Learning From Artistic Transformations

The city of Cincinnati is desperate to transform itself into a harmonious city. This is a statement I think everyone would embrace. The summer-long debate among Cincinnati's political and business

The city of Cincinnati is desperate to transform itself into a harmonious city. This is a statement I think everyone would embrace.

The summer-long debate among Cincinnati's political and business leaders has been over what steps the Queen City should take to begin its makeover. It's a challenging dilemma with no single answer.

My advice to the powers-that-be that have awarded themselves the authority to move Cincinnati forward is simple: Look around you. One of this city's leading arts organizations has already transformed itself with grand success. A few other projects are waiting in the wings. Others are stalled due to lack of funding. All are worth noting in a city that gives new meaning to the word "stagnant."

For more than 30 years, the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) was a stark collection of concrete boxes squeezed into a Clifton Heights hillside.

Its students and faculty can attest eloquently to the facility's inadequacies. There were years when the idea of turning the CCM campus into something beautiful seemed beyond hope.

But between 1995 and 1999, architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners transformed the concrete campus into an imaginative collection of new construction, renovated buildings and creative public spaces. An asphalt jungle was transformed into a stunning academic community.

More importantly, CCM's 750-seat Corbett Auditorium, a slick 300-seat recital hall and a 200-seat studio theater, continues to attract people from outside the campus community. All it takes is one visit to any of these stunning theaters to convince someone to become a CCM regular.

It's one of the wonderful things that occur with most transformations: Places that were once drab and uninviting become an attractive and exciting place to be. When I hear about plans to renovate the retail corridors along nearby Calhoun and McMillan streets, I have no doubt that the spark for the plan began with the CCM transformation.

Later this fall, the Taft Museum of Art will close its doors for 18 months of renovation. When the dust clears and the Taft reopens, a three-tier parking garage, an indoor/outdoor café and a concert hall will greet museum visitors.

The Taft's front exterior will stay the same, as a good portion of the $17.5 million project will be spent on interior improvements. Still, Ann Beha, of Ann Beha Architects, the project's designer, says an expanded Taft will have a significant impact on the rest of the community.

"The public expects more and really demands more from its experience with the arts than it ever has," Beha says. "They want to bring their kids. They want to bring their relatives. So many visitors want to spend a longer time and make it an experience, not just a visit."

In a conversation earlier this summer, Contemporary Arts Center Director Charles Desmarais spoke about the need for citywide support when it comes to any arts project. He's somewhat of an expert when it comes to brick-and-mortar arts projects, as his leadership has moved the new Zaha Hadid-designed CAC closer to a downtown reality.

But Desmarais cautions anyone who thinks the arts community alone can transform Cincinnati.

"One large organization can make an impact," he said. "Two makes more. Many makes an arts community. But no number of arts groups can 'rejuvenate downtown' without a parallel political effort to bring equity and social justice to the citizens of our city."

When it comes to such citywide issues, I return to words spoken and shared by many friends: Social and political problems require the input of artists and the arts community. Artists are uniquely capable of addressing problems in ways politicians and business leaders never can.

Here in stagnant Cincinnati, CCM has transformed itself into a stunning campus community. The Taft Museum of Art is preparing to rejuvenate a quiet edge of downtown. The Art Academy of Cincinnati is moving forward with plans to relocate to Over-the-Rhine's Pembrooke Building. Nearby, the Emery Theatre apartments have welcomed new tenants, though renovation of the building's theater portion remains in need of funding.

As a result of these projects, synergies are formed between arts groups and the neighborhoods around them. Some of these plans look to transform Over-the-Rhine into a true arts neighborhood. Others serve as anchors for other Cincinnati neighborhoods.

The question is what city leaders will learn from these arts efforts. And having learned those lessons, will the city step forward to fund even more projects?

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