Sunday, July 20, 2003

The arts

It's time to compete, Cincinnati

Jackie Demaline

The summer issue of AmericanStyle magazine features an admittedly informal survey of the nation's top 25 arts destinations - it's so unscientific, it's based on readers' votes.

Nonetheless, Top 10 cities have been waving the flag of bragging rights these last few weeks and a lot of them are in the Midwest. Cincinnati isn't among them.

AmericanStyle's Top 10: Chicago; New York; Washington, D.C.; Boston; San Francisco; Santa Fe, N.M.; Philadelphia; Buffalo; Los Angeles; Milwaukee.Buffalo? Milwaukee?

We can grump about what a dopey survey it is (other obvious omissions are Denver, Dallas and Minneapolis). We can start subscribing and voting, because things worth talking about are definitely happening here.

But it would be more productive to recall some observations made by Cincinnati Museum Center's Douglass McDonald in this column in June:

"Nationally, cities are moving aggressively to the next step" in cultural investment, McDonald noted.

We are not alone in our efforts. Our commitment is the greatest it's ever been, but it's small and slow compared to many successful cities.

We have a lot to celebrate and a lot of work still ahead of us.

Making the most of it

There are many cities in AmericanStyle's Top 25 which don't have our large cultural institutions. Significantly, they appear to have solved some of their urban problems and are clearly "moving aggressively" to fashion the culturally rich environment that attracts people back to cities.

They have the chutzpah to make the most of what they do have. That's where we really have to do some work.

Milwaukee? According to AmericanStyle, "The Milwaukee Art Museum could well be the decisive element that pulled this city into the 2003 Top 10."

That museum's new wing, like our Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, garnered raves (and arguably more national and international press) when it opened in 2001. AmericanStyle swooned: It "looks like an immense bird sweeping across the shores of Lake Michigan."

Milwaukee also scored points for its downtown art scene where "a concentration of loft spaces, galleries, specialty stores and restaurants" and anchored by the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design." Artists, it reports, have been flocking to the city.

Buffalo? That rust belt city is outpacing Cincinnati's fuddy-duddy arts marketing campaign Festival of the New with Summerlong Sensation!, running between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

The slogan: "A Very Hot Summer in a Very Cool City." (Gee, good thing we beat them to "Go ahead, take it all in.")

There's emphasis on putting performing arts experiences (symphony and free Shakespeare) in family-friendly places like city parks. This summer's public art effort is Art on Wheels, which includes wheel-themed sculptures and artist-decorated cars. (The Web site makes it look like a lot of fun.)

Art on Wheels has 57 host sites and it comes with a foldout map and passport (which can be stamped at each location).

Sweat the small stuff

The next 15 AmericanStyle cities include Pittsburgh, Columbus and Cleveland.

We need to sweat the small stuff. Our major institutions put us in elite company nationally but we have to work harder toward a culturally rich environment that grows from the bottom up as well as the top down.

We need to recognize that other cities are fast tracking. They are making the commitment and creating distinctive settings for the assets they do have, and they're selling them directly to young-thinking people.

"Gazelle" city Charlotte, N.C., didn't make the AmericanStyle cut, but it's soldiering on, gearing up for it's next SHOUT! Festival (Sept. 5-Oct. 5).

Does it have more to offer than Cincinnati? Of course not, but it sure knows how to shout it out:

This weekend, the limp arts marketing effort Festival of the New events are under the clunky umbrella header "Cincinnati-style arts." I'm more tempted by Charlotte's "Blues, Brews and BBQ."

Charlotte's festive mix includes Opera Babes, GOSPEL SHOUT! and an Off the Wall Movie Fest. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Learning from Indy

Indianapolis was an AmericanStyle also-ran, too, but this seems like a good time to update that city's aggressive approach to cultural tourism.

Its multiyear, $10 million cultural tourism initiative is in its second year. This year, according to Indianapolis Business Journal, the initiative is investing $15,000 in training frontline hospitality workers. According to the Journal, hotel staff and transportation providers will begin learning more about Indy's arts and culture scene in August.

A lesson to be learned from Indy as culture talks here continue: Every bit as important as marketing is investing in what could be.

This year the Indy initiative will award $600,000 to individuals and groups with ideas for projects that encourage participation in cultural activities. About $300,000 will go to collaborations and special projects, $250,000 for cultural districts and $50,000 for entrepreneurial projects. (This is in addition to more traditional arts and culture funding.)

"We want to serve as a catalyst for good ideas," said Marty Peters, director of the Cultural Tourism Initiative.

Indy, which identifies its downtown as "everyone's neighborhood," crows that its efforts over the last decade to turn itself into a "safe, friendly and exciting environment" are resulting in a leap in regional residents visiting downtown and a 300 percent increase in annual attendance at downtown events from 1994 to 17.7 million visits in 2002.

I'll share the last word with McDonald, who also said, "We need to be absolutely competitive."

It's time to be bold, past time to be testing the water. Too cold? Too deep? Not for cities across the nation. It's time to dive in with them.


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Get to it!