It's a hot Sunday evening, surprisingly summer-like for April, and Fred Lane keeps busy bartending on the second floor of SSNOVA, the performance arts space he helped create two years ago inside the massive Mockbee Building. Lane is an unassuming art pioneer and landlord, responsible for setting up Semantics Gallery in a Brighton Corner storefront space off Central Parkway and converting the nearby Mockbee Building into the city's most successful venue for avant-garde performances.
Lane staffs the SSNOVA bar so he can generate cash to replace burned-out lights and move forward with renovations of the Mockbee's upper floors. SSNOVA is a shoestring operation at best, a bare-bones renovation of an old building that's the exact opposite of recent big-ticket constructions like the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the new Contemporary Arts Center (CAC). The money on the new CAC has gone into its splashy architecture, and I can't say whether it will make as much of an impact on young artists as SSNOVA and its barrel-vaulted rooms.
It's around 8 p.m. when people start filing into SSNOVA's minimalist rooms for an avant-garde film program. The space might be slightly rundown, but it's easy to imagine what a future Cincinnati can be once a lively crowd fills the floor. The question is whether anyone of influence is paying attention to the Brighton Corner action.
The grassroots wake-up call occurred when Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell pledged $35,000 in city funds toward renovating SSNOVA as part of his $2.2 million package for revitalizing Over-the-Rhine. City funds are usually dispersed in a trickle-down manner, starting with big-ticket hand-outs to major institutions like Cincinnati Opera and the Taft Museum of Art and finishing up with loose change for small arts organizations.
SSNOVA is the anti-CAC. It's a cheap, grassroots endeavor that's come to life without the support of large institutions and their deep-pocketed donors. It's off the map of political influence. Yet, despite its lack of City Hall clout, it recently won sizable support in the city's 2003 budget.
Everything changes now that Tarbell has voiced his support for SSNOVA. For the first time in recent memory, a small group of arts activists are getting a fair shake of the City Hall money tree.
To all those entrepreneurs who envision a livelier, more creative center city and are willing to get their hands dirty to make it happen, the SSNOVA payoff is proof that their efforts can also result in sizable city support.
Cincinnati politicians are convinced the city's greatest commodity is its arts institutions. Cultural tourism is the reason to spend city dollars in an attempt to convert Over-the-Rhine into an arts neighborhood, and SSNOVA has benefited from the newfound attention on the arts. While big plans remain focused on downtown and the riverfront, the crowds continue to gather at Lane's renovated factory.
It's hard to predict just how popular the new CAC is going to be when its doors open in late May. I do know one thing, though: The CAC won't replace SSNOVA as the favorite destination for emerging artists and young arts junkies.
Art takes priority over post-modern architecture at SSNOVA, and the Brighton Corner venue is more successful for it. Lane, working with SSNOVA figurehead Emily Buddendeck, has created a loose, roughhewn space that matches perfectly with the free spirit of the mostly young artists and young patrons who call the venue home.
I like the fact that Lane is willing to tend bar to make SSNOVA a success. I'm also impressed how he carries loudspeakers and offers a helping hand to the young artists who hang their work on SSNOVA walls.
Lane is unpretentious, much like the art spaces he helped create. His low-key manner might prevent him from becoming a political mover-and-shaker, but it's earned him the respect of everyone who passes through SSNOVA's and Semantics Gallery's doors.