Councilman Jim Tarbell is a performance artist when it comes to the spoken word. Looking onto Over-the-Rhine from a 21st-floor office in the Kroger Building, he waves his hands past a large window and raises his voice. He considers Over-the-Rhine and all it entails his personal beat.
News that he will chair Mayor Charlie Luken's permanent arts committee on city council comes as no surprise to the boisterous Tarbell. In his mind, he's been preparing to become Cincinnati's official arts czar his entire life.
In that position, Tarbell will handle all arts-oriented funding requests. He'll recommend projects worthy of the city of Cincinnati's attention.
It's a weekday morning, and there's little foot traffic on the dirty sidewalks of Over-the-Rhine. The area along 12th Street between Race and Walnut is devoid of life. A steady stream of traffic heads north.
Tarbell takes a deep breath and stares at the vacant buildings that dot the OTR landscape. He lists his priorities this way: Residential development is job one.
"We have a very respectful representation of the arts here now," Tarbell says, speaking a-mile a minute. "What we don't have is something that ties them together, automatically supports them and promotes more of them.
"As residential development improves, so will the smaller and more eccentric arts-related activities. They have a much better chance of being self-supporting in an environment like this versus having to come back to the well constantly for another grant."
Tarbell says there's no doubt that culture will play a significant role in the redevelopment of Over-the-Rhine. He understands how important it is to attract the middle class back to city neighborhoods. He also realizes that the middle class wants to live near art.
Still, news about the city's budget woes keeps mounting. There are plenty of new developments ready to enhance Cincinnati's arts community. For Tarbell, the challenge is finding the money to turn those projects into a reality.
"I'm not saying that the city and the Fine Arts Fund shouldn't continue to play a role," he says. "They should, and hopefully they'll play a stronger role. But they shouldn't be a substitute for the real thing. That is, you have an interesting, creative and healthy environment in the first place. That is the main support system for the smaller and more eccentric arts programs. Cheap places to live. Walk to work. See each other in the neighborhood. Then you can put a team together."
Tarbell understands that a lack of city funds will push back some ongoing projects. Renovating the Emery Theatre will have to wait. There are transportation options that must be addressed before he recommends city funding to build a Mount Adams garage for the Cincinnati Art Museum and Playhouse in the Park.
Tarbell, who led the unsuccessful campaign to put the new Reds stadium at Broadway Commons, envisions a radical transformation of Elm Street into his pitch for an "avenue of the arts." A streetcar will connect an expanded convention center with Music Hall, Findlay Market and warehouse lofts north of the market. The jewel in this avenue would be an incline at the base of Elm and Renner streets to connect Over-the-Rhine with Clifton and the University of Cincinnati.
In Tarbell's vision, Cincinnati's historical past and future development come crashing together. All it takes is a sliver of the commitment the city recently gave for building two new stadiums.
"You give me 10 percent of that stadium money to spend on the arts, and I'll make your head spin," Tarbell says, waiting for an elevator.
At age 59, Tarbell stands ready to step forward as Cincinnati's arts czar on Saturday. He thinks the city of Cincinnati should be proud of its past support of the arts.
Tarbell agrees that an arts czar doesn't supply all the answers. Still, it's a step in the right direction.