Cover Story: State of the Arts: The Influentials

Twenty arts-centric people who make (or can make) Cincinnati a more interesting place to live

Aug 29, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes

Bill Donabedian and Sean Rhiney

Lists are frustratingly subjective endeavors that yield as many guffaws as nods of recognition. It's even worse when compiling a list of people responsible for the state of Cincinnati's arts scene, a small but vital group that tends to remain "influential" from year to year.

This shallow gene pool is one of the reasons why 2002 marked the last time CityBeat produced a straightforward list of our most influential people in Cincinnati arts. We produced variations on the theme in recent State of the Arts issues.

Well, our list is back. But, as usual, we've altered the rules of the game: We decided to narrow our scope to 20 people who create, nurture and/or promote the arts in an effort to make Cincinnati a more interesting place to live. It's that simple.

Oh, and unlike previous years, we've decided to list them alphabetically instead of ranking them in order of so-called significance. We know all too well how sensitive arts influentials can be.

Aaron Betsky

Like Timothy Rub before him, the Cincinnati Art Museum's new main man has big plans for our Eden Park gem — everything from its physical expansion to its role in the community.

And like the two other new directors in town (See "New Directors, New Directions," page 21), Betsky seems to have a firm grip on what needs to be done to make CAM accessible to general audiences while also pleasing more discerning arts aficionados. It's a tough balance, one the gifted Betsky is poised to tackle.

Otto M. Budig Jr.

Yes, him again. What would our annual list be without Budig, whose name is in more lobbies than anyone else in town? He's generous and hands-on in his assistance of arts organizations, most recently helping The Carnegie in Covington make its great leap forward and supporting others when financial times have been tough. Budig sits on a lot of boards and keeps a close eye on management to make sure things get done the right way.

Brock Clarke

Through his work as a writer (he's written a novel and two short story collections), educator (he teaches creative writing at UC) and editor (he's fiction editor of The Cincinnati Review), Clarke has produced, nurtured and promoted the written word with uncommon frequency and passion. Then there's his role in bringing compelling authors (Chris Bachelder, Sam Lipsyte, Heidi Julavits and Jonathan Lethem, among others) to town for readings at UC — invigorating experiences that can't help but inspire those who attend. Finally, expect Clarke's new novel, the hilarious An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, to bring even more attention his way.

Bill Donabedian and Sean Rhiney

The pair's MidPoint Music Festival continues to chug along despite myriad challenges, turning the ever-evolving Main Street Entertainment District into a thriving, pulsating hotspot every September. Will that continue to be the case? This year's MPMF will go a long way in determining the festival's long-term viability. The guys are also doing things apart from each other: Donabedian, via his role with 3CDC, has revitalized Fountain Square with a host of activities, including an emphasis on arts and music; Rhiney chairs a YP group called "Arts Allies" that advises Mayor Mark Mallory about paying attention to the arts.

Rich Eiswerth

General Manager Eiswerth has brought WVXU under the Cincinnati Public Radio umbrella with WGUC and created a public radio "organization" that covers the bases — BBC and NPR programming and informative local news on VXU and 24/7 Classical music on GUC (something few cities in America can boast). Finances are still an issue (they had to lay off some employees early in the summer), but listenership is strong and fund-raising seems to be solid. Public radio in Cincinnati should remain essential because of Eisewerth's solid leadership.

Tamara Harkavy

ArtWorks and its head honcho Harkavy have been a driving force in our arts community for more than a decade. Public art projects like the Big Pig Gig and MuralWorks get a lot of attention, but the crafty nonprofit's most enduring legacy will no doubt be its summer job/apprentice program, which pairs talented Cincinnati youth alongside professional artists. ArtWorks has enriched young lives. What more can you ask of an arts organization?

Jay Kalagayan and Jason Bruffy

The duo's vision for Know Theatre has really blossomed with the new facility on Jackson Street (with generous funding they landed from David Herriman). They've given others (like Alan Patrick Kenny) a chance to work while developing and growing, and they continue to sustain the annual Fringe Festival, which had its best year yet in 2007. Kalagayan and Buffy are helping to create a legitimate theater district in Over-the-Rhine and choosing edgy works (or re-staging classics in an edgy fashion) that attract young, adventurous audiences. And their lobby bar, The Underground, is increasingly a place where creative types gather to no doubt plot the next great contribution to Cincinnati's arts scene.

Alan Patrick Kenny

Kenny has turned a summertime college-kids theater project, New Stage Collective, into a viable year-round company with its own theater space on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. He's presenting titles that other theaters ought to consider, like the stellar The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? last spring. He has talent and audacity, which might rub some people the wrong way, but he's getting results and forcing other theater companies to look at their own programming. Will he be able to sustain this ambitious effort? He's still running on a shoestring budget and doesn't have much of a board to support him, but he's still getting pretty good results and reviews.

Evans Mirgaeas

Cincinnati Opera just completed its second season under the guidance of Mirgaeas, which featured a nice balance of popular, crowd-pleasing productions (Aida) and artistically adventurous endeavors (Nixon in China). While challenges remain on several fronts (Music Hall's future remains a question mark, as does the balance of programming in these fiscally treacherous times), Mirgaeas is well equipped to bring one of Cincinnati's longest-running assets along in the 21st century.

D. Lynn Meyers

Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati had its best season in years in 2006-07, thanks to Meyers' uncanny taste in choosing scripts, her own directing skill and several excellent guest directors (notably Drew Fracher and his staging of Opus). She stuck it out in Over-the-Rhine when things were pretty grim; now that the neighborhood is improving, ETC is well positioned to be an important arts anchor.

Brian Isaac Phillips

Phillips has brought stability to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company during his four years as artistic director. The focus on The Bard's works and classics by other playwrights (Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Edward Albee and Eugene O'Neill) has resulted in an intriguing mix of productions that have kept audiences engaged. A larger budget being devoted to sets and scenery and casts that increasingly include members of Actors Equity have helped to raise the creative bar. And he's using strong guest directors like Drew Fracher. Conversely, Phillips will guest direct at New Stage Collective this year, yet another sign of our thriving, collaborative theater scene.

Raphaela Platow

The Contemporary Arts Center is known more for its building than its programming. It hopes to change that with the hiring of Platow, a young, energetic German transplant who already seems to have a strong grasp on the challenges ahead (see "New Directors, New Directions" page 21). Platow looks to bring stability and vision to one of our most recognizable and unstable — dwindling attendance and membership have caused some internal strife — arts institutions. Will the CAC take the next step? Platow's fresh perspective could go a long way toward answering that question.

Cincinnati City Council

Who will step up with the departure of "arts czar" Jim Tarbell? All signs point to former mayor Roxanne Qualls, who surprised everyone by taking over Tarbell's seat in early August. While she doesn't have the arts resume of her successor, she'll likely carry on many of his causes along with dependable arts supporters Chris Bortz, David Crowley and Mayor Mallory.

Dick and Lois Rosenthal

Like Budig, the Rosenthals remain essential arts philanthropists who have helped high-profile organizations like the Cincinnati Art Museum (made free admission possible), Playhouse in the Park (supporting a series of Saturday morning programs for kids) and especially the Contemporary Arts Center (the building bears their name, and daughter Jennie Berliant is currently board chair). The CAC is struggling in the aftermath of the new building's ballyhooed opening in 2003 — which might be in part because of their tight grip on leadership — but they seem intent on making it a creative and cultural force in the future.

Ed Rush

Cincinnati has a long and storied musical heritage, and few have done more in recent years to nurture local musicians than Rush, owner/booker of the Northside Tavern. His five-year-old bar boasts free live original music most every night of the week, and it continues to be a nexus for creative types who long for unique sounds and stimulating conversation. Just as importantly, we hear nothing but good things about how Rush treats the bands he books, the sign of a guy who's as interested in fostering a compelling musical community as he is in making a buck.

Greg Smith

If Over-the-Rhine becomes the flourishing neighborhood many hope it can be, Smith should garner some of the credit. As president of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he boldly led the move of his longstanding Mount Adams institution to the troubled but history-rich neighborhood. Now fully integrated into the fabric there, the Art Academy was no doubt a key component in the recent rise of the Gateway Quarter project at 12th and Vine streets. Then there are its students and graduates, many of whom grace our city with their ample talents via the school's three galleries and beyond. If only more people had Smith's vision and foresight.

Ed Stern

Playhouse in the Park continues to thrive under the leadership of its veteran artistic director: Stern figured out how to entice John Doyle to come to Cincinnati and direct Company, a production that went on to win a 2007 Tony Award after picking up a pile of Cincinnati Entertainment Awards in 2006. Stern heads into his 14th season, an unusually long time for anyone to lead a major theater. That continuity means stellar theater for Cincinnati — he balances chancy titles with familiar, well-produced standards, a formula that usually ends up pleasing everyone.

Chris Schadler

The Southgate House is an indispensable hub for live music, an enduring landmark whose distinctive vibe has left an indelible impression on many. No other venue in town consistently mixes creatively vital national and local acts as well as "house-wide" events — from early tours by eventual biggies like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens to month-long residencies for area bands in Junie's Lounge to its hosting of annual events like the "80s Pop ... Rock" and Lite Brite Film and Music Test. While many behind-the-scenes people have contributed to its cause, one guy has been at the center of Southgate's success in recent years: booking guru Schadler.

Chris Strobel

The 48 Hour Film Project has grown exponentially during its short history. Begun in 2001 by a pair of independent film producers in Washington, D.C., the project has now spread to more than three dozen cities on three continents. Not familiar? The premise is simple: Filmmaking teams have one 48-hour weekend to make a short, four- to seven-minute movie. Strobel, a radio/television professor at Northern Kentucky University and the Cincinnati project's producer, has a lot to do with its emergence locally, devoting endless amounts of time and energy in an effort to support area filmmakers — a record 60 teams took part this year — who gain useful experience in the areas of creativity and teamwork.

Alphonzo Wesson

Wesson hopes his ample charisma will bring renewed attention to the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati, which has suffered from budget cutbacks and the lack of its own building in recent years. Named executive director last November, Wesson has a flashy resume as CEO of Zomotion Pictures — he's directed MTV's The Real World and an Oprah Winfrey road tour and is currently a contestant on the TV Guide Network's reality show American's Next Producer — but it remains to be seen whether he can bring the 35-year-old African-American mainstay institution back from the brink of oblivion. ©