By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The national and international media spotlight turned on Cincinnati two weeks ago, when the new Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art opened.
Mason High School students (from left, see zoom view) Jordan Berman 16, Allie Passero 16, J.D. Loughead 17, Eric Richey 16, and Nathan Thatcher look at an installation by artist John Armleder at the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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The reviews of the structure have been glowing. "The most important American building to be completed since the Cold War," trumpeted the New York Times last Sunday.
But more important, that story and others from the museum's opening - along with a spate of other positive reports about the new Great American Ball Park and others touting the city as a travel destination - are stripping away a few layers of tarnish from the image of Cincinnati.
Public relations professionals disagree whether the better image is evolving because Cincinnati is actually changing or the nation and world have moved on to bigger problems.
Either way, the strongly positive coverage didn't happen by accident. It was the product of a concerted effort, with the arts center going after journalists who cover art, and local tourism promoters focusing on travel writers.
"This has been an aggressive, active pitch," said Julie Harrison-Calvert, spokeswoman for Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The museum received requests from about 100 journalists.
"The strategy was to make sure that all the coverage came out of the institution itself," said spokeswoman Peggy Kennedy. "We decided to go after media that would be interested in that story, not just a story about the building.
"But we've been able to get some coverage on the exhibition while they've been here."
For its part, the convention bureau sent out more than 1,200 promotional packets to publications across the country.
As a result, Cincinnati lured writers from magazines such as Midwest Living and Better Homes & Gardens. It's been touted as a destination city in publications like the Orlando Sentinel.
Not all of the reports that found their way to national outlets came from out-of-town media.
Naomi Lewin, of WGUC-FM, did an interview with architect Zaha Hadid that was aired Friday night on All Things Considered, National Public Radio's flagship newscast.
And most of the reports about the museum opening at least mentioned the storm over the arts center's 1990 exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The explicit, homoerotic photos sparked a trial and acquittal of the museum's then-director on obscenity charges.
Still, the images from the opening in particular and the city in general have been strongly positive.
The Chicago Sun-Times wrapped up a story on the Tristate this way: "There is magic in the air."
Riot memories receding
This change in tone from journalists outside the Interstate 275 beltway didn't start with the museum opening or the new ballpark.
There has been a gradual buffing away of the tarnish that came with the riots of April 2001, when three days of strife brought journalists here who transmitted words and pictures of an intolerant, racially divided city under curfew to readers and viewers around the world.
Research by the convention bureau shows that those images are fading.
For instance, for the first three months of 2002, the bureau tracked 382 news stories and broadcasts that focused on the city's racial problems and the continuing (if flagging) economic boycott against it. That dropped to 53 during the same period this year.
Meanwhile, the bureau counted a decrease in negative stories and media reports about Cincinnati. About half the stories (48 percent) that appeared during the first quarter of 2002 were negative compared to 28 percent during the first three months of this year, according to the bureau.
"We certainly were due for an image shift," said Mike Maul, president of Wordsworth Communications, a downtown public relations firm.
Maul believes the new museum is great, "But what we can be proud of since 2001 in Cincinnati is not a building. There have been dramatic changes. And the media, eventually, has to talk about that.
"The legitimate and good things that have happened in Cincinnati have to be included in stories now," he said.
Yet the issues that sparked the riots and the boycott of the city by black entertainers generally were not part of the coverage of the new center.
That's because the city's racial challenges no longer hold the interest of national media, says Tim Gibson, creative director and partner of Freedman, Gibson & White, a full-service marketing communications company downtown.
"We had post-9/11 and two wars and that's made Cincinnati's problems seem like small potatoes on the national scale," he said.
"The new (museum) is beautiful, a boon to the city and definitely good for our image," he continued. "But buildings don't have the staying power of a riot or the notoriety of a riot. It takes a lot of arts centers to negate the impact of one riot."
David Ginsburg, president and chief executive of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., a downtown advocacy organization, thinks Cincinnati can continue to alter its image by a combination of change and self-promotion.
"What you must have to improve the image of a city is consistency, momentum and quality of experience," Ginsburg said. "The opening of the (museum) was outstanding and fits into a continuum: the Taste of Cincinnati, the opening of the Great American Ball Park, ribbon-cuttings at lofts and apartments, new restaurants, new shops.
"And as the word gets out, it will begin to turn the image of our city around," he said.
Enquirer staff writers Cliff Peale and Ken Alltucker contributed to this report. E-mail jeckberg@ enquirer.com
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