That Old Razzle-Dazzle

Like a circus barker, Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell stepped to the microphone and kicked off the show. He's the first chair of Mayor Charlie Luken's City Arts & Culture Committee, and he wa

Feb 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Like a circus barker, Cincinnati City Councilman Jim Tarbell stepped to the microphone and kicked off the show. He's the first chair of Mayor Charlie Luken's City Arts & Culture Committee, and he wanted the group's Feb. 7 meeting, its first public gathering, to be a real hullabaloo.

"The arts is the heart of this city," Tarbell said, surveying the crowd of local artists, arts administrators and arts volunteers who have packed City Hall's council chambers. "I don't know an industry that represents the best parts of this city as much as arts and culture."

Tarbell is a boisterous and enthusiastic ringmaster, and that's a good thing. He played his harmonica and introduced various bands and performers. Between acts, he and city administrators took time to promote the funding support artists and arts groups currently receive from the city. After this spurt of self-promotion, Tarbell returnsed to the show.

Sometime in the middle of Tarbell's two-hour-plus hullabaloo, the audience grew restless. They wanted him to address the city's ability to increase arts-oriented funding.

They wanted a timetable on the marketing campaign for arts tourism Luken spoke about during his mayoral campaign. They wanted Tarbell to tell them what proposed arts projects — a relocated Art Academy, a renovated Emery Theatre or a Mount Adams parking garage — would be worthy of the city's money.

Instead, they got more of Tarbell's old razzle-dazzle. Many people in the crowd left. Others passed sarcastic notes back and forth to each other. Two hours into the meeting, when Tarbell announced the next Bluegrass band, the remaining crowd broke into a loud groan.

The first public meeting of the Arts & Culture Committee wasn't at all what they expected. In their eyes, the hullabaloo was a real bust.

Few people in the crowd doubted Tarbell's sincerity or his commitment to Greater Cincinnati's arts community. They just wanted him to be something more than a colorful showman. Supporting the arts can become Tarbell's new political trademark, replacing his fight for putting the new Reds stadium at Broadway Commons. The question is: When will he replace razzle-dazzle with results?

"This committee is a work-in-progress," Tarbell says, speaking a few days after the meeting. "It's time for me to listen. I know what the problems are. I was stunned by (the rapid demise of) the Regional Cultural Alliance. I don't want to make that mistake again. They did all that work, and nothing happened because of politics."

Asked about the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati's Artists of Conscience campaign — a call for entertainers, musicians and other performers to boycott Cincinnati until racial injustice is seriously addressed — Tarbell says coalition leaders haven't yet contacted him. The campaign has already persuaded Bill Cosby and Smokey Robinson to cancel their Cincinnati performances. Tarbell, however, isn't impressed.

"I think their boycott is nuts," he says. "Bill Cosby could have taken half of his box office from one night and given that money to Don Sherman, who wants to start the Cincinnati Black Theater Festival. It's not smart. It's absolutely crazy to do business this way if your point is to raise awareness, break down barriers and get people to come together.

"I've found with the Black United Front and this group that I do not recognize any names or faces from people who have made any noteworthy contributions otherwise. It's unfortunate that people would want to make their mark in this manner."

Tarbell says he wants to promote new street festivals to celebrate and market the city's cultural landmarks. At the same time, he supported withdrawing city funding from the Ujima Cinci-Bration, the downtown event that had accompanied the annual Jazz Festival in July. Tarbell says Ujima was poorly managed and never achieved what it set out to do.

He sees eliminating the event as managing the city's money wisely. In fact, the city's budget crisis is the one thing Tarbell is willing to discuss specifically.

"I'm not ready to have groups come to Jesus," Tarbell says. "It would be a mistake to jump right out and say the city would support high-drama projects at this point."

For better or worse, Tarbell is Cincinnati's official arts czar. The razzle-dazzle aside, his leadership remains a work-in-progress, just like the committee itself.