Cover Story: Boom Town

The arts exploded all over in 2006

slim Jim Puvee

Ed Stern opened an "alteractive" Cincinnati Playhouse satellite space in Over-the-Rhine, spurring huge interest there.

What a year in the arts! It started with more funding from the city of Cincinnati, various Tristate counties, the state of Ohio and the commonwealth of Kentucky.

And, of course, the National Endowment for the Arts was given more funding than ever by Congress, with the encouragement to use it to push the envelope on new and creative projects. In fact, the President himself said he felt a national mandate to be sure the arts were secure.

This will certainly be remembered as the year when Cincinnati's arts scene finally arrived on the radar of culture seekers across the nation. It happened largely as the result of a marketing campaign funded by a new cigarette tax that voters approved by an overwhelming margin, close on the heels of Ohio's ban on smoking in public places. Said one legislator, standing outside a bar in downtown Cincinnati with a cigar clenched in his teeth, "Where there's smoke, there's money. Let's give some of it to the arts!"

Stable leadership in the visual arts was especially heralded during 2006. With three significant art museums having each recently completed nationally recognized building and expansion projects, the boards of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Taft Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center acknowledged that the key to continued success was continuity of administrators and a clear vision for the future.

That's why fans of these institutions cheered when each director was signed to a long-term contract.

A Cincinnati Art Museum leader observed, "We won't take a back seat to any city in Ohio or the rest of America. We've got the best talent right here, and it's not going anywhere."

That sentiment was echoed at the CAC, where a board member promised, "We've recruited the best administrators and curators from around the country, and we know how to hang on to them."

And at the Taft, former Director Philip Long was brought out of retirement for a project that won recognition from the American Horticultural Society: a re-creation in the Taft gardens using carnations, daisies and roses of Monet's "Water Lilies."

A true theater district took hold this year on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, as the Cincinnati Playhouse decided to extend its reach into the city's flourishing Arts District. Inspired by the Art Academy of Cincinnati, which made a similar decision a few years earlier with spectacular results and heightened visibility, the Playhouse established a new performance complex in space once occupied by Main Street Brewery and Jump, with contingency plans to expand to vacant bars across the street for shows that audiences will be clamoring to see.

Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern, envying the success of the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival, announced that his multiple theater spaces would be filled on a continuous basis with "alteractive" performers. "We see the wave of the future," he pointed out during in September, "and we're going to catch it with this move."

Yes, in 2006, Cincinnati's "Little Off Broadway" was born!

Over-the-Rhine finally realized the dream of the "T" district CityBeat has advocated for a decade when the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra decided to move its performances to the refurbished Emery Theater, a facility originally built for the orchestra in the 1920s. Maestro Paavo Jarvi exclaimed, "This is the hall we were meant to play in! We're overjoyed to be back where we belong."

With one more arts anchor in OTR, CityBeat Editor John Fox proclaimed, "We've finally crossed the 'T' in the Arts District."

The CSO's departure from Music Hall caused a few furrowed brows, but they turned to broad smiles when public radio station WVXU announced that Garrison Keillor's popular weekly Prairie Home Companion broadcast would move from the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., to historic Music Hall, a venue that Keillor claimed was the best in America. Said Cincinnati Public Radio President Richard Eiswerth, "We know we can fill every seat in that hall every Saturday night. In fact, we've told the Cincinnati Opera they might have to give up on Saturday evening performances because we'll be needing the hall for PHC all summer long."

That was OK with the Opera's General Director Patty Beggs, who became a local hero when she shared the news that Texaco, longtime funder of the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts, would contribute $150 million to build a new opera house on The Banks. 3CDC President Steve Leeper was so excited about culture coming to the riverfront that he proposed moving a sports stadium to create space for the opera hall or at least converting it into a stage where thousands of local opera fans could once again enjoy outdoor performances.

Several area theater companies created productions that were picked up for performance in other areas. Cincinnati Shakespeare's staging of Macbeth headed north to Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, whose artistic director said, "Why would we bother to create a new Mac when we can bring one like this?" Ensemble Theatre dedicated an entire season to musical fairytales created over the years by David Kisor and Joseph McDonough, and a theatrical producer from Disney bought up the rights wholesale to be able to stage productions in theme parks and perhaps on Broadway.

Know Theatre won the first ever MacArthur Prize for genius in the theater for its staging of all 365 short plays by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks. Finally, the entire senior class of musical theater majors from UC's College-Conservatory of Music was hired as the company for a second Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle, in which the dancers played musical instruments while running on treadmills.

As a result of all this expanded arts activity, CityBeat decided in the fall to add a second weekly issue to ensure comprehensive coverage. At that point The Cincinnati Enquirer said "uncle" and gave up on arts coverage altogether, though readers hardly noticed. ©