Sunday, June 29, 2003

Art notes


Arts revolution progressing, with plenty to consider

Jackie Demaline

June is usually a slow arts month, but not this year.

Powered by the opening of the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, the activist young and urban Creative Class, consultant John Alschuler's downtown plan and politicians looking for ways to reinfuse Cincinnati with a young professional population, arts and culture has tidal-waved into the news as maybe the smartest solution available.

My favorite read came earlier this month, when Enquirer editorial writer Ray Cooklis gave us the big picture (June 15). Significant events are building on each other: the openings of the Rosenthal Center and Great American Ball Park, the potential billions in riverfront and downtown development and economic impact.

It all adds up to a "Perfect Moment," Cooklis theorized. He went on to offer ideas for capitalizing on the current national buzz.

One of his first suggestions: that Cincinnati find an identity in arts and culture.

It's a message the cultural community has been shouting from the sidelines for years, but no one was listening.

Now that arts folk have the city's ear, what will they say?

Is there a coherent action plan?

Is there agreement on how needs should be prioritized?

Is the highly sought young adult workforce part of the picture?

Do arts, artists and cultural institutions speak with a unified voice?

Rumblings of progress

There's no resounding "yes" to any of the above questions.

But Cincinnati might be getting closer to a focused arts plan.

The idea for a Cincinnati Cultural Trust is being discussed behind closed doors. An expanding group of cultural leaders will quietly reconvene in July to continue to work toward agreement and strategies.

"The cultural trust initiative is picking up stamina," says Cincinnati Ballet executive director Alan Hills. "Some of the initial, territorial guardedness is coming down" as people recognize the needs for "a coordinated body."

Targeting the young working class has not come naturally to Cincinnati. Playhouse in the Park has filed away its grand plan to attract top young theater artists here when it couldn't drum up financial support. But grass-roots MidPoint Music Festival has scheduled its second annual event Sept. 24-27.

The Festival of the New arts marketing campaign, which began in June, was apparently caught unawares by the idea of targeting a "new" young audience. Direct promotions to young adults will be in place "hopefully in August," says project director Kathy DeLaura.

Collaboration is key

Many arts leaders caution that it's not an arts plan that's needed but a broad city plan that uses arts and culture. "We're part of an answer," says Playhouse in the Park producing artistic director Ed Stern, "So are a strong economic and educational base."

Cincinnati Arts Association's Steve Loftin wants to see downtown - stretching from Cincinnati Museum Center to Eden Park to the riverfront - "a warm, safe destination" - primary, he believes, for the community accepting arts and culture as a "core asset."

"That's lighting, police, downtown ambassadors, places to go, restaurants - all those things have to work concentrically," he notes.

Stern adds, "We need media and arts and business and education coming together. We need participatory leadership."

The answer, he suggests, is putting everyone who's "part of the solution or part of the problem" at a table together, with arts and culture made welcome. It hasn't happened yet, he says.

Art Academy of Cincinnati president Greg Smith observes that "there's been an interesting progression of outside experts," starting last year with creative class economist Richard Florida, "and the city seems to be listening."

The positioning and rollout of plans by downtown consultant Alschuler and arts consultant Louise Stevens (who delivered the Cultural Trust concept) "seems to be deliberately orchestrated," Smith adds. "There's definitely something happening."

That may be why Loftin sees more than a brief "perfect moment." He sees "a turn to a progressive approach.

"Isn't it wonderful that the city deemed it important enough for a $2.2 million investment? It's a good time for those involved to seize a clear and present opportunity."

We have to compete

Even as Cincinnati works on infrastructure, Museum Center president and CEO Douglass McDonald sees the necessity of looking outward at the same time.

Cincinnati's recent successes aren't taking place in a vacuum. "Nationally, cities are moving aggressively to the next step" of cultural commitment, he points out.

Look no further than Indianapolis, where the art museum is embarking on a $76 million project (Cincinnati Art Museum's new Cincinnati Wing carried a $10 million price tag) and the children's museum is planning a $30 million dinosaur exhibit. Cities across the U.S. are investing in culture.

"We need to be absolutely competitive," McDonald observes.

McDonald's solution isn't original - a declared cultural and scientific district is a wheel that works across the country, in cities like Denver and St. Louis.

The district invariably includes zoos, and scientific and technical as well as cultural institutions.

Even as we applaud our very real successes, he suggests, we should also embrace challenges that will move us forward.




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