Arts Lessons from April's Riots

In early April, a violent crowd of protesters, angry about Timothy Thomas' fatal shooting by Cincinnati Police, took their frustrations to the streets of Over-the-Rhine. By April 16, the Cincinnati

Dec 20, 2001 at 2:06 pm

In early April, a violent crowd of protesters, angry about Timothy Thomas' fatal shooting by Cincinnati Police, took their frustrations to the streets of Over-the-Rhine. By April 16, the Cincinnati neighborhood began to settle down, although many buildings were damaged by thrown rocks and bricks. Nine months later, the riots are long over, but many Over-the-Rhine artists and arts organizations still feel the sting of the experience.

The year 2001 will be remembered as Cincinnati at its worst — politically, economically and socially. The questions facing local artists and arts institutions are what role they can play in addressing these social questions. The American war against Afghanistan continues, but locally Cincinnati has its own set of challenges.

Granted, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon affect all of us, many in very personal ways. But I would argue that Cincinnati's April riots affect us even more.

I've seen local art exhibits addressing the subject of Sept. 11. What I'm still waiting to see are art works inspired by April 10 along the lines of The December Project, a staged work created recently by the interns at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC).

At a Dec. 10 town meeting for artists, arts administrators and arts activists organized by Cathy Springfield, director of Xavier University's performing arts department, and ETC Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers, I was surprised that nobody introduced such an idea. The chance to create an artistic response to the April riots was lost by people pitching their own agendas and patting themselves on the back.

Somehow, I imagine that Meyers and Springfield hoped for a better response from the 160 or so people who gathered at the Aronoff Center's Fifth Third Bank Theater.

In Cincinnati, artists and arts administrators struggle to understand how they can use art as a political force. Springfield proposed the community forum to improve the arts community's standing at City Hall. Plans are underway to form committees that will pitch arts capital projects to the Cincinnati Finance Committee.

Already, their pleas are being heard. A Dec. 17 interdepartmental report at City Hall details the Cincinnati Opera's plans to renovate the northern wing of Music Hall and the Taft Museum's expansion and renovation plans.

If anyone was waiting for someone to spew flames of political activism on Dec. 10, they came to the wrong meeting. Instead, the audience listened to Beth Sullebarger, who directs both the Emery Center Corporation and the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA), plead the case for funding the renovation of the theater auditorium inside the Emery Center complex. Her timing was telling, considering that Cincinnati Councilman Jim Tarbell, the newly appointed chair of the city's arts committee, has publicly said that renovating the Emery shouldn't be a city priority.

Some of the things said at the meeting continue to arouse my interest. The highlight of the evening occurred when one woman accused the crowd of being defensive toward outsiders like herself. Her comments probably didn't make her any friends with Cincinnati's arts tribe, but I consider it to be one of the most truthful things said that evening.

A few mornings after the meeting, one participant told me she was looking back at Dec. 10 with cautious optimism. She wanted to wait and see what comes out of the proposed committees and wanted to see what, if anything, will happen. I think I know exactly how she feels.

I give credit to Meyers and Springfield for taking the time and energy to facilitate a political forum for the arts. They should be gratified with the strong turnout. While the meeting didn't turn into a bitch session lamenting the lack of funding for the arts, I can't say that I heard any ideas of real value.

I'm still waiting for someone other than ETC to artistically respond to April's riots. Calling a meeting a "political forum" is step one. Teaching people to act politically is a whole other challenge.