Arts advocates share vision
Advocates work to make a difference

Sunday, May 31, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Michael Coyan is a paid professional who moonlights as an arts advocate in Warren and Butler counties; Hannah Baird is a professional volunteer in Northern Kentucky.

Mr. Coyan likes to get things started; Mrs. Baird stays in for the long haul.

While their approaches differ, they share a number of issues: keeping a sense of community and preserving cultural heritage in areas burgeoning with real estate and commercial development; finding funding for community, grass roots arts; and involving as many people as possible every step of the way.

They share a belief that arts and culture can be used as a tool for change in a community -- with a lot of help from their friends. And they both prove that one person can make a difference.

"I'm not an expert on the arts," Mrs. Baird says, "but I have a great sense of community. I think that reflects the closeness of my family. I grew up in a small town where everyone took care of everyone else. If you're in a community, you owe that community something for what it brings back to you, for what it can give you. "All communities need housing, sewers, water, the infrastructure. Schools are the most important thing. But once those things are in place, it's time to enrich. There need to be places for people to be creative in a small way, and training for children, in fine arts especially.

One person can't do all that, and, laughs Mrs. Baird, "I don't know any one person who would want to."

But what every project needs, she adds, is one person "with some vision and some tenacity to bring things together and hold them together until the goal is accomplished."

See the connections

Mr. Coyan, a lifelong resident of Lebanon, was key to the revival of Lebanon Theater Company four years ago. The company stayed together and thrived; he went on to be a founder of the New Little Symphony, which debuted in 1997.

He's been director of Arts in Middletown (AIM) for two years. Mr. Coyan shies away from saying he'll be there long-term, but board president Rod Nimtz says Mr. Coyan already has been effective in bringing together the disparate arts organizations that are part of AIM.

"He believes in the arts. He combines the altruistic with the pragmatic," Mr. Nimtz says.

"I see arts so integrally," Mr. Coyan says. "I love to see the connections."

Mr. Coyan also has served on Lebanon's City Council since 1993 and admits that green space and finding support for cultural programming are part of his political agenda.

"Instrumental" is the word that keeps coming up when people talk about Hannah Baird, a Florence resident for 33 years.

Chair of the Boone County Bicentennial committee, chairman of Northern Kentucky Quest arts and heritage task force, Mrs. Baird is universally acknowledged as the force behind the Dinsmore Homestead Foundation for 20 years and is chair (and acting executive director) of the Kentucky Commission on Women.

Her impact on culture in Northern Kentucky has been "immeasurable," says Laurie Risch, director of Covington's Behringer-Crawford Museum.

Shared solution

Mr. Coyan's family came to Lebanon in 1796, and he's proud of it. Mrs. Baird moved to Boone County in the mid-'60s, aabout when Northern Kentucky growth boom began. He is concerned about development without careful planning that could have charming, historic Lebanon looking like Everywhere, U.S.A. Mrs. Baird wonders about the definition of "regionalism" for the same reason.

"You can consolidate a region's services, but communities should have their own lives because they give identity to the people who live there," she says.

Their solution is to work to retain some sense of a community's history. A dream of Mr. Coyan's is to see a rehab of Lebanon's town hall (with its original 400-seat theater).

Community history is what the Dinsmore Homestead preservation is about. The main project of the Boone County Bicentennial committee is a book about the county and its people, From Mastodons to the Millennium by Jennifer Warner. It will debut June 20 at The Big Party, the county's official Bicentennial celebration.

"The older I become, the more interested I've become in preserving our history," says Mrs. Baird, 59. "I think that's true of a lot of people."

Mrs. Baird resigned from the homestead board earlier this year ("You have to step back and let new people in"), but she's hoping to see a new building project on the property within the next few years.

The dream -- and Mrs. Baird expects it to come true within five years -- is to re-construct a horse barn, torn down in the '50s, as a performing arts center with dance floor, a small library for research and classrooms for students.

The intent of the homestead museum is to keep everything related to how the family lived and what they experienced. A performing arts center wouldn't be a reach, Mrs. Baird says. Family members were writers of poetry and journals and avid followers of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival.

Mrs. Baird used to teach a high school introduction to humanities course, "and sometimes I think it was the best two or three years of my life. I loved that. The students would grumble at first, but I saw how they were enriched. I never forgot that experience with those kids.

"You put a child in a seat at the symphony and maybe it will take and maybe not. You show them an old piano that somebody played, and play the popular music of the time, or take the child outdoors and have them listen to how the music sounds like nature. You teach a child how to listen and how music relates to their lives and experience. Once they have that, they will never lose it."

Mr. Coyan, 42, originally came to Arts in Middletown as a consultant almost three years ago. During a three-month study that told of declining audiences, continual shortfalls and a failure by established organizations to develop new audiences, he decided on his first priority.

"We needed to break down the walls that had grown up between the organizations" to create a healthier working relationship. Arts in Middletown partners include Artists in Residency, Middletown Fine Arts Center, Middletown Lyric Theatre, Middletown Symphony Orchestra and Summer Youth Theatre.

Mr. Nimtz gives Mr. Coyan high marks for accomplishing his goal, using an ability "to get people to extend a little bit." Mr. Coyan, he says, "is tuned into national and regional issues, he's great with visioning for the future. He works with the organizations to help them see beyond the way things have always been to the way things can be."

Audiences are up, classes are growing, more educational initiatives have been added. The third annual Miami Valley Crossroads in Clay, a ceramics show, opens June 26 at Middletown Fine Arts Center, and this year the national competition drew entries from 37 states. Mr. Coyan "hopes the perception is that we've been much more stable than we've been in years."

That leaves him free to "dream a little." There are the practical needs, the new phone system and the endowment drive Mr. Coyan would like to start "in about a year" that would provide funds for building maintenance, among other things. The AIM building at 130 N. Verity Parkway in Middletown, opened in 1976, will need roof repairs soon. Do they make major building improvements or do they expand?

The question Mr. Coyan likes to ask himself is "how does AIM best prepare (the AIM partners) for the next century? . . . I'm hoping the climate allows the organizations to take steps they haven't taken before."

He and Mr. Nimtz are chafing over AIM's past low profile. They both want to take advantage of the boom in the Butler-Warren area. Ongoing road construction along the interstates, laughs Mr. Coyan, has kept people in the area and resulted in "bursts of attendance" for Middletown arts companies. He wants to maintain it.

Finally, says Mr. Nimtz, "we have somebody who can participate in and represent (Middletown) in regional cultural planning. The Fitton Center (in Hamilton) is not the sole arts organization in Butler County. Now we have a level of advocacy. It's important to have that."

The Boone County Arts Council has an even lower profile than Arts in Middletown, overshadowed by The Carnegie Visual & Performing Arts Center in Covington that for years called itself Northern Kentucky Arts Council.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. Baird was one of the organizers of the Boone County Arts Council in the early '90s, and says there are plans to have a new community theater started "within the year." The council-sponsored annual juried arts and crafts show Art in the Park is scheduled for June 13-14 at Florence Nature Center.

Key recommendation

Both regions need arts funding, Mrs. Baird and Mr. Coyan say.

The key recommendation in Northern Kentucky Quest was establishing an Arts and Heritage Foundation.

"It would help relieve the institutions from some of their fund-raising, Mrs. Baird says. "The foundation would have a major fund drive in Northern Kentucky. It would take (the cooperation of) the whole community to really make it work."

The foundation would also provide advocacy "at state and federal levels" and professional assistance to local cultural groups. Mrs. Baird found it "maddening" when the Quest report, despite recommendations, advised funding support to Cincinnati arts and moved a recommendation for a proposed visual and performing arts center in the heart of a park development to downtown Covington. "Everyone on the committee is a great supporter of arts in Cincinnati," Mrs. Baird says, "and we feel ourselves fortunate to have them, but we also saw the need to build arts opportunities here.

"People need places to go near their homes where they can have the opportunity to experience arts and be artists."

Mr. Coyan sees Middletown as "a battleground," caught between Dayton's Culture Works, the Fitton's higher local profile and Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts and its Fine Arts Fund.

"The Fine Arts Fund is a real problem. Butler and Warren are southwest Ohio's two fastest-growing counties. What about the new Procter & Gamble facility in Mason? Through employee giving, the Fine Arts Fund has a lot of money going south, but not a lot of it's coming north. We only received $1,000 last year. We're not seeing any of the money back.

"I don't want to not contribute to the majors. We can't do what they do. They deserve our support as patrons. (But) we have to protect what we have."

Mr. Coyan's other battleground is Lebanon City Council.

"I want to make sure art is a part of Lebanon's celebrations for the Millennium and (city's) Bicentennial (in 2002).

"Last year we gave $183,000 for new lighting for the stadium, there was a small war over $6,000 to the New Little Symphony. The rec department needs to expand with more summer classes for kids in arts."

Not only are the issues similar, so are Mr. Coyan and Mrs. Baird's assessment, virtual echoes.

"We're still trying to find out who we are," Mrs. Baird says. "We were a small rural community. Now we're big time into housing and commercial development.

"We need to figure out where we are, where we're going and what do people want. We have a lot of work to do."

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