Sunday, July 30, 2000

Arts campus plan faces deadline for decision

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The vision of a world-class Avenue of the Arts, a $52 million arts school paired with Cincinnati's historic Music Hall, is racing against a deadline.

        The Cincinnati Board of Education has until Aug. 10 to decide whether to put up $26 million to match private contributions for a first-in-the-nation performing arts school for grades K-12.

        That's the day the board's facilities committee will determine if Cincinnati Pops conductor Erich Kunzel's dream fits into the district's long-term plans.

        As grand as it sounds — and looks — opposition looms.

        Music Hall neighbors in Over-the-Rhine call it an elitist proposal that could disenfranchise a neighborhood.

        And school board members say they must look at the project in light of the district's need for $700 million in building repairs before committing so much money to one school.

        “This is a question of fairness,” said Bonnie Neumeier of Over-the-Rhine. “We're not against a School for the Creative and Performing Arts. We just want the board to look at the big picture.”

        At the same time, the idea is attracting national attention from arts groups, educators and architects. There is no K-12 arts campus anywhere else that is as extensive as what's planned along Cincinnati's Central Parkway, just a few blocks north of City Hall.

        Arts schools elsewhere target high school students.

        The St. Louis Symphony runs an after-school music program. In Detroit, the symphony and city schools plan to build a school that would pair students with symphony members.

        Doug Herbert, who oversees arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., called Cincinnati's plans a “wonderful joining of the resources between the community and the school system.”

        If the three-member facilities committee finds the idea feasible Aug. 10, it will recommend the full board put up $26 million to match the private contributions.

        If not, arts patrons who have already raised $3 million toward the project say donors won't go public — or even contribute. They say they can raise the necessary $26 million.

        Quick action is also key because several of the properties which need to be acquired are now on the market.

        Cincinnati City Council is on board because the campus would improve three blocks of a targeted revitalization area.

        If things fall into place, the school could open by 2004.

        Students in grades K-12 who now attend classes at Schiel Primary School for Arts Enrichment in Corryville and the present School for Creative and Performing Arts on Sycamore Street in Over-the-Rhine would move in with a myriad of opportunities to work with professional musicians, dancers and composers.

        “The notion that you could take a child from age 5 and immerse them in the arts and give them a life experience in an environment where professional artists stand side by side with them is a powerful experience,” said Jeff Brokamp, SCPA principal.

        He hopes city, school and community leaders don't overlook the project's significance.

        “Creating a world-recognized program and having it be called a Cincinnati Public School is such a tremendous opportunity for this city.”

        From Music Hall's south side, the campus would flow like a wave down Central Parkway to 12th Street, incorporating the Pipefitters Union building and a warehouse at the corner of 12th and Central.

        The planners envision a complex of buildings that would include theaters, art and set construction studios, a gallery, practice rooms, a cafeteria, media center and gymnasium.

        The Drop Inn Center would remain as is. Memorial Hall on Elm Street would also be tied into the campus but not altered.

        Other historic structures, including St. John German Protestant Church at 12th and Elm streets (built in 1867), might become home to a community theater group or the Shakespeare Festival. The YMCA might offer child care or partner with the school to offer physical education and other programming for students.

        The Art Academy's move downtown, as well as partnerships with the Emery Theatre, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera, WGUC and WCET, would provide additional opportunities for students.

        The campus would not only be a training ground for those students skilled enough to pursue careers in the arts. School leaders say the campus would serve students at other city schools, with programs and as a field trip destination. That's an important element to include, said directors of the National Arts Education Association and the Music Educators National Conference, both in Reston, Va.

        “Our position is that every kid in the school district really deserves and should have access to a first-rate education and that has to include music” and the arts, said Mike Blakeslee, an associate director at the music educators association.

        Planners say community groups could use the space for art and music classes as well as shows, exhibits, and concerts.

        “The idea is to get different organizations to feed off each other,” said Tom Fernandez, a consultant with Steed Hammond Paul architects, who helped design the campus.

        Yet some community members are worried that the behemoth arts building would force poorer residents out of the area and make clients who use the nearby Drop Inn Center unwelcome guests.

        Over-the-Rhine residents say they want the chance to talk with school board members about the plans. And the Drop Inn Center wants to be informed about the project's progress.

        “They'll be tearing down our schools and taking them away,” said Carrie Johnson, president of the Over-the-Rhine community council. “For them to set aside $26 million for one school ... I want them to look at this again and reconsider putting that money in all of the schools.”

        It's important to remember, Mr. Brokamp said, that Schiel and SCPA are not exclusive schools. They are magnet schools which draw from all over the city. A large number of SCPA students live in Over-the-Rhine, he said.

        The Greater Cincinnati Arts and Education Center is listening to community concerns, said Norma Petersen, the director of the group of arts patrons behind the idea. The group and its consultants met with residents as plans were developed. Initial plans to center the campus on Washington Park were scrapped after residents protested. That's why the arts campus now fronts Central Parkway.

        The location shift means the arts campus would sit on land once occupied by the College of Music

        Started in 1878, the College of Music was a four-building complex next to Music Hall. The college merged with the Conservatory of Music in 1955. All that remains now is the former administration building, which houses the Pipefitters Union.

        The facade of the three-story classical revival building tells its history: Terra cotta and stone images of Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner are interspersed with cherubs playing harps and flutes.

        Reuniting a music school with Music Hall “is really an old idea,” Mrs. Petersen said. “It's a restoration project.”


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