Permanent Collection, the recent play at Ensemble Theatre on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, explored the intersection between art and race. But the real intersection of art and race in Over-the-Rhine is right outside the doors of ETC as you proceed to walk across the street after a show.
On a recent Saturday night, I was pleasantly surprised by the thought-provoking content presented to the nearly packed house. Permanent Collection is the story of an arts and education foundation that's willed to the board of a black university upon the foundation founder's death. The university hires a black director, and when he suggests displaying some African pieces from storage there is significant resistance to his plan. A white employee is at the center of the controversy that ensues, and the play discusses how race and art affect one another for nearly two hours.
As I was walking out of the theater, I looked both ways and started to cross the street. I got about half way toward the new condos going up next to the Kroger garage before somebody told me to stop. I turned to see a police officer ushering people from the west to the east side of the street. I was jaywalking.
On Vine Street. And a police officer was telling me not to.
Then I made a mistake — I lost my cool and spat back at the officer that I wasn't going to stop jaywalking on Vine Street. We exchanged semi-heated words as I continued walking. And while I couldn't immediately grasp what I was feeling or articulate it clearly, in the 15 seconds before the superior officer on duty asked me to stop to talk with him I had it figured out.
See, I walk across Vine Street several times every day. I've been in the neighborhood for five years now, and I don't remember a single time I've checked to make sure the light was red, the white walk sign was on or that I crossed at the proper set of lines. On the contrary, I remember when I realized driving home one night on East Clifton Avenue that the "slow for children" lights were blinking at nearly 3 a.m. on a Saturday that I'd never once seen them on during the day.
My point is that traffic signals don't hold much significance in Over-the-Rhine. And on Vine Street, where you're easily 10 times more likely to witness a drug deal than to see a police cruiser, the law is a relative term.
The officer, who turned out to be a member of the private security and not the Cincinnati Police Department, and I ended up having quite an interesting and positive conversation. I calmed down nearly immediately, apologized, and we proceeded to discuss the lack of police presence in O-T-R and how race and art intersect on the streets.
CityBeat talks a lot about the arts, but, in my opinion, there is too little discussion about how the arts affect politics, culture and social justice. When the only time that police are present on the streets of O-T-R is before, during and after an event at an arts institution, what does that say about who and what are important? People will be quick to point out that the private police are hired, and anyone can do that. But most residents don't know that, most Vine Street businesses can't afford it and the perception regardless is clearly that white people (and the assumption is rich white people) matter more.
The arts community doesn't exist in a bubble. Quite the opposite — the way that artists and supporters of the arts posture has become a deservedly hot topic in Cincinnati and affects the way we talk about many important issues. Housing development in Over-the-Rhine is inextricably tied to the success of arts anchors like Music Hall, the perception and reality of the public school system is connected to the School for Creative and Performing Arts' place in the community and one can't help but notice how different the police presence is in the Main Street Entertainment District compared to a couple blocks to the east or west. These types of issues are central to the city's ability to grow and thrive.
It's also true that the lack of culturally relevant arts opportunities in Cincinnati is a real factor in driving some of the best and brightest young people of color from the city — see Dani McClain's article "I'm Hungry" in CityBeat's issue of Aug. 10-16. And while the "creative class" has been a hot topic for a couple of years now, it doesn't address several major issues that face our urban areas. Diversity in Richard Florida's book is discussed as the size of the GLBTQ community in any given city, not as the racial or cultural integration of the area. This leads me to ask the questions: Are my young, talented friends of color leaving because Cincinnati doesn't have enough culturally relevant opportunities or because Cincinnati often fails to acknowledge, and almost never directly addresses, the fact that race is a significant issue that greatly influences art, culture and politics?
There is a point in Permanent Collection when white folks outside the newly directed foundation are chanting "Art not race!" I was happy to hear that out loud and in public, because I think in Cincinnati the very same concept drives entirely too many quiet private discussions that greatly influence peoples' political and moral stances. If we are to move forward in a positive way that's sensitive to the needs and desires of all Cincinnati residents, I hope we can have a more healthy community dialogue about where art and race intersect.
— Gavin Leonard, Over-the-Rhine