Lights Out at Mockbee

Young arts volunteers and the crowds who have made The Mockbee the top venue in Cincinnati for young arts patrons will soon have to find a new hangout. The massive three-story performance and exhib

Oct 5, 2005 at 2:06 pm

Young arts volunteers and the crowds who have made The Mockbee the top venue in Cincinnati for young arts patrons will soon have to find a new hangout. The massive three-story performance and exhibition space on Central Parkway in gritty Brighton Corner is scheduled to shut down Nov. 13 after its last arts exhibition, a show based on the Latino religious holiday Day of the Dead.

The wheels fell off The Mockbee when volunteer Executive Director Christopher Daniel recently announced to the four remaining Mockbee trustees — Fred Lane, Andy Marko, Saad Ghosn and Alan Cochran — that he'd be stepping down.

Daniel says he never imagined that the effort to pull The Mockbee up from shoestring status to a staffed arts organization would take so long. His is a familiar arts volunteer story in Cincinnati.

He's sacrificed a lot, working for no money and reaching a point where he feels like everything about the organization rests on his shoulders. Co-Director Carissa Barnard left earlier this year, another victim of volunteer burnout.

But without Daniel to shoulder the burden of the work, Mockbee trustees decided on Sept. 28 to close shop. The hulking building will return to the empty underused space it was before the summer of 2001 when it became the city's largest do-it-yourself gallery and performance space.

It's a vicious arts cycle, one that's happened at once popular exhibition spaces like CAGE and others.

What makes The Mockbee's closing so difficult to rationalize is that it was so popular.

The city of Cincinnati provided $30,000 in financial help for facility improvements, but that wasn't enough. Admission revenue from The Mockbee's crowds of regular patrons wasn't enough. The elbow grease from its small group of volunteers wasn't enough.

The Mockbee reached a point in its young life when paid staff and additional structure was needed to keep operating. The departure of Daniel, its key volunteer, is enough to close the doors.

Leaning back in a coffeehouse booth, Daniel admits he's still surprised by the morning news delivered by Marko. Daniel wasn't part of the previous evening's trustee meeting. Since he'd announced his resignation, he didn't have a vote or even a say.

Daniel has conflicted emotions about choosing to leave, about setting in motion the decision to shut down The Mockbee. He loves the place and wants it to survive, but he's considering a metalworking job out of town. For the first time in a long time, he has to think of himself and his own career.

So much good work has happened, it's easy for Daniel to be proud of what The Mockbee accomplished. It opened in summer 2001 under the name SSNOVA (Sanctum Sanctorum Nonprofit Organization for Visual Art). Early volunteer efforts by co-founders Emily Buddendeck and Hank McClendon and building owner Lane made the building a must-see arts space.

It changed leadership as well as its name through the years. The space began as an emerging artist DIY gallery. Humidity equipment allowed canvases to hang for longer periods of time until recent vandalism destroyed the system.

Donations never reached goals. Major construction projects took place at the Taft Museum of Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the new Contemporary Arts Center during The Mockbee's years of operation. But there are haves and have-nots, and The Mockbee is a have-not despite its track record for attracting young people.

The summers of love for the artists and art organizations who called the building home are over. The poetry readings and the MASSIVE sculpture exhibitions are over.

Cincinnati is a big city with plenty of exhibition galleries, but Daniel is unclear what will replace The Mockbee in sheer size and potential for mounting large-scale shows.

Lane, the sole survivor from the original three partners, has been willing to help over the years, but he wants to make more money from his property. He says the Mockbee board will finalize their decision at an Oct. 18 meeting.

Still, it's good that they cleared away the debris four years ago and gave the space a brief life. It won't soon be forgotten.