Cover Story: On Any Given Friday

Sometimes art imitates life, but in Over-the-Rhine

May 24, 2006 at 2:06 pm
James McKenna

A wild coincidence or the sign of a healthy arts district? May 5 at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati.

On a recent Friday in Over-the-Rhine, a single mother of five fights demons from her past. A young woman loses her family to violence and wonders if she can go on. A student packs up his belongings, uncertain about the future.

That's life in Over-the-Rhine, but on this particular spring day it's also art imitating life, art bringing life to a neighborhood that's seen too much death.

If you've ever doubted the power of the arts to change a city — bring people together, open minds to new realities, add meaning to larger causes — you should have been downtown on May 5. Maybe you were. In one afternoon and evening you could have been part of the crowds at:

· Know Theatre Tribe's production of In the Blood in its brand new facility at 1120 Jackson St., a half block into Over-the-Rhine between Central Parkway and 12th Street. The play's gritty, urban story — about a woman and her children helping each other survive — and racially mixed cast are a perfect match for the space.

· Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati's final production of its 2005-06 season, Wayfarer's Rest, a block away at 1127 Vine St. Annie Fitzpatrick leads a stellar cast as a woman stuck in the British countryside during World War II bombing who tries to save, but loses, her family.

· Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's final concert of its 2005-06 Music Hall season, featuring Paavo Jarvi and a bit of Beethoven.

The lobby hums with a mixed-age crowd eager to see the charismatic Jarvi's last local appearance until September.

· The final day of classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, wrapping up its initial school year at 12th and Jackson. The converted concrete-and-glass warehouse, warmed by the teaching and making of so much art, slowly deflates as undergrads clean out their studios and head home for the summer.

· The opening weekend of Richard III a few blocks away at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival (CSF). Giles Davies owns the stage as Shakespeare's despicable, deformed villain.

· A Contemporary Arts Center members' opening party celebrating four new exhibitions. Visitors dance to a DJ spinning Salsa music in the lobby and wander the galleries.

· Coordinated with the CAC, an opening party across Walnut Street at the Aronoff Center's Weston Gallery for a site-specific sculpture show featuring a soundproof house, plus Stewart Goldman's paintings.

· An opening party at ArtWorks' Time Warner Cable Gallery, a block up Race Street from CSF. A diverse crowd mingles among work from Ben and Helen Allen's private collection.

· An opening party at the 5th Street Gallery for painter Donna Talerico, whose friends stop by after work to start the weekend as the setting sun streams down Fifth Street and through the windows.

· And late-night gatherings at alchemize, Cooper's on Main, RBC and Courtyard Cafe for the "Electrofest 2.0" showcase of local, regional and national bands focused on electronic-based music.

For all the action, you still wonder: How many of the people downtown on this one Friday night feel that they're part of a "scene?" How many park once and walk among the various venues, getting something to eat before their event or something to drink afterwards? How many are attracted by the excitement of being among like-minded arts fans?

Probably not many.

Each of the arts organizations active this night worked hard to attract its patrons, struggling against the perception of the neighborhood as unsafe and undesirable. Each has to sell the public on its surroundings as much as its entertainment, and leaders at each can easily feel they're out there all by themselves.

And yet the collective momentum in and near Over-the-Rhine, led by the arts, seems to be slowly moving forward. Know Theatre's new home fills a vacant building. A formerly crappy corner building at 12th and Vine is being transformed into student housing for the Art Academy. And designs finally have been unveiled for the new School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) on Central Parkway, with groundbreaking promised soon.

Drug dealing, prostitution and related criminal activities continue to haunt the area, leading to a recent police crackdown in Over-the-Rhine that's netted more than 1,400 arrests. No one knows if that's a short-term boost or the beginning of a long-term solution.

As City Councilman Jim Tarbell says about Over-the-Rhine, "It's at a point where the glass is either half empty or half full. Which way will it go?"

If other days downtown can come close to what happened on May 5, the glass will fill up quickly. If organizations can coordinate marketing and programming efforts through a formalized arts district, the glass might eventually overflow.

'Our vision is coming true'
When the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced May 10 that Over-the-Rhine was among the most endangered historic sites in the U.S., city leaders welcomed the attention and acknowledgement of the area's significance. But it was hardly news.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Cincinnati Opera and May Festival have been holding down the fort at Music Hall for decades. Ensemble Theatre (ETC) has been an artistic oasis on Vine Street since 1988. Leaders there have watched the neighborhood deteriorate around them while a succession of politicians and blue-ribbon committees promised help.

Help is finally here via the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC), whose plan for Over-the-Rhine centers on hundreds of new housing units near the neighborhood's arts institutions. On the heels of the Gateway garage and condos built to help keep Kroger's headquarters downtown, 3CDC is taking its first steps in a building-by-building, block-by-block rehab program.

The 19th-century structure at 12th and Vine, known as the Bank Café building, is the poster child for the new effort. That's where apartments for 27 Art Academy students are being readied for the next school year starting in late August, funded by both private and city dollars.

"Look at that corner," says ETC Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers, smiling as she talks about the construction clutter on the sidewalk next door. "I'd much rather hear noise from the construction workers than noise from the arrests. And I'd much rather walk around guys in hard hats than walk around drug dealers stuffing bags of crack into the drain pipes in that building."

Meyers says ETC spends about 10 percent of its annual operating budget on private security for show nights. The better street lighting and $2 garage parking that came along with the Gateway facility have been a big improvement, she says, but sometimes she can't win for losing.

"After the news broke about the police crackdown in Over-the-Rhine, I got a few calls from patrons saying, 'Uh, I didn't know it was so dangerous down there — maybe we shouldn't come to ETC,' " Meyers says, shaking her head. "Clearly I'd like not to put so much money into security and to talk about the safety problems in Over-the-Rhine, but it comes with the territory. Literally."

CSO leadership has made public comments lately about its unhappiness with the status quo at Music Hall — both the suitability of the hall itself as well as nearby crime and blight — and Jarvi warned that the organization might have to abandon the historic building if business was affected. Unfortunately, leaders of Cincinnati's largest arts organization have been sounding that alarm for a while.

"It's not an issue of us not wanting to stay in Music Hall," CSO's then-board chairman, Daniel Hoffheimer, told CityBeat three years ago (see "A 360-Degree View," issue of Aug. 27, 2003). "It's 'Can we stay?' If attendance continues to decline due to public perception and events beyond our control, we have to look at leaving Music Hall."

CSO President Steven Monder is more upbeat, saying he doesn't want people to think his organization is ungrateful or unhappy in the city-owned architectural gem. But the reality, he says, is that the CSO needs to compete for audiences in the modern world and can't be handicapped with an out-of-date facility or safety problems.

A major goal of 3CDC's effort in Over-the-Rhine is to rehab residential buildings in the blocks around Washington Park, across the street from Music Hall and shamefully underused Memorial Hall. Plans call for the park to be extended up to 14th Street, reclaiming land now housing Washington Park Elementary School, which is scheduled to close.

With Music and Memorial halls fronting the Elm Street side of the park and the new SCPA fronting it on 12th Street, 3CDC has been buying up mostly abandoned buildings on the other two sides (Race and 14th streets) in hopes of eventually revitalizing the entire park vicinity.

Cincinnati's corporate community, a supporter of the arts already, finally understands that the best way to help these particular institutions right now is to back 3CDC's effort to build housing and small businesses in Over-the-Rhine, says former Kroger Chairman Joe Pichler, head of 3CDC's Over-the-Rhine Working Group.

"This is an asset-based opportunity," he says. "Music Hall brings in 400,000 people a year to this neighborhood, so the arts are the anchor for this Over-the-Rhine effort. And I'm impressed that the corporate community is risking its money on this 3CDC plan — $14 million on Vine Street alone. Amazing."

Pichler praises organizations like ETC, the CSO and the Opera for sticking it out in Over-the-Rhine through the bad times and knows that they and 3CDC need each other to succeed.

"It's attractive for potential condo and apartment dwellers to have Music Hall within walking distance of where you live, there's no doubt," he says. "Development will support the arts, and the arts attract residential development. What could be better for the CSO than a safe and open Washington Park? What could they do with the park to help extend and promote their programming?"

Art Academy President Gregory Smith had the same thoughts six or seven years ago when he decided to move the college from its longtime Eden Park and Mount Adams homes to warehouse buildings at 12th and Jackson, where he hoped the school, its faculty and its students would benefit from the energy of a bustling urban arts community. It hasn't quite worked out as Smith intended — yet.

"It's clear our vision for the neighborhood is coming true," he says when discussing 3CDC's projects and Know Theatre's move nearby. "We first looked at the building in fall 1999 and closed on it in June 2000. It wasn't such an urban pioneer location back then, since people were really talking about Over-the-Rhine flourishing. Main Street has declined a bit since then, and other things such as the new SCPA have taken a while to get going."

Smith has had his own security issues to deal with during the Art Academy's first year in Over-the-Rhine, as several students have been the victim of assaults or robberies.

The school ended the year with an enrollment of around 175, when the new building has a capacity of 275. Boosting the student population obviously is one of Smith's main objectives, yet many factors that contribute to his success or failure — timing and pace of redevelopment, criminal activity and perception of crime — are out of his hands.

"Timing is critical," he says. "When is enough of the 360-degree area around the Art Academy perceived to be safe enough for students to come here or for other people in the community to want to take classes here? That's the real question."

Tarbell — Cincinnati's unofficial arts czar as chair of city council's Arts, Culture, Tourism and Marketing Committee — understands the frustration of Smith, Meyers, Monder and other arts leaders who've been waiting for the development cavalry to arrive. He says 3CDC is what everyone's needed all along.

"3CDC's work now in Over-the-Rhine is the tip of the iceberg," he says. "Vine Street needs to be stabilized. We're up to 14th Street now with the planning and buying of properties. This time next year development up to 14th will be actively underway."

Tarbell prefers to see 3CDC's next phase of development work go all the way up Vine to McMicken Street and beyond, connecting downtown with UC and the uptown area as soon as possible. He thinks the Washington Park area would come along on its own if Over-the-Rhine's central corridor were rehabbed.

"It's like what they did with Short North in Columbus," Tarbell says. "They fixed up High Street between downtown and the Ohio State campus, and development spread out a few blocks on either side. I argue that if the money is tight — and development money is always tight — we should focus on Vine Street."

Wherever the road map goes from here, Meyers is pleased with what she sees so far.

"The powers said they were going to build a garage, and they did," she says, talking about the Gateway project. "They said they were going to build condos, and they did. They said they were going to fix up the bad buildings, and they are. So far, so good."

'Get people in the door'
Much of the recent buzz in the Over-the-Rhine arts community stems from Know Theatre's occupancy of the two-story building at 1120 Jackson St., which also provides a home base for the Fringe Festival. Jason Bruffy, artistic director of both organizations, had little more than a month to move the companies, rehearse In the Blood and open it on April 27.

Despite the frenzy, he and Executive Director Jay Kalagayan couldn't conceive of moving out of Over-the-Rhine, where Know Theatre has been based since 1999 (formerly at Gabriel's Corner at Sycamore and Liberty streets).

"For Know's programming, we always think about the urban experience you find downtown or in Over-the-Rhine," Bruffy says. "American theater is very issue-oriented right now, so there are a lot of good plays being written. We always have very diverse casts, not all-white or all-black. I do that consciously because I think that's what Over-the-Rhine is about."

Like Bruffy, Kalagayan doesn't consider Over-the-Rhine simply to be Know's address — its people, struggles and issues are central to the company's mission. He talks about handing out free In the Blood tickets to neighborhood residents because he wanted them to experience live theater, many for the first time.

"We had a community performance, and people came," Kalagayan says. "They were amazed. They talked back to the actors. Some left at intermission — we found out later they thought the play was over."

Bruffy smiles and shrugs. "Well, what other entertainment have they gone to that has an intermission?"

They say they'll continue their tradition of having a free preview weekend for each Know production, working through the Joseph House, the Drop Inn Center and other Over-the-Rhine nonprofits to invite locals. Besides being good outreach, it's good business.

"We feel like the only way to grow new audiences for Know and for theater in general is to get people in the door," Kalagayan says. "There's no risk (for the audience) with a free ticket."

There are plans for a number of ways to get people in the door at the new space, from Fringe Festival performances starting next week to being a MidPoint Music Festival venue in September to creating a "cabaret lobby" that could host solo performers, bands, spoken word and other intimate productions (plus a limited liquor license and Wi-Fi availability).

More than anything, they'd like to get other artists in the door.

"Theater might be the most inviting of all the arts, especially a company like us," Bruffy says. "We work with video and music and run the gamut of the arts, using bands, DJs, visual artists. Those people should be into what we're doing. ... One thing we're doing is all the Fringe Festival performers get full access to all the festival shows. Artists need to see other artists. It opens them up to other ideas, other artists and maybe collaborations."

Art Academy students are of particular interest, Bruffy says, and not just because they're half a block away. He'd like to see the students' work on the walls of Know's new space and even have them do outdoor murals when Know gets around to rehabbing the building's exterior.

Bruffy says he's spoken with Smith about setting up a formal internship program with the Art Academy to have students help design and build Know's sets, and Smith confirms his interest.

"Our students can make anything — sets, props, etc.," Smith says. "We're transitioning to requiring mandatory internships for a BFA in fine arts, so it makes sense. It would be great exposure to real life situations in which your art degree can be used. Our alums have been saying they want the school to better prepare students for careers."

Smith says he's generally pleased with the Art Academy's first year in its new home and remains convinced the facility positions the school for future growth. He ticks through his three main talking points from the past year: People love the building itself and the additional room for students, faculty and staff; there have been positive developments in the neighborhood, particularly 3CDC's housing starts; and safety continues to be a concern.

Like other arts leaders in the area, Smith clearly walks a tightrope when discussing safety. He knows he's ultimately responsible for the well-being of the school's students and staff, but he doesn't want to draw too much attention to crime statistics and scare away potential students or visitors.

He'd just as soon talk about the four awards the Art Academy building has won, which Smith says demonstrate the breadth of impact the school has had already. The latest award came a few weeks ago from Heritage Ohio for "Best Large Rehabilitation Project" in the state.

Other recognition includes the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce's award for "Property Development of the Year," the Society of Environmental Graphic Design's "Midwest Ohio Region Honor Award" and the Associated Building & Contractors' "Excellence in Construction: Historic Restoration" award.

More than anything, Smith likes to talk about the students and the art they produce inside the building. He seems tickled that they disrupted the staff's plan to hang "institutional" art throughout the building (from well-known alumni) and instead requested their own art be featured on the walls, and he enjoys showing visitors the student work.

"The sum total of the Art Academy's past year is very positive," Tarbell observes. "The seeds being sown now will work their magic over the coming years."

'People need to know'
The two established companies wrapping up their seasons, Ensemble Theatre and the Symphony, have good news to report regarding audience response.

ETC's total attendance for the 2005-06 season was around 35,000, with single ticket sales up over last year and subscriptions holding steady. Meyers says Enjoy the Arts tickets and student rush tickets were particularly strong.

She's proud that the season's first two shows tackled racial issues in very different eras — Intimate Apparel told the story of a turn-of-the-century African-American seamstress, and Permanent Collection explored the tension between black and white directors in a present-day art museum.

"I loved the season's diversity," Meyers says. "The first two shows were set up back to back to show how little things have changed in 100 years. ... We didn't give in to the temptation of the tried-and-true. Because entertainment dollars are tight for people, there's a tendency to spend them on the tried-and-true, and the arts are tempted to provide more and more of the same."

Last year at this time, ETC was on the verge of embracing an ambitious expansion plan to build a larger theater facility on the same site. The board had considered but rejected moving out of Over-the-Rhine and hired a consultant to advise them on next steps.

Ultimately, it was decided that the time wasn't right for a major fund-raising and building project, both because the ETC board wasn't certain about the future of the neighborhood and because the company itself needed to be on firmer footing. The board adopted a shorter-term stabilization plan instead.

Meyers says expansion plans were put on hold until two things are accomplished first.

"We need the neighborhood to catch up with us in terms of safety and stability," she says. "People will then be more willing to invest in a capital campaign to build a new theater. And we need to continue to grow artistically."

To help with the artistic process, ETC's board has committed to raising $1 million as a stabilization fund, allowing Meyers to lock up key personnel for the next three seasons by going beyond the typical year-to-year contracts. It's a load off of her mind, she says.

The 2005-06 season saw Meyers move ETC further along in collaborating with other theaters. Her production of I Am My Own Wife from two seasons ago, featuring actor Todd Almond and Brian c. Mehring's set, had out-of-town runs earlier this year at Actor's Theatre in Louisville and Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota.

The runs didn't necessarily make ETC much money, Meyers says, but they help improve the company's reputation in the theatrical world, which puts ETC in better position to land future world premiere plays.

If Meyers can tie up the loose ends, next season ETC will have its first full-fledged theater partner to share productions with, much as Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park co-produces plays with Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. And she might even complete a 2006-07 season lineup one of these days.

"I'm thrilled that 60 percent of subscribers have renewed for next season already before I've announced the shows," she says.

Renewing subscribers for next season is also underway at the CSO, where numbers for the just-completed season were finalized only a few days ago. For the Symphony's 53 concerts in its 2005-06 Music Hall season, average attendance, single tickets and subscriptions all were up from the season before.

Two demographic groups the Symphony targeted showed significant gains this season — tickets for the four-concert Sunday subscription, a matinee series geared to families, increased 18 percent; student tickets increased 27 percent.

Results for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra's 22 concerts in its 2005-06 Music Hall season were mixed. Average attendance, single tickets and subscriptions were all down from the previous season, although discounting poor attendance for the Jekyll & Hyde performance — a guest presentation while the Pops were on their China tour — puts the average Pops attendance even with last year.

Monder says he's pleased with the attendance trends but knows it's a constant struggle to keep up with people's changing habits.

"Subscriptions and an endowment historically have been the life blood of nonprofits, but those kinds of commitments aren't as popular now in contemporary life," he says. "We're actually selling more subscriptions to the Symphony but people are buying fewer shows, and that's not a bad trend. They want more flexibility. That's today's reality."

Another reality Monder deals with is the size and shape of Music Hall itself, home to the Symphony since 1936. Average CSO attendance in 2005-06 was 1,711, and average Pops attendance was at 2,194 — in a hall with 3,400 seats. Even at well-attended performances, Music Hall can feel a little empty.

CSO leaders are working through that issue and others — lack of parking, lack of an on-site box office, lack of an on-site restaurant or café, safety concerns and general "old building" syndrome — with other Music Hall tenants, and Monder hopes to have a plan in place by the fall to address them.

"Our plan obviously creates a domino effect with regard to everything else being worked on in Over-the-Rhine," he says. "People need to know if the Symphony is in or out. We need to be a part of the game in redeveloping the neighborhood and not sit on the sidelines."

With CSO's leadership position in the local arts and Music Hall such a crucial component of any Over-the-Rhine plan, key players know they need to address Monder's concerns.

Pichler mentions conceptual drawings 3CDC has prepared for a development between and behind Music Hall and Memorial Hall that primarily would serve as a parking garage. Between that and the WCET garage across Central Parkway, all the parking needed for Music Hall events would finally be on-site and connected to the building.

Tarbell brings the discussion of Music Hall back to the same theme he presses throughout Over-the-Rhine — developing residential housing will change the dynamic of the entire neighborhood.

"What's the point of hiring a world-class conductor and then you go outside Music Hall and see a vacant building next door?," he asks. "If you don't focus on the neighborhood picture, you miss the opportunity to find a place for your employees to live nearby and walk to work, which strengthens the whole area because these people will look after and take care of the area they live and work in. Now you're building a real neighborhood."

'Open yourself up'
As summer approaches, Cincinnati's downtown arts continue on their merry way — though perhaps not with the oomph of May 5.

The May Festival wraps up its 133rd year this weekend at Music Hall, while the Fringe Festival kicks off next week at 1120 Jackson St., ETC, Kaldi's, the CAC, the Aronoff Center and other venues. Cincinnati Ballet performs its Beyond Ballet Gala June 3 at its studio theater just up from Music Hall. Cincinnati Opera opens its summer season at Music Hall June 15 with Tosca. The touring production of Little Women: The Musical plays the Aronoff Center June 13-25.

All the while, artists, musicians, dancers, actors and others will find themselves in galleries on Main Street and around downtown, in Media Bridges working on video projects and in neighborhood bars and restaurants plotting their next move.

Smith will be overseeing a gaggle of graduate students spending the summer at the Art Academy, but he'll also be out among his colleagues gauging their interest in establishing a formal Over-the-Rhine arts district. He has a specific idea he wants to present and get consensus for, though he's not interested in discussing it in the media yet.

"I want the district idea to grow from arts groups themselves, not from the media or city government," Smith says. "It would be a mechanism to improve collaboration in visibility, marketing and safety. I have to appeal to the self interests of each arts organization in Over-the-Rhine, so I have to listen to them."

Smith says he hopes this article won't rehash CityBeat's own concept for a downtown arts district, which we dubbed "The T" six years ago. We envisioned a grouping of arts organizations in the shape of a T, going up Walnut Street from the CAC and the Aronoff Center to 12th Street across the top (see "Cincinnati Tees Off on the Arts," issue of May 4, 2000).

Of course, we also envisioned the Main Public Library at Ninth and Walnut stepping up its arts programming; a new building at the same intersection to house Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, the Arts Consortium and other smaller groups; a renovated Emery Theatre at Walnut Street and Central Parkway; and a light rail system to carry patrons right to the venues. Oops, looks like it's been rehashed.

Smith's objection to "The T" is two-fold: Successful arts districts, he says, have to be experienced by walking and thus need to be more compact than what CityBeat proposed. And media plans tend to create confusion instead of consensus because they're imposed from outside the arts community itself.

Tarbell has no qualms about tossing out his concept for an Over-the-Rhine arts district centered around the Gateway complex and including Know, ETC, the Art Academy and a renovated Emery Theatre. He'd like to call it Jackson Square, giving it a distinct identity and allowing the Music Hall/Memorial Hall/Washington Park area and the Main Street area to retain their own identities.

No matter how you do it and what you call it, the concept of a center city arts district simply recognizes that the sum of the arts there is greater than the individual parts. And it helps the arts leaders within the district begin to feel less alone and less vulnerable.

If it were up to us — and Smith has made it clear that it isn't — here's a modest list of duties an arts district structure could take on:

· Create awareness by placing signage along Central Parkway at the four main northbound streets: Main (art galleries), Jackson (Know Theatre and the Art Academy), Vine (ETC) and Elm (Music Hall and Memorial Hall).

· Coordinate the hiring of private security for all organizations, saving money through group rates, and pay for Downtown Cincinnati Inc.'s friendly ambassadors to patrol the Over-the-Rhine part of the district, which they currently don't do.

· Find someone to renovate the Emery Theatre; our suggestion: UC owns it and has been investing millions of dollars in development projects near campus — why not invest in the Emery as a "CCM Downtown" satellite operation? It would take CCM's world-class performers-in-training off campus to a venue where new audiences might find them (much as UC's University Galleries on Sycamore does for visual art students and alumni).

· Coordinate hours of operation with restaurants and bars within the district to promote a complete evening-long experience.

· Figure out what's missing in terms of artistic offerings and go get it — a high-profile location for the defunct Arts Consortium would be No. 1 on our list.

· Come up with a one-man structure to run the arts district a la what 3CDC has done with Bill Donabedian and Fountain Square.

Not everyone, however, is convinced a structured approach is the best way for the arts to thrive. Pichler is worried about turning the arts into chess pieces in a development game.

"We have to watch out for mission creep," he says. "We can't start putting too much pressure on the arts in Over-the-Rhine and move them around to fit some development plan. Let the CSO be the best symphony they can be, and let ETC be the best theater they can be. Let the arts be what they are, and let us (3CDC) do the development."

Meyers' approach to boosting the arts doesn't involve government or business at all. It relies on the people of Cincinnati.

"We need people to give the arts three hours once a year," she says. "Just drive in, see a show and get home — it's just three hours. Of course, if you'd like to spend more time, that's great too. It's not about what the city can do for the arts — it's the people. Sometimes we lose sight of needing to be good citizens and supporting the arts.

"Open yourself up. Learn about others. The best opportunity is now. Nothing will happen if people sit at home on their couch." ©