Tale of Two Ringmasters: Jim Tarbell Leads the Arts Circus

Right here in River City, two ringmasters competed for the public's attention. One used circus animals and flaming hoops to wow his crowd. The other relied on video screens, slide projectors and thi

Right here in River City, two ringmasters competed for the public's attention. One used circus animals and flaming hoops to wow his crowd. The other relied on video screens, slide projectors and thick handouts about Over-the-Rhine development for razzle-dazzle. Which would you rather watch?

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey ringmaster packed and left Cincinnati with the rest of the circus clowns and animals after their final weekend performance. Meanwhile, Cincinnati Councilman Jim Tarbell, chairman of the Arts & Culture Committee, is as permanent a city fixture as any flesh-and-blood person can possibly be.

Tarbell screams "Cincinnati" like a bowl of five-way chili, and loving/hating him and his showman antics has become a regular habit for many locals. Learning how to work with him is a necessary skill for any artist, arts volunteer or arts administrator in need of city help.

It's a calm afternoon before a Valentine's Day weekend snowstorm, and Tarbell is leading a sizable City Hall crowd through the latest meeting of his Arts & Culture Committee.

"Look at everyone here, and no one has been offered anything yet," Tarbell says, laughing.

"This is nothing short of a miracle."

Tarbell reminds everyone that current arts news is bleaker outside Cincinnati. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is facing a serious financial crisis. New York City is cutting its arts funding. Closer to home, the Ohio Arts Council is projecting a drastic reduction in the amount of money it awards to artists and arts organizations.

Talking about how bad things are elsewhere allows Tarbell to promote hometown efforts to support the arts. Carolyn Gutjahr, from the Department of Community Development and Planning, promotes the city's increased support for the Small Arts Organization Grant Program.

I leave the meeting sometime during a slide show from attorney Bob Manley, who visited a Brazilian city on his last vacation. I'd like to visit Brazil one day, but my feeling is that a city government that resembles a visit to one's in-laws, complete with a vacation photo show, is a city government in trouble.

The best part of the meeting — at least before the slide show — occurrs when a young Cincinnati Ballet dancer dressed as Puck for the Feb. 21-22 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream wiggles his leaf-covered behind around Mayor Charlie Luken's head. The mayor's grumpy expression is priceless. If the ballet wants money from the city, you'd think they might have a pretty ballerina shake her behind for the mayor instead.

The meeting's most informative part is a presentation by Greg Smith, president of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, updating the crowd on his institution's planned move from Mount Adams to the corner of 12th and Jackson streets in Over-the-Rhine.

Before the committee meeting, Smith told me what to expect, and he follows his outline like a pro. He matter-of-factly explains how there's no room for expansion at the Art Academy's Mount Adams and Eden Park buildings. He discusses Art Academy concerns about parking and safety issues in Over-the-Rhine and how BarrelHouse Brewing Company is likely to remain a tenant in the new building until at least 2008, if not beyond.

The Art Academy's Over-the-Rhine plans have been known since a May 2000 CityBeat story, but Smith addresses the crowd like first-timers. He's not a cheerleader, and he doesn't need to be.

"Everyone is waiting for someone else to do something, and that's a problem," Smith tells the crowd.

He's the unofficial ambassador for Over-the-Rhine, and opening an expanded Art Academy in a new Over-the-Rhine facility is the best news to hit the troubled urban neighborhood in a long time.

Tarbell follows Smith's presentation by announcing the city's commitment to invest in housing, retail and parking development around the new academy facility.

"I can foresee a time when any one of us can walk from the Art Academy to Music Hall and the scariest person we encounter is an Art Academy student with a mohawk, tattoos and more metal piercings than anyone can imagine," Smith says.

Luken and City Manager Valerie Lemmie listen to Smith's presentation and nod their heads in agreement. Smith represents a sizable business that's willing to re-invest in one of our neediest neighborhoods. He's good news, and he makes Tarbell's song-and-dance worthwhile — if only for one afternoon.