Sunday, July 30, 2000

Plot twists in 'Cincinnati Story'

Sculpture's move points out problems

        Here's a Cincinnati Story for you, and I'll give away the ending first: Cincinnati needs something just about every other major American city has: a Cultural Affairs Office.

        The prologue is about the late nationally known artist George Sugarman's outdoor sculpture “Cincinnati Story.” For more than 15 years, its free-flowing, bright colored impressions of water, waves and movement have invited viewers to ponder the Queen City's relationship with the winding Ohio River.

        Now if you want to ponder that prime piece of Cincinnati public art, you'll have to drive to Butler County and the outskirts of Hamilton.

        “Cincinnati Story,” one of 30 large outdoor pieces by the late Mr. Sugarman, was dismantled from its home in front of the Chiquita Center, Fifth and Sycamore streets, earlier this week. The sculpture, valued at $350,000, according to local art dealer Carl Solway, was scooped up by Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park.

        The price: free, with Pyramid Hill picking up the cost of moving it to Butler County, restoring (those bright colors are now badly faded) and repairing. Estimated cost is $35,000.

        The real Cincinnati story is how things like this are allowed to happen.

        Lowe Enterprises, new owners of Chiquita Center, decided to renovate the plaza with a water sculpture. With Pyramid Hill's Harry Wilks already dangling an offer to take the Sugarman off their hands, the new owners attempted to donate the sculpture to the city.

        They started with the Department of Economic Development. By January they were referred to the Park Board.

        The Park Board referred the issue to its art advisory committee, chaired by Toni (Birckhead) LaBoiteaux (who has since resigned from the committee).

        The committee deemed “Cincinnati Story” a site-specific work intended for an urban setting. Because their only purview is park land, Ms. LaBoiteaux says, they declined the offer.

        An obvious alternative site, Ms. LaBoiteaux agrees, might have been the soon-to-be completed riverfront, which will have a city park.

        That park doesn't exist yet, and the committee never got into discussions of might-be's, or whether a benefactor could be found for the cost for repairs, moving and storage. The one place the money wasn't was the Park Board budget.

        The committee did reconsider at a later meeting, but didn't address location and financing.

        The deal with Pyramid Hill stood. There is a happy ending, Mr. Wilks adds. With the sculpture declined by the city of Cincinnati, he says, “at least it will be right next door.”

        Read between the lines of this story and what's clear is that nobody's in charge.

        The folks who kissed “Cincinnati Story” goodbye aren't the same folks who OK'd those city gateway sculptures, and they aren't the same people who are overseeing the Big Pig Gig.

        “This city needs a cultural affairs office,” Ms. LaBoiteaux says, sighing.

        A cultural affairs office can take on a variety of tasks:

        Help coordinate cultural tourism to the city's greatest advantage. Coordinate and oversee public arts programs. Be a clearinghouse for information.

        Perhaps most vitally, it would be a clear place to bring cultural issues. When a dilemma like the one surrounding “Cincinnati Story” comes along, a cultural affairs office could have been a conduit through city offices and departments and it could have come up a solution to keep the sculpture.

        There are plenty more issues out there. There's the riverfront itself, the soon-to-be pedestrian bridge connecting Cincinnati and Newport, a much-needed annual summer public art project to trot in the shadow of the Big Pig Gig...

        Other cities have found big economic payback, along with simpler, more soul-fulfilling pleasures in arts planning.

        If you believe it's time Cincinnati figures that out, call your favorite elected official today.

        Carved in stone: Hamilton has a new title — Ohio's “City of Sculpture.” (Thanks to Mr. Wilks, who came up with the idea and lobbied hard for it.)

        It will celebrate its new status on Aug. 16, when Hamilton unveils a new work and a new cultural tourism project.

        Chosen from more than 100 international entries, a monumental 65-foot sculpture by Andrea Myklebust and Stanton Sears will stand on the plaza of Hamilton's new Government Services Center Building.

        Made of a variety of materials including stainless steel, bronze, cast glass and granite, it references local history including the high-water mark of the 1913 flood.

        Government and foundation grants were originally going to pay for the sculpture, but John and Shirley Moser liked what they saw so much they signed a check and made it their gift to the city.

        The fun starts at noon with free entertainment, including an acoustical playground for youngsters. Following the dedication there will be building tours, lectures and a reception, all open to the public.

        Meanwhile, the Public Arts Regional Team (PART) is previewing plans for an ambitious program spotlighting the area's growing collection of public art. The program will debut in early 2001.

        A lecture series will begin in winter and continue into spring. The lectures will culminate in a spring debut for a Guide to Public Art in the Hamilton-Oxford region. That will include photos and listings of outdoor sculpture, museums, monuments and murals.

        Spring will also debut an official tour — walking, driving and possibly by trolley (that depends on fund-raising) to Fitton Center for Creative Arts, sites in Hamilton and Oxford, Miami University Art Museum and Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park.

        PART is to raise a $16,500 budget.

        Also coming up in spring will be the arrival of “Make Way for the Ducklings.” The beloved version in Boston Commons was inspired by the work of Hamilton native Robert McCloskey.

        Soon Hamilton will have a replica, a gift to the city from the Hamilton Community Foundation. Its home has already been decided, next to the old City Building in what will be a new pocket park.

        That's just about the time (April) that Pyramid Hill will announce the winner of its international maze-designing competition. The winner will be constructed at the sculpture park next summer.

        Local maze designers can contact project director Mary Glasmeier at 868-8336. Proposal deadline is Dec. 1.

        Team spirit: Now that piggies have finally brought the public and art together in Greater Cincinnati, is it just a summer romance or the start of something big?

        Chicago's Cows on Parade, which inspired Cincinnati's pigs and other animals in dozens of other cities, was one year's theme in an annual program that encourages the people who live in and visit the Windy City to fall in love with art.

        Hamilton County Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr. may even have come up with the theme.

        At Paul Brown Stadium, a potential project is the connection between sports and performing arts. It's a subject about which Mr. Neyer feels strongly. “They both take talent, training and passion,” he observes.

        Why not celebrate the stadiums and the teams? Show that there are no hard feelings — well, not too many — about those overruns. And if the Bengals and their new stadium are still a political hot potato, well, what better way than art to poke some good-natured fun?

        Have an idea for a 2001 outdoor arts project? Send it along to me.

        Jackie Demaline is the Enquirer's theater critic and roving arts reporter. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202; fax, 768-8330.


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