Cover Story: Cincinnati Tees Off on the Arts

CityBeat proposes The T, downtown avenues of the arts that concentrate high-profile arts organizations to spur economic growth and focus public attention. It worked in Philadelphia -- why not here?

May 4, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Heather Wehby

Some streets have personalities all their own. Think of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Chicago's Michigan Avenue, San Francisco's Haight Street or L.A.'s Hollywood Boulevard. New York City has Broadway, Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, among others.

Each of these American thoroughfares, one can imagine, began as a hodge-podge of businesses, residential and multi-use buildings until (sound of light bulb going on over someone's head) the street itself was packaged and promoted as a whole. Tourists eventually found out how to get there, and soon urban legends were born.

A few cities have attempted to create legendary streets by skipping the first part — the hard work of history — and proceeding directly to promotion and tourism. Most of these, unfortunately, have become theme-park renditions of real life. Think of Peachtree Street in Atlanta and any major road in Indianapolis or Dallas.

The missing ingredient in most of these pseudo-streets, of course, is character. And, to paraphrase an old brokerage firm TV commercial, character can only be made the old-fashioned way — it's earned.

Money certainly can help build on a street's character, if invested wisely. A prime example is Broad Street in Philadelphia, which has been re-christened Avenue of the Arts.

As detailed in "The Philadelphia Story" (page 27), that city forged creative public-private partnerships to turn Broad Street — a major downtown boulevard — into an exciting new destination for locals and tourists alike. The bonus is that the arts became the theme to give the area personality.

The street already housed the Academy of Music (its equivalent of Cincinnati's Music Hall) and a number of arts-oriented groups and facilities scattered along 25 to 30 city blocks. But with a combination of renovated facilities, brand-new construction and sprucing up — along with the requisite catchy name and well-funded marketing campaign — Broad Street has become Avenue of the Arts and Philadelphia's rich arts heritage has been focused in the public eye.

Back in Cincinnati, the lessons of Philadelphia are obvious. A vibrant arts community can't be manufactured, but it can be nurtured. And when nurtured correctly, a concentrated area of high-quality, well-marketed arts groups and facilities can offer a huge economic return to a city.

In the current atmosphere in Cincinnati — where economic return is the No. 1 driving force behind allocations of public funds to stadium and department store projects — the Philadelphia success story should be a welcome sight for city officials' sore eyes. It's a sure thing, a no-brainer, a proven commodity.

Is that good enough for Cincinnati?

We think so. In compiling this year's State of the Arts Issue, our fourth annual look at the people and organizations impacting Cincinnati's arts scene, CityBeat noticed that many of the big local arts stories centered around Walnut Street downtown. The new Contemporary Arts Center building, the search for new leadership at the Aronoff Center for the Arts and renovation of the Emery Theatre complex — each is well underway, and each will have a major impact individually on the local arts.

Together, though, the three stories converge on Walnut to offer a solid foundation for what could become Cincinnati's version of Avenue of the Arts. With a little digging and a little creative thinking, it's not hard to envision the avenue actually beginning to resemble two corridors — one stretching up Walnut from Sixth to 12th streets, the other roughly following 12th from near Music Hall on the western edge of Over-the-Rhine to SCPA and the Pendleton area in the east.

Let's call it "The T." Three-fourths of the projects outlined here and in the accompanying article "Creating a Cultural Corridor in Over-the-Rhine" (see page 32) already are underway in one form or another. A little nurturing from City Hall and/or Hamilton County could fill in the gaps and put The T on the map — locally, regionally and nationally.

Add in the fact that the proposed I-71 corridor light rail line is supposed to run straight down Walnut Street, and suddenly you have an incredible collection of large and small arts groups with public transportation to bring customers to each's front door.

The impact on the city — besides acknowledging and rallying behind the importance of the arts to all Cincinnatians — could be staggering. Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts spurred hotels, restaurants and other private investment to fill in the space between arts facilities, creating a vortex of public interest, private money and tourist visits.

More than 1.1 million people now attend performances or events along Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts each year, generating an estimated $157 million for the city. Is anyone around here interested in that kind of impact?

Backstage: Is It Working Yet?
When the Aronoff Center opened in 1995, city officials predicted the brand new facility would drive development around Walnut, Sixth and Seventh streets. They gave the area a name — the Backstage Entertainment District — and envisioned new restaurants, new retail and bustling alleyway cafes.

The Aronoff's success as an economic linchpin has, so far, been mixed. Several new restaurants opened — Plaza 600, Nicholson's, Uno's, Jeff Ruby's — and street activity in the blocks around the arts center picked up noticeably.

The alleys have been cleaned up but still await new development. Several storefronts across the street and around the corner sit empty, after small businesses packed up and left. Even the Aronoff's own gift shop and its Graeter's outlet were shuttered.

The Aronoff Center itself has been a disappointment to many in Cincinnati's arts community. The center's board made an early determination that fiscal responsibility would be its main priority, and so programming decisions have been on the conservative side. The good news is that the Aronoff, unlike most new arts centers, has been operating in the black almost since opening its doors. The bad news is that the facility, particularly its main theater, Procter & Gamble Hall, sits dark way too many nights.

On such nights, activity along Walnut Street feels like a bunch of high school kids having a party in the basement after Mom and Dad have gone to bed — something's going on, but it's fairly hidden.

Into the breach has stepped the Contemporary Arts Center, which plans to occupy the corner of Walnut and Sixth in a few years. City officials, who are trying to wrap up negotiations on land acquisition at the corner, hope the CAC will team with the Aronoff Center to push Backstage Entertainment District development to its planned conclusion.

On April 24, CAC Director Charles Desmarais announced that the center's fund-raising campaign for the new building was inching toward its goal, helped along by a new $800,000 national grant. The campaign has now raised $28.4 million out of its overall goal of $30.3 million.

The Michigan-based Kresge Foundation made its $800,000 pledge conditional on the CAC raising the final $2 million by Nov. 1, and Desmarais says the center's board of trustees is forming new committees to ensure the final dollars would be gathered.

"What's really important about the fund-raising announcement is the recognition from a national foundation," he says. "It confirms along with the national media coverage we've gotten that the new building's impact goes well beyond Cincinnati."

The Ohio legislature recently announced an allocation of $2 million to the new CAC building in its most recent capital bill, bringing state contributions to the project to $5.5 million. The city's contribution — acquiring and clearing the land — isn't completed yet.

One of the three parcels needed for the project — the Batsakes hat shop/dry cleaners — remains in negotiation. The Batsakes family has sued the city of Cincinnati, and city attorneys in return have asked a judge to allow the city to claim the property under eminent domain laws.

Desmarais remains hopeful the final parcel will be acquired through negotiations and not through court proceedings.

"If we get the property through negotiation, I think we can take ownership of the land by the end of the summer," he says.

Under that scenario, the new Contemporary Arts Center would open in fall 2002. Desmarais says construction is expected to take 16-18 months, with additional time needed for the center to move from its current space on Fifth Street.

When actual construction begins, he says he'll announce an exact opening date. He's already planning for what the first exhibition will be in the new facility.

"We're working really hard to get something great for the opening," he says. "Of course, we don't know yet when that'll be, so it's difficult to start pinning anything down."

Desmarais says the National Endowment for the Arts has given the CAC a $25,000 grant to plan for exhibitions at the new facility — some of which was used to bring four advisors to town several weeks ago.

Zaha Hadid's renowned design for the new CAC building has survived the fund-raising process almost entirely intact, Desmarais says, noting a few minor changes in the main internal staircase and the café's change from a full-service restaurant to a coffee bar.

But the role of the café and a small theater set-up remains, he says, as a catalyst for making the facility as much of a public space as possible. In that way, he'd like to see the new CAC and the Aronoff cooperate on ways to engage the public.

"Both organizations see our new building as a wonderful opportunity to complement each other," Desmarais says, noting that he already serves on a committee that's looking at ways to make the Aronoff's outdoor plazas more people-friendly. "But there's no specific agreement (on programming) yet between the CAC and the Aronoff, and it'll be a whole new ballgame when the new Aronoff executive director is named."

Steve Loftin has been serving as acting executive director at the Aronoff Center since Elissa Getto departed in February. He says the search for Getto's replacement remains on track, with "nothing new to report on the process."

Until a new executive director is brought in — and until his or her programming and financial goals are made public — the Aronoff remains Walnut Street's sleeping giant.

The Broadway Series, Cincinnati Ballet and Downtown Theater Classics are its high-profile tenants, along with a smattering of small theater groups. And the Weston Art Gallery continues to offer intriguing shows, many of them from local and regional artists.

But other fledgling arts organizations have avoided the Aronoff for a variety of reasons — from high rents to the wrong number of theater seats to a lack of backstage technical amenities. In that way, the Aronoff has never achieved the status of a true arts center for the entire Cincinnati arts community.

Hopes are high that the Aronoff's new top person will lead the facility — as well as its sister buildings, Music Hall and Memorial Hall — to a more adventurous future, with exciting programming that has the various halls hopping almost every night.

Our Modest Proposal
It's not hard to imagine several years down the road when a rejuvenated Aronoff Center and a spanking new CAC anchor the lower section of Walnut Street and the Emery theater/apartment complex anchors a northern stretch of Walnut that intersects and mingles with exciting arts projects in Over-the-Rhine.

What might be harder to picture are two facilities CityBeat envisions to fill in a huge gap along Walnut — a new theater/gallery complex and an expanded main public library branch.

Using a mix of public and private funds, Philadelphia helped boost its Avenue of the Arts with new construction — particularly the Pennsylvania Regional Performing Arts Center, a $245 million complex similar to the Aronoff Center. The same could be done here, only on a much smaller scale and with far fewer public dollars.

The surface parking lot on Walnut between Ninth and Court streets would be the perfect location for a new, state-of-the-art theater facility built specifically for the needs of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival and other emerging groups.

CSF, according to Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, would welcome a permanent home that he could design from the ground up. Based on explosive growth in subscriptions and audiences, the company moved two years ago from the Aronoff's small Fifth Third Bank Theater to its current home at a converted movie theater on Race Street.

Perhaps envious of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's great new facility at the Navy Pier, Minadakis says he thinks a theater complex on Walnut is "a fabulous idea." He says he'd want a 300-seat arena-style theater for CSF's main productions and a 50- to 80-seat studio theater for more adventurous or lower-tech fare.

CSF has three years remaining on the lease at its current home, which seats 180-200.

Skip Fenker, a well-known director of musicals for various Cincinnati theater groups, agrees with Minadakis' wish list for new theater space. He notes that the Aronoff's smaller theaters — the Jarson-Kaplan (440 seats) and the Fifth Third (150 seats) — haven't been very useful to many local organizations.

"The Jarson-Kaplan has no wing space and no backstage," Fenker says. "It's not an ideal space, and it's expensive. The Fifth Third isn't big enough to attract an audience to cover the cost of royalties on musicals, which are very high even for work done in small houses."

Fenker envisions a 500- to 1,000-seat theater in which to stage major musicals that has an orchestra pit, adequate wing space and a fly system to quickly move scenery. He'd also like to see a smaller space for staged readings to encourage local playwrights to create new work.

The Emery Theatre, when renovated, likely will seat 1,200 to 1,500, satisfying Fenker's wishes for a larger hall. A fully decked-out mid-size theater could be built for CSF and other like-minded troupes, along with the desired small studio theater.

Such a complex also could house satellite art galleries from the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Art Museum, among others.

The Arts Consortium has always seen its main mission as a community resource for the West End, but its satellite space in the Museum Center at Union Terminal helps spread its influence a bit. Another such gallery on Walnut Street would really help educate mainstream Cincinnati about the city's rich African-American arts heritage.

Art Museum officials have long talked about bringing their historic work "down from the hill" in Eden Park to new and wider audiences. A satellite gallery downtown — particularly up the street from the new CAC and in the same complex as emerging theater companies that attract young audiences — would do the trick.

Across the street from the parking lot-to-theater complex site is the expansion of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County that opened in 1998. Initial designs for the expansion included an auditorium, which was cut as library officials honed their plans.

Why not build the auditorium as part of The T? The land's still there, currently a library surface parking lot. And there's certain programming — authors speaking about or reading their work, children's events, documentary films — that makes more sense being presented by the public library than by anyone else.

Amy Banister, public relations head for the library system, says the organization was finished using development funds on its downtown facility for the time being.

"We're focused on the branch system now," she says, noting major construction projects underway in Harrison, Groesbeck and Westwood. "Beyond that, our long-term goal is to figure out solutions for the 11 branch offices (out of 41) we rent and would like to own."

Still, our public library system is one of the country's largest and seemingly could support another expansion at its main branch — especially if offering programs and events that complement its Walnut Street neighbors.

Other miscellaneous suggestions on our wish list for The T include permanent space for the Classical Music Hall of Fame and the Cincinnati Film Society as well as a more prominent location for the Blue Wisp Jazz club, currently in an underground space on Garfield Place.

All of these organizations could be housed in the new theater/gallery complex on Walnut, and each would add to the area's diversity of artistic offerings — thus increasing the potential pool of audiences and visitors.

Philadelphia renovated a building along its Avenue of the Arts for the Clef Club of Jazz, which helped focus attention on the city's strong Jazz scene. The same could be done here.

A lot can be done here, actually, if creative, forward-thinking minds are put to the task. One of the key ingredients in Philadelphia's success with its arts boulevard, organizers said, was when an energetic, popular mayor (Ed Rendell) took the project under his wing and rallied public support.

Cincinnati will radically change how our mayor is elected in 2001, picking the next leader in a direct election for the first time in generations. That leader also will have enhanced powers to push his or her agenda with more authority than ever before.

If an energetic, popular mayor — say, oh, a guy like Charlie Luken — were to take ownership of The T and rally public support around it, Cincinnati's arts community finally might have a real political champion. And, unlike other current development projects, this plan would benefit the entire city and all of its citizens. ©