Neighborhood arts centers mushrooming in Cincinnati. Wanted: More neighbors to use them

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By Matt Peiken

©WCPO/Scripps • November 16, 2014

If you want to chart the recent explosion of arts and culture in and around Cincinnati, don’t look at the so-called Big Eight. A better metric might be the Little 26.

That’s the number of neighborhood arts and cultural centers dotting the Tri-State area—a remarkable figure considering, little more than a decade ago, there were only three.

They range from The Carnegie in Covington, Ky., which offers a full season of theatrical productions and visual arts exhibitions along with a year-round slate of arts classes, to outlets with singular focuses, such as the Woman’s Art Club of Cincinnati and the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts. Others have grown from uncertain beginnings to ambitious expansions of programming and physical space.

Most operate with small budgets and part-time staffs—often only one person on salary—buttressed by small armies of devoted volunteers. The ongoing challenge for neighborhood arts centers isn’t financial, insiders say, but remaining relevant and useful to people who have a myriad of options nearby, inside and outside the arts.

“It’s a much less intimidating, low-barrier, low-cost way to get introduced to the arts,” Leslie Mooney said of neighborhood arts centers. Just over one year ago, Mooney left as director of development at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to become executive director of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.

“I hope people are feeling they get more of a sense of community and neighborhood pride at a community arts center,” she said. “If kids can have those experiences through us, their appreciation for art or dance grows, and when they become adults, they patronize the symphony or opera and become lifelong arts lovers.”

Here is a directory of all neighborhood arts centers in this region.

From Cobwebs to Culture

Perhaps more remarkable than the mushrooming of neighborhood arts centers is the impetus behind many of them. Counterintuitive though it seems, in Clifton, Evendale, Kennedy Heights and elsewhere, the arts centers there began as concepts competing for popularity against other ideas for rescuing and re-using old schools, churches and homes.

The Kennedy Heights Arts Center, on Montgomery Avenue, began life 140 years ago as a family mansion. It operated for many years as a funeral home, then sat empty for much of the 1990s. When rumors circulated that new buyers planned to tear down the home to make way for a storage facility, neighbors in Kennedy Heights and Pleasant Ridge rallied to intervene. Area artists got involved, and people sought input and support by going door to door.

“The initial impetus was to save the building and then it became ‘What are we going to do with it?’” said Ellen Muse-Lindeman, who became the center’s first paid director six years ago, after it had operated the previous four years solely on the fuel of volunteers.

Today, Kennedy Heights runs a year-round gallery, poetry readings, lawn concerts, outreach programs and an arts camp serving 200 kids each summer, all on an annual budget of $250,000.

The center just broke ground two lots to the east along Montgomery Avenue, converting a former Kroger market and Furniture Fair outlet into a performance and media arts center with studios for individual artists. The annual budget will grow by $80,000 and the paid staff will expand to three. A Montessori school will also operate in the building, planned for opening in summer 2015. Programming currently happening in Kennedy Heights’ current home will continue there.

“This is huge step just 10 years into the organization,” Muse-Lindeman said of the expansion. “We’re not a Cincinnati Arts Museum or Museum Center serving thousands yet, but when you look at our rate of growth, it just indicates people are finding value in what we’re offering.”

The Evendale Cultural Arts Center had similar beginnings, in 2008, as the community’s answer about what to do with a then-80-year-old former school building. The center is best known for the annual Evendale Fine Art Show and it also offers a bevy of performing, visual and media arts classes.

The $40,000 annual budget, funded entirely by the Village of Evendale, is modest even compared to other neighborhood arts centers. The only paid staffer is part-time executive director Susan Gordy, who rounds out her income by making meals and teaching others to do the same through a company called Dream Dinners.

“(My position) was actually more about taking over day-to-day operations volunteers were doing. They were just tired, and I don’t blame them,” Gordy said. “I don’t want to say it was an experiment, but ‘Let’s see how this is going to go and what we can do.’”

While only 3,000 people call Evendale home, nearly 13,000 people have come through the arts center this year—two-thirds of them from throughout Greater Cincinnati. That center’s attendance figure will grow Dec. 18-20, along with its earned revenue, when the 48 kids going through the center’s musical theater class will stage Disney’s “Aladdin Kids” at the town’s recreation center.

“One of the challenges I face as a 20-hours-a-week director is all the planning I should be doing when I’m just taking care of business every day,” Gordy said. “But our biggest challenge is always making arts a priority in families’ lives when they have so many other things going on.”

The same year the center opened in Evendale, motivated residents in Clifton opened the doors on a 1906 Beaux-Arts architecture schoolhouse, re-purposed after four years of planning as the Clifton Cultural Arts Center. Neighborhood response was immediate and the growth meteoric, and the center is now offering about 70 hours of classes and programs every week.

The Wednesday on the Green outdoor concert series draws scores of people of all stripes, from all over Cincinnati, every week in June and July. Classes have grown from nine to 56, in music, art, dance and body/wellness. In the Clifton model, those who lead the classes rent space from Clifton, then pocket the student fees. The Mam-Luft Dance Company, which leads nine of these classes, is now a resident company of the center. The Art Academy of Cincinnati runs a summer camp there and arts groups are beginning to rent office space at the center.

Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Children’s Theatre are among companies that have brought outreach productions to the center. Clifton has also ramped up its own programming, including a new Sunday Salons arts lecture series, and stepped up the quality of its visual arts exhibitions. Mooney, the center’s director, wants people to see their exhibitions on par with those offered at the Cincinnati Art Museum and downtown at theWeston Art Gallery, citing the recent FotoFocus shows hosted at the center as examples.

“We’re still transforming this space from a school to a community arts center,” Mooney said, adding that parents still wander in to inquire about school registration.

“People like to have a resource that’s very close by, the ease of parking, keeping costs low—all of that appeals to neighborhood folks, whether that’s in Wyoming or Clifton,” Mooney said. “The fact that so many neighborhood arts centers have cropped up in the past 10 years can only mean good things for the arts as a whole.”

A Wave of Support

In 2008, programmers with the Cincinnati arts support agencyArtsWave noticed neighborhood arts centers were “popping up all over the region” and saw ArtsWave as a potential catalyst for networking them.

“They’re non-competitive and they’re all loyal to their neighborhoods,” said Heather Hallenberg, director of grantmaking and strategic initiatives with ArtsWave.

“Because so many of them work in isolation, we thought we could bring them together to share stories and best practices,” she said. “They were really happy to have this feeling of belonging and camaraderie with administrators facing the same issues they were.”

With money from the Haile Foundation, ArtsWave connected these centers with accountants and paid half the bookkeeping costs. The funding from Haile, which continued from 2009 to 2013, also went to boot camps for marketing and fundraising and scholarships for kids to attend summer arts camps at the centers.

“(These centers) experience the same sort of challenges any smaller or mid-sized arts organization does,” Hallenberg said. “They have passionate board members, but they’re less skilled in perhaps fundraising and making an ask. They know their neighborhoods and know what people want in terms of programming, and we just wanted to help put them on more solid footing.”

Paint By Numbers

Numbers are relative—attendance and financial figures that would impress a new organization would sink another to its knees. Still, there’s a consensus among these directors of one ongoing concern: General public awareness. With scant budgets and staffing for dedicated marketing, word of mouth is the primary promoter for all but the grandfather of all regional arts centers here, The Carnegie in Covington, which opened in 1972.

Though only 25,000 people have come through the Kennedy Heights center during its first decade, 5,000 will come through this year alone, Muse-Lindeman said. She’s happy with the trend line, she added, noting the center has grown from an all-volunteer organization to one that completed a full renovation and launched a full series of classes and programs.

Center directors also have to think creatively about fundraising. Most have have had to, and continue to, take on capital campaigns to shore up and renovate their older homes while also raising money for general operations and programming. These nonprofit centers receive help from ArtsWave, the Ohio Arts Council and the City of Cincinnati, but directors say earned revenue—money from ticket sales, class fees and facility rentals—needs to account for a bigger slice of their budgets.

While Cincinnati’s larger institutions never fully pay for programming through attendance alone, directors of neighborhood cultural centers feel more pressure for programming to be self-sustaining. That’s why few produce their own events, instead relying on other artists and organizations renting space or partnering with them to present shows in the neighborhood centers.

Cincinnati’s larger institutions have already locked up relationships with Cincinnati’s most deep-pocketed cultural supporters, so directors with the neighborhood centers call on their neighbors, literally, for support.

Clifton’s outdoor concerts are supported in part by residents of individual streets—a different street for each concert in the series—who work to raise $1,000 to pay for that week’s artist. Much of the center’s $350,000 annual budget comes from a broad base of donors who give between $50 and $1,000, Mooney said.

“People see this building isn’t empty and subject to vandalism. We’re plowing sidewalks in the winter. People see this improves their real estate value, they see the value in it and they invest in it,” Mooney said. “And that creates that buy-in for everything we’re doing.”

Evendale’s director, Gordy, takes her center’s health personally. She recalls her own teen years and days spent at the city’s recreation center.

“People have all these great memories of that and I want people to think of the cultural center in the same way, of a class they took here or event they were part of here,” she said.

“As they grow up and come back here, we’re building our next generation of supporters.”

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