Monday, January 14, 2002

Arts center revitalized downtown Hamilton

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Ten years ago, people in this old blue-collar city turned to the arts to spark a renaissance in the downtown and in their personal lives.

        “It was a leap of faith,” said Rick H. Jones, the executive director of the Fitton Center for Creative Arts. “The Bicentennial Committee (a founder) could have gone in any direction. But it wanted to leave a legacy. I don't think committee members understood the magnitude of their decision at the time.”

        Today, the community arts center and its nationally recognized programs attract an estimated 50,000 people each year — teachers, children, everyday people — across Greater Cincinnati. About 30,000 visitors stop at the center annually — in a city of 61,000.

        Also encouraging, the Fitton generates $2.5 to $3 million a year for the local economy, Mr. Jones said, and the amount is increasing.

        Last year, the center became only one of 11 groups nationally to receive a highly competitive $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money, to be paid over three years, goes to the Fitton's SPECTRA+ program, which places art in the daily curriculum of local schools.

        More good news arrived in De cember, when Hamilton philanthropists Donna and Ralph Carruthers committed $2.5 million to help construct a three-story addition: 12,400 square feet built onto the existing 25,000 square feet.

        When the $3.6 million expansion is completed in September, it will give the Fitton not only more space but a powerful fiber optics connection that will allow expanded teacher training.

        “The capstone to the addition will be a 3,800-square-foot ballroom that will serve arts center programs and be available to the community for rental for large meetings and social events,” said Kenneth H. Snyder, president of the board of trustees.

        Also included: a large technology studio, an enlarged pottery studio, three soundproof music practice rooms, an enlarged drawing and painting studio, a student gallery, a gallery for traveling exhibitions, a board room and offices.

        The remaining $1.1 million needed for the project will be taken from the center's maintenance trust fund, which has grown considerably since 1992.

        The Fitton's success comes from vision and the confidence to overcome art stereotyping in this old factory town. A decade ago, only few residents could imagine that a community-based arts center could be built, let alone attract people from Cincinnati and other neighboring cities.

        With additional financial help from the Fitton family, the center opened in November 1992, but didn't start programming until January 1993.

        “At first, people thought we were a museum and hesitated to come in,” Mr. Jones said.

        A decade later, its annual budget has grown from $60,000 to $600,000. Seventeen staff people operate 17 programs as well as regular events for poets, musicians, potters, photographers and playwrights.

        The three-story building, at 101 S. Monument Ave., sits downtown on the Great Miami River, near the remodeled Anthony Wayne (a 1920s hotel now used for apartments) and the striking Soldiers, Sailors and Pioneers Monument. Although disparate, the skyline looks intriguing, complemented by the Fitton's modern design.

        “It's a focal point for the community in more than one way,” said Reed Hughes, a Hamilton veterinarian and musician. “We fill the place up when we have our Music Cafe. The visual arts took off first, but now the performing arts are growing.”

        Still, art exhibits remain at the core. They've ranged from Cuban painters' works to quilts to an eclectic Santa Claus knickknack collection.

        In the visual arts, the annual “Feed the Body, Feed the Soul” competition encourages solutions to physical and spiritual hunger.

        At least some of the center's popularity can be attributed to Mr. Jones, who helped start the Wayne Center for the Arts in Wooster in the 1980s. He came to the Fitton in January 1991, and guided it through its early dry period.

        “It fascinates me that a town in Middle America could turn to the arts to revitalize itself,” he said. “But it has worked.”

        Previously, Hamilton had never been known as a regional cultural mecca. But once the center opened and began offering programs, local people responded enthusiastically.

        “The Fitton has brought Hamilton to a new high level in the arts,” City Manager Steve Sorrell said. “It attracts a larger number of people from outside the community who probably wouldn't have come here before, and they're usually the more affluent.”

        When the Fitton installed sculptures of a man and a boy with a bicycle in the 1990s, the sculpture idea caught on across the city. Attorney Harry Wilks, founder of Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park on Ohio 128, suggested that the city promote itself as the City of Sculpture. Gov. Bob Taft officially recognized the city this way in 2000.


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