By the mid-’90s, the Contemporary Arts Center and its downtown surroundings were struggling. The CAC was housed on the second floor of the Mercantile Building on Fifth Street, across from the bus stops on Government Square. It had lost funding, patrons and enthusiasm since the long Mapplethorpe controversy in 1990, even after winning the infamous obscenity trial. Nam June Paik’s mechanical “Metrobot” sidewalk sculpture was on the fritz and tagged with graffiti.
Two significant changes happened to the local arts scene in 1995: The Aronoff Center for the Arts opened, and Charles Desmarais became CAC director. He soon started on plans for a new CAC home, focusing on a site at Walnut and Sixth streets across from the Aronoff.
By the time of Steve Ramos’ story in 1998, funding for the project — a mix of city and state money and private donations — was almost complete. Desmarais pushed for the new building to be a true Cincinnati landmark, and 97 architects applied for the design job; Ramos included interviews with the three renowned finalists: Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Bernard Tschumi. (Hadid won the commission, becoming the first female architect to design a major U.S. museum.)
“The Contemporary Arts Center stands for innovation, invention, change, diversity — a whole range of things that I believe are essential to the health of any modern city,” Desmarais said in the article. Just as importantly, he believed — as have generations of Cincinnati arts leaders — that the arts are an important economic catalyst for the region.
“ ‘As much as what this project does to strengthen the cultural infrastructure of the community, there’s a ton of equally important reasons to do it that don’t have anything to do with artistic measures,’ Desmarais says. ‘This is a major new addition to the Aronoff area that will help to strengthen the whole economic renaissance happening in that neighborhood.’
“Renaissance. Now that’s something Cincinnati has yet to expect from an art museum.”
The new CAC rose at Sixth and Walnut, taking out downtown’s only McDonald’s and only dirty magazine store (King’s News). The 85,000-square-foot facility opened in 2003 and was hailed by national and international media as an architectural gem.
Building on the Aronoff/CAC momentum, Cincinnati’s corporate community proposed shortly afterward to fund a complete makeover of Fountain Square and its underground garage. Headed by 3CDC, the new Square debuted in 2006 and heralded an explosion of high-profile development around Sixth and Walnut: 21c Museum Hotel, Nada, Boca, Sotto, Igby’s and the 580 Building’s conversion to apartments.
In recent years the CAC celebrated the new building’s 10th anniversary and the organization’s 75th anniversary overall. A few months ago they installed the updated “Metrobot” outside the lobby entrance.
Similarly, with Ensemble Theatre and Music Hall’s tenants (Symphony, Opera, May Festival) staying put in Over-the-Rhine and Know Theatre and Art Academy of Cincinnati opening new facilities, the arts have contributed greatly to OTR’s renaissance over the past decade.
Yet there’s still no McDonald’s downtown. What’s up with that?