Cover Story: Fits to a 'T'

With a little help, Cincinnati's arts and cultural projects could lift downtown from economic doldrums

Jymi Bolden

The new CAC rises.

One of the most ambitious ideas for promoting Cincinnati's arts and culture might turn out to be a savior for the struggling downtown economy. As with many civic solutions, however, the idea hinges on money and leadership.

An "avenue of the arts" is emerging downtown and in Over-the-Rhine as high-profile projects move forward. What's missing is an umbrella effort to brand the collection of organizations and projects and market them as the Tristate's ultimate arts destination.

Two years ago in our State of the Arts issue CityBeat unveiled an avenue of the arts concept called "The T" (see Cincinnati Tees off on the Arts issue of May 4-10, 2000). Modeled after a similar project in Philadelphia, the proposal suggested linking cultural institutions along Walnut Street downtown (the Aronoff Center, the new Contemporary Arts Center, the Main Public Library) with others along 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine (Music Hall, Memorial Hall, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, Main Street art galleries, the relocated Art Academy of Cincinnati, the new School for Creative and Performing Arts), meeting at a renovated Emery Theatre.

In addition, Metro's proposed regional transit plan features several light rail lines converging downtown along Walnut Street, with the potential of delivering arts customers right to "The T."

As Philadelphia proved, branding and marketing such a collection of unique organizations is good for a city's image as well as its pocketbook (see The Philadelphia Story issue of May 4-10, 2000). In 1993, a 30-block section of Broad Street running past its City Hall was established as the Avenue of the Arts, home to everything from the Academy of Music (Philadelphia's Music Hall) to brand-new construction — a total of 20 theaters, galleries, Jazz clubs and arts schools.

Philadelphia officials estimate the avenue's annual economic impact to be $157 million from more than 1 million visitors who attend performances or functions there.

And the avenue has attracted construction of a new Ritz-Carlton Hotel in its midst, along with upscale retail and residential developments.

Downtown Cincinnati's arts and cultural projects are moving forward independent of each other. The only efforts extended so far to connect some of them are the Fine Arts Fund's Festival of the New in 2003, which will mark the opening of the new CAC, and the Festival of Freedom in 2004, surrounding the launch of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (see Shiny and New).

Here's a quick overview of the components of "The T," from south to north:

· Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art: The new CAC is scheduled to open on May 31, 2003. Already known internationally for its wild design by Zaha Hadid, the new facility will attract tons of publicity and lots of visitors. Its position across from the Aronoff Center will make Walnut Street the arts destination in Cincinnati for years to come.

· Aronoff Center for the Arts: The best Broadway schedule in its history gives Aronoff officials hope for the coming season. Its tiny presenting series, however, is a cause for concern, the unfortunate result of the continuing civil rights boycott. Several local theater and dance troupes still call the Aronoff home, and the Weston Art Gallery continues to present local artists worthy of attention (see Fall Arts Preview).

· Main Branch, Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County: In our proposal for "The T," CityBeat suggested the library resurrect its plan for an auditorium at Walnut and Ninth streets, which was scrapped for budgetary reasons when its addition was built in 1998. With its current budget woes, the library system likely won't be more of a player on the local cultural scene any time soon. Still, the main branch is collaborating with Cincinnati Ballet and the Cincinnati Art Museum on this fall's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo retrospective (see The Gift That Keeps Giving).

· New Theater/Gallery Building: The other brand-new construction suggested by "The T" was at the surface parking lot on Walnut between Ninth and Court streets, the perfect location for a new, state-of-the-art theater facility built specifically for Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival (à la the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Navy Pier space) and other smaller groups like Blue Wisp Jazz Club and Arts Consortium of Cincinnati. No one has stepped up to champion such a project. CSF, after seriously considering leaving downtown, has extended its current lease on Race Street; the Blue Wisp is shut down awaiting a move to new downtown digs; and African-American arts and culture remain extremely under-represented.

· Emery Theatre: The building's restored exterior looks fantastic, and residents have been living in its apartments for more than a year. But the Emery Center's real gem — the historic theater — remains moth-balled due to a lack of both interest and funds. The theater's acoustics are superb, and its 1,500-seat size would fill a real need.

· Art Academy of Cincinnati: There's a huge banner hanging on the Art Academy's future home at 12th and Jackson streets, so it must be true. Academy President Greg Smith has been leading tours through the six-story building recently for prospective students and their parents, as well as for city council members; the target date for moving is 2005.

· Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati: Coming off several seasons in a row of artistic and attendance triumphs, ETC is solidly established near 12th and Vine streets. Its 2002-03 season begins next week with The Guys (see Everyday Heroes · Media Bridges: Cincinnati's public access TV service relocated earlier this year to a historic building at Race Street and Central Parkway, partly because its board wanted the organization to be situated near the avenue of the arts. Media Bridges offers free classes, equipment and air time to individuals and nonprofits.

· SCPA: Details of the school's new facility behind Music and Memorial halls continue to emerge, but a lot is riding on this fall's Cincinnati Public Schools tax levy. If the levy passes and if SCPA supporters are finally able to raise $20 million in private funds, the new K-12 arts preparatory academy could open as soon as 2007.

· Music Hall: Cincinnati Opera, with the help of a $300,000 grant from the city of Cincinnati, is planning a $3.3 million rehab of Music Hall's North Hall into the Corbett Opera Center, which will contain new administrative offices and rehearsal space. Construction is already under way, and the center should be ready for occupancy in fall 2003.

· Main Street galleries: Over-the-Rhine's Main Street district definitely is struggling, with some businesses closing or close to it. Enjoy the Arts/START, Uptown Arts Center and Pendleton Art Center are among the arts organizations hanging in there, but rumor has it that Suzanna Terrill Gallery might be leaving.

Three unrelated developments will have some bearing on prospects for the success of an avenue of the arts in Cincinnati:

· Light Rail: Hamilton County voters will decide this fall if a half-cent sales tax is to fund construction of a regional public transit system that includes five light rail lines, four of which meet downtown to run south on Walnut Street and north on Main Street. Stations are planned for Court Street (serving the Over-the-Rhine portion of "The T") and Fifth Street (serving the rest). When and if finished, the lines could deliver thousands of customers a day to the arts organizations along Walnut Street, offsetting worries about parking availability in the area.

· Over-the-Rhine Master Plan: Released in June, the plan shows a design for the long-discussed parking garage/retail/housing complex at Vine Street and Central Parkway — which Art Academy officials reportedly have insisted on as a condition for its relocation to 12th Street. The garage certainly would also benefit ETC, the Emery Theater and even Music Hall. The master plan also pushes for more housing and arts-related work space in OTR's Pendleton district.

· National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: The facility is beginning to take shape on Second Street and, when opened in 2004, will draw national attention and tourists to Cincinnati. Although not an arts organization per se, the Freedom Center has much to offer the local arts community (and vice versa) — its 600-seat theater could host the biennial Cincinnati Black Theatre Festival, for instance, or other arts events. It's not on the Walnut Street corridor, but maybe we could hook the southern end of the arts avenue over to Second and Vine and call it "The J."

We can dream, can't we? ©

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