Charlie and Courtis Declare Themselves 'Pro-Art'

I hear the same complaint every election. Friends tell me there have been no pro-arts political candidates since Mayor Roxanne Qualls left Cincinnati City Hall. They grouse that arts issues and su

Nov 1, 2001 at 2:06 pm

I hear the same complaint every election. Friends tell me there have been no pro-arts political candidates since Mayor Roxanne Qualls left Cincinnati City Hall. They grouse that arts issues and support for Cincinnati's cultural institutions receive little or no attention from area politicians. Granted, Cincinnati's arts community does little lobbying to improve its standing at City Hall. The recent failure to secure funding for the Regional Cultural Alliance — a regional arts organization that would have marketed our cultural assets to Tristate residents as well as to tourists — is proof of the arts community's inadequate political clout.

Earlier this year, the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts, the area's leading arts funder, reneged on its plan to sponsor a political forum for Cincinnati City Council and mayoral candidates to address their platforms on the arts. No local arts institution endorses political candidates.

It's up to a few individuals like Nicholas Korn, president of the League of Cincinnati Theatres and artistic director of Stage First Cincinnati, and portrait artist Tom Lohre to make the connection between the arts and political communities. Korn sent out a questionnaire polling local candidates on arts issues; Lohre is sponsoring a political yard sign campaign that's both feisty and creative.

Yet, on their own, the arts have emerged to play a significant role in the race for Cincinnati's directly elected mayor.

My first surprise came when Cincinnati mayoral candidate Courtis Fuller began talking about his support for a downtown "Avenue of the Arts" — an idea initially advanced by CityBeat in May 2000 — as part of his "Vision for Cincinnati's Future." Fuller understands that arts institutions like the Aronoff Center and the new Contemporary Arts Center, under construction at the corner of Sixth and Walnut streets, play an important role in downtown development. He expands his vision to include a stretch of galleries, Jazz clubs and theaters running along Walnut Street to the Emery Theatre at the corner of Walnut and 12th in Over-the-Rhine.

"I remember some years ago going to a film premiere at the Emery Theatre," Fuller says, speaking at his downtown campaign office. "It was exciting. People were having a great time. That's something we need more of downtown. I encourage anyone to visit another city's downtown. Then you'll see how much work we have to do."

The Avenue of the Arts isn't an original idea. It's a development concept borrowed from cities like Pittsburgh, Denver and especially Philadelphia. On June 28, 2000, Councilman Todd Portune (now a Hamilton County Commissioner) and Councilwoman Minette Cooper failed to get enough votes to pass a motion to create an Avenue of the Arts. Fuller isn't reinventing the wheel by talking about a downtown arts boulevard, but he is putting the arts front and center in his plans for strengthening downtown.

My second surprise came when I read about "recognizing the importance of the Arts in Cincinnati's community" in Mayor Charlie Luken's "Blueprint for a Better Cincinnati." Luken endorses city funding to arts projects like a renovated Emery Theatre and proposes a permanent arts committee on city council to handle all arts-oriented funding requests. He also sees the city taking a leadership role in marketing cultural tourism.

"I see what Indianapolis is doing by marketing their arts community, and we can definitely learn from that," Luken says, speaking from City Hall. "Personally, I think our arts organizations, our symphony, our opera, are 100 percent better than their's. But we need to market our arts organizations better, both to ourselves and to out-of-town tourists."

Fuller and Luken confirm their pro-arts rhetoric over separate conversations. Luken emphasizes the fact that he supported city funding for past arts projects such as the Aronoff Center and the new CAC. Fuller points to the fact that he's been speaking about the arts since the day he announced his campaign. Asked about Luken's position, Fuller says, "Where has the mayor been regarding the arts? I didn't hear him say anything about the arts at a recent debate. Listen, I'm glad the mayor is finally talking about the arts."

Near the end of our phone conversation, I ask Luken if he considers it risky to include the arts in his political platform.

"I do consider it risky," he says. "I think it's a tough message to take to all 52 of the city's neighborhoods."

Later, I ask Fuller the same question and, as expected, he disagrees with his opponent: "I don't consider supporting the arts risky. I consider it bold."

Some voters will question the sincerity behind Luken's arts advocacy. Others will wonder if Fuller has the clout necessary to make an Avenue of the Arts a reality.

Both candidates have made promises to the arts community. After Tuesday, it's up to the arts community to hold Cincinnati's new mayor accountable.