's need to rejuvenate its downtown and improve the lives of its citizens. It is the result of the organization's progressive-minded board members and administrators.

By comparison, Cincinnati's business community has given us two overpriced stadiums on a crowded riverfront. And the political movers-and-shakers at City Hall are as lethargic as ever. Nordstrom, their anointed savior for downtown, didn't materialize.

As is frequently the case in this city, it's the arts community that managed to step forward and do something right.