Queen of Bricks

Longtime arts administrator, author and opinion maker Jean Feinberg sits in the auditorium of a past employer, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and declares with matter-of-fact confidence to the small gro

Longtime arts administrator, author and opinion maker Jean Feinberg sits in the auditorium of a past employer, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and declares with matter-of-fact confidence to the small group around her that the era of bricks and mortar involving local arts institutions is over in Cincinnati. It's a shame more people aren't listening to her.

While waiting for a morning movie screening that never happens, Feinberg's commentary becomes the center of attention. Her take on the local zeitgeist is that the spotlight, emphasis and gushing support will shift from construction cranes and multi-million dollar building projects to the creative people who work tirelessly to make Cincinnati a better place.

As always, Feinberg speaks with authority, making good use of her commanding presence, a blend of college lecturer and stern schoolmarm. Her words pack a punch, although the surrounding landscape shows her predictions to be slightly ahead of their time.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center rises on the Cincinnati riverfront like a copper paperweight, devoid of personality, distinction and pizzazz. Nothing about the building articulates freedom. It could pass as the headquarters for any number of nondescript corporations or worldwide manufacturers of widgets.

Yet, if there is hope in the Freedom Center's blandness, it's that creativity lies within its walls, programs and exhibits as well as the people creating them.

On the eastern edge of downtown, the Taft Museum of Art prepares to open its new wing, an addition to the former home of Charles and Anna Taft that looks to be in sync with the museum's classic appearance. The extension will provide additional space to the intimate museum.

When you consider the Taft's extraordinary educational programs, it's impossible not to support the efforts to expand its home.

The flashy new home for the Contemporary Arts Center has fulfilled its promise for popular exhibitions — or actually staging popular opening-night parties to launch their exhibitions — and international acclaim for the building's postmodern architecture. Yet there's no denying the turmoil within the building, a topic for another time.

Feinberg's point — at least my take on her impromptu commentary — is that recent lessons regarding extravagant buildings and the high costs required to operate them will lead to a more conservative era of making do with what we have. New construction projects don't guarantee excitement and energy, although they continue to dazzle the business and political leaders who make things happen.

Beneath the glass and concrete lie Cincinnati's creative termites, the people who work behind the scenes with limited recognition and pay, those underground artists and volunteers responsible for the creativity, inspiration and cleverness behind the buildings.

My guess is that Feinberg has never been to Vernon McIntyre's Old Time Music Store in Elmwood Place, but it sums up her thoughts perfectly. It's people who bring a place, no matter how roughhewn or ragged, to life.

Adjacent to the shelves of mandolins, sheet music and assorted used instruments, a side room resembling a weather-beaten cafe features Saturday afternoon Bluegrass jams by local and emerging musicians. Shop owner and veteran bluegrass performer McIntyre and his wife, Kitty, were out of town the afternoon I visited, but I plan to return to tell them how their store brought a smile to my face. (See more on the store in Best of Vine Street in this issue's Best of Cincinnati® section.)

The tables and chairs might be rickety, but the music is first rate, an appreciated throwback to Cincinnati's musical heritage, Appalachian community and river town charm.

You'll never see a crane over the Old Time Music Store. McIntyre doesn't need one to bring the place to life.