Cincinnati’s arts and culture – our legacy and our future

February 2011 | Commentary

Thom Mariner

Thom Mariner
Co-publisher, Express Cincinnati & EXP/arts

Cincinnati’s leaders of 150 years ago understood and valued arts and culture as the building blocks of a vibrant and attractive metropolis.

In just three decades at the end of the 19th century, they established the cornerstones of Cincinnati cultural life: May Festival (1873), Cincinnati Zoo (1875), Cincinnati Art Museum (1881), and the Cincinnati Symphony (1895).

They knew something then that many of us seem to have forgotten early in the 21st century – that art, theater, dance, music, literature and poetry, along with an appreciation for history and the natural world are the intellectual and emotional superstructure of human society. It is the creativity and freedom of expression experienced as an artist that allows humans to see beyond the realities of daily life and to visualize a better possible existence. It is creativity that solves problems and overcomes difficulties, not to mention giving our lives more richness and meaning.

Our challenge is that now, as a society, we must overcome decades of decline in arts exposure and knowledge. The arts are now at the fringe of society, overwhelmed by pop culture and mass media and the need to meet quarterly projections. How have we lost our understanding for the value of creativity? How can we ever get it back?

The Fine Arts Fund of Cincinnati, founded by very wise, forward-thinking people some 80 years ago, recently changed its name to ArtsWave. The gist of this transformation is that the organization will not only focus on raising money for the core fine arts organizations of the region, but will also reach out to a broader population and serve as advocate for the arts. Their new message is that the arts create benefits that reach beyond the immediate personal experience of the participant and observer, and positively impact neighborhoods and communities as a whole, by making them more interesting and vibrant places in which to live, work and play.

ArtsWave is about to launch its first fundraising campaign under this new moniker. Their usual opening event, the “Sampler” – with dozens of free events to attract new attendees – has been expanded to encompass six weekends, each in a different neighborhood and partnering with a specific core arts organization. This change will put a spotlight on that area of town and serve to maintain visibility of the campaign throughout its run. Great idea.

The new ArtsWave initiative has possibilities, as long as money is not funneled away from the organizations that already inspire us and help define this city. The near-term potential of this new ArtsWave direction is in sparking the imagination of adults and children who might otherwise not have exposure to the arts. The challenge will be in truly engaging people. How many will have the experience or artistic vocabulary needed to place these experiences in context and grasp their potential as something more than a fun, recreational afternoon? Art and music have a language and a frame of reference, just as sports and science have. Without that foundation, how deeply can an experience be absorbed? Only time will tell…

The long-term goal of the new ArtsWave mission is a citizenry that is cognizant of the value of the arts and that supports that infrastructure into the future. But how do we engage the generation now in school, and the one to follow? How do we capture the creative spark that is in every individual and give it means for expression? How do we re-build the arts as a “must-have” and not a “nice-to-have?”

The key is making arts education a top priority, and the younger the better. Like all languages, the “language” of the arts is best learned at a very young age when brains are like sponges. Why don’t we make the arts such an integral part of our children’s education that they cannot live without them?

It is the mind that will save us as a species in the centuries to come, and it is creativity that will allow us to manage and overcome the challenges faced in this increasingly complicated and changeable world. We will need every ounce of thinking-outside-the-box we can muster to compete as a city and nation, so let’s find a way to re-establish our reverence for the arts and rejuvenate the kind of atmosphere where creativity is nurtured and celebrated.

Keep this in mind when someone approaches you about giving to the ArtsWave campaign.

Reshaping Cincinnati’s brand

Cincinnati City Council Member Laure Quinlivan has recently called for a re-examination of Cincinnati’s image and the message(s) we convey in our marketing and tourism communications. She is proposing that arts and culture be at the center of this message as Cincinnati’s defining characteristic.

She even floated a potential tagline on a recent talk show appearance, linking our professional sports teams with our world-class arts organizations: “Major league arts & culture.”

I wrote extensively about the importance of arts and culture to Cincinnati’s image in the September 2010 issue of Express (“Arts & Culture: the Queen City’s crown jewels”) and completely support Quinlivan’s proposal. Compared to other cities our size, and even many larger cities, we have so much more to offer in this regard. The arts have been a vital part of Cincinnati’s DNA for so long. Isn’t it time we let the rest of the world know what we have and how proud we are of that fact?

I have been invited to present the case for this branding initiative to the Quality of Life committee of Cincinnati City Council at noon on Feb 15. The meeting is open to the public, so come on down and show your support!

We’d like to know what you think.


Comment from James Rosenberger
Time February 19, 2011 at 9:13 am

As someone who has seen first hand the decline in the interest of the arts and culture since moving here in 1979, I applaud Thom’s efforts. Sadly, given the current mind set of government, schools and even arts supporters, our city has lost its perception of value for “the arts”. Locally, our creative class has been diminished, at the state level support has been sharply reduced and nationally, we rank at the bottom of truly world class cities. How can we really claim “major league arts and culture” when the top tier organizations are elsewhere? Simply because of a choir convention? To avoid being another “put lipstick on a pig” joke, why don’t we instead focus on offering social services that lift us above other cities? As all the current vision plans show, we pale in comparison. If ArtsWave can truly impact and elevate the masses instead of supporting a niche, great. Painting streets and revitalizing a single few blocks downtown doesn’t permit taking credit for results that are dismal region-wide. The Flying Pig sculpture serves as a cautionary tale–rebuked, restored and now revered–perhaps we already have our symbol thanks to Andrew Leicester.

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