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The Art of Change

By John Fox · September 5th, 2007 · Editorial

It's funny how a bunch of different threads in life can occasionally come together to form a string of a theme. I've experienced some of that convergence this past week.

Labor Day weekend was the anniversary of my move to Cincinnati in 1984, so I usually get a little sentimental this time of year. It's always a good time to take stock of what I liked about Cincinnati when I first arrived, what keeps me here and what could be better.

Last week I met Raphaela Platow, the new director of the Contemporary Arts Center, and relived my own first impressions of Cincinnati through her eyes. We talked about her quotes in last week's CityBeat State of the Arts package ("New Directors, New Directions," issue of Aug. 31) describing how vibrant she finds downtown.

Earlier in the week CityBeat sponsored the 11th annual Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs) for theater, an amazing testament to the region's creative talent. Hearing person after person speak about why they love doing theater in Cincinnati reminded me of the impact the arts have.

The CEA Hall of Fame inductee that evening, Jack Louiso, drove home the point about impact. He was honored for his work as a teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts and his current position as artistic director for Children's Theatre of Cincinnati, and in his acceptance remarks he put the spotlight squarely on the kids who learned to love theater from him.

My daughter has started the new school year with thousands of others in the area, bringing my attention back to her school and her education. This sent me back to reading coverage of Cincinnati Public Schools' tax levy needs, school board candidates and Superintendent Rosa Blackwell's retirement announcement.

In the political frame of mind, last week I finally started noticing various yard signs for Cincinnati City Council and local judicial candidates. And Jim Tarbell left council on Sept. 4, which removes local government's biggest arts supporter, someone who always attends the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards to help honor the area's best and brightest.

And so it all comes full circle, and the threads twist together:

· Cincinnati is what you make of it. I've liked this city from the moment I first came here for a job interview in 1984. I arrived in Cincinnati the same summer Pete Rose came back as player/manager, and the excitement was palpable.

I'll never forget being at Riverfront Stadium in '85 when Rose hit No. 4,192.

Fast forward to 2007, and I now write a blog every morning on the CityBeat Web site (blogs.citybeat.com). It's not an opinion blog like our five other blogs -- though I get in plenty of shots at my favorite targets -- but more of a roundup of what's happening in Cincinnati that day.

I'm not amazed anymore at how many different events, concerts, plays, festivals, games, museums, restaurants, etc. are available every day in the Tristate. But where I used to deal with this type of information once a week when we publish CityBeat, now I link to recommended events and places every single day. Lots of them.

I sat in CCM's Corbett Theatre for the CEAs and realized that 16 different local theater companies were nominated for an award for their 2006-07 seasons, and that number doesn't count other companies that weren't nominated, and that's only live theater, and that's only the arts. What about the Bengals and the Reds, Kings Island and the Zoo, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the Fitton Center? What about the excellent restaurants and the cool bars?

Still, we all hear the naysayers here and there complaining that there's nothing to do in this town. Sometimes I start to listen to them, despite all the evidence.

And then I meet the CAC's Platow, who's genuinely excited to discover what Cincinnati has to offer. It takes me back to a Labor Day weekend 23 years ago.

· Cincinnati has a hard time with real change. After talking about Cincinnati's strengths, Platow asked me what I thought was the city's main weakness. I replied that Cincinnati can make small, usually inconsequential changes but we can't muster the strength to make fundamental change as a community. She laughed.

"That's such a German thing," said Platow, a native of Munich. "We talk about change, but we never can actually do it."

And so this is the payback for the beer, the architecture and the classical arts: We're doomed to spin our wheels.

It's not always been this way. Or has it?

I've heard the stories about how Cincinnati diverted the rail lines to Chicago, chased Henry Ford to Detroit and let Country music take up residence in Nashville. We all know some version of the quote that when the world ends you should be in Cincinnati because things happen here later than everywhere else.

We have some bright spots in recent history to point to: building new stadiums and reconfiguring the highway downtown, overhauling Fountain Square, extending the city's non-discrimination law to gays. But the sticking points are more obvious: no world-class public transit system, no change in Cincinnati Police Department leadership, no movement to regional government in Hamilton County, little creative thinking on The Banks, a shrinking city public school system.

· The arts will always lead the way. One of the main reasons we enjoy the arts is they often challenge us to consider different ways of thinking. And so the arts in Cincinnati challenge us all to embrace change.

The Art Academy of Cincinnati picks up a century of history and moves to a warehouse in Over-the-Rhine, the CAC builds a renowned facility on a downtown corner, The Carnegie becomes the foundation of a Covington arts district. But there's more.

In our State of the Arts issue ("How the Arts Saved Cincinnati," issue of Aug. 31), I wrote about how dramatic decisions by arts institutions and their supporters can help transform Cincinnati in the coming years. I painted a rosy future in which the Playhouse moves downtown; the Cincinnati Symphony renovates the Emery Theatre (an idea further pushed in a guest editorial on page 9); streetcars connect attractions from Clifton to Over-the-Rhine to downtown to Northern Kentucky; and the public enthusiastically supports a dedicated arts tax levy.

When you put the pieces together in my "what if," it's easy to envision Cincinnati as the kind of place that embraces and benefits from change. OK, maybe not easy, but certainly possible.

As has happened through the city's history, the arts can be the catalyst for creative thinking and for change. It's all connected: Creative teachers challenge their students to embrace ideas; those kids become the area's taxpayers, voters and leaders; they push the arts to challenge our status quo ways of thinking; and we all realize that change is not only possible but an improvement. Change becomes the only option.

That's when Cincinnati changes for the better. And it can't happen soon enough.

Contact john fox: jfox(at)citybeat.com


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