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Believing in Something Better

By Steve Ramos · December 28th, 2005 · Arts Beat
InkTank Executive Director Jeff Syroney lets loose his New Year's resolutions without being asked. He's that confident about his vision for a better Cincinnati, one he believes is shared by many who care about the quality of urban living.

"The city feels like it's on the verge of waking up and moving towards the 21st century," Syroney says. "But the tensions over race and class are palpable and we have to wake people up to that fact."

Syroney has the clean-cut and freshly scrubbed appearance of corporate America. You expect to see him wearing a Fifth Third Bank pin on a suit jacket lapel. But he spends his days in grit, looking at the world from the Main Street storefront of InkTank, a literacy-support nonprofit based in Over-the-Rhine.

The future is bright for the fledgling organization formed in January 2004. InkTank will end 2005 with a balanced budget that includes annual operating costs that have grown to $90,000 from just $18,000 in 2004.

Syroney, who worked at Cleveland's Public Theater and the marketing department of Cincinnati Ballet before becoming InkTank's only full-time paid employee, deserves much of the credit for the growth. A weekend summit featuring visiting authors and writing programs for people experiencing homelessness and alcohol and drug addiction are just a few of InkTank's regular programs. But Syroney is quick to credit founder Kathy Holwadel and the numerous volunteers and supporters who make the group possible.

Syroney is committed to collaborative efforts and big picture projects -- exactly what one needs to hear at the start of a new year.

As we talk, Christmas is just a few days away and the future looks bright because Syroney is doing the talking.

"Our dream is to establish a one-stop center for all arts organizations considered alternative," he says enthusiastically. "We want to create a space in Over-the-Rhine for small arts organizations like ours that are considered fringe. If other places like InkTank did not exist, I would be out of here so fast."

Syroney and I share a laundry list of the good small arts groups operating throughout the city and their highlight events of 2005. Last spring, children and disabled artists shared folding tables and supplies to paint wooden Ukrainian Easter eggs outside the Cinergy Children's Museum. It was one of many outreach programs from Visionaries & Voices, a Walnut Hills-based group that helps artists with disabilities make, market and sell their art. The children and the disabled adults worked hand-in-hand, comfortably, respectfully, fully aware that all people are capable of creating art regardless of their age or ability.

On a Monday evening in October, the art and music group Paper Rad made an appearance at Publico, the Over-the-Rhine art gallery responsible for many of 2005's best visual art exhibitions. Combining Asian Pop imagery with spacey Hip Hop music, Paper Rad played to an enthusiastic crowd of young adults who never think twice about visiting the neighborhood. Publico might lack the polish of museums or better retail galleries, but they have creativity, vision and taste to spare. Nobody questions the talent and quality of Cincinnati's large arts organizations, but nothing compares to the excitement of a new show at Publico.

Syroney agrees that, if things are going to improve, groups like Publico and Visionaries & Voices need to thrive and multiply. His plan for helping out includes combining arts and public works projects. He's convinced that everybody wins when creative people play an active role in our city's life.

InkTank's 2006 plans include creating a bigger writers weekend at the Art Academy of Cincinnati (now located in Over-the-Rhine) and helping to produce the 2006 Cincinnati Fringe Festival. InkTank's standout program is facilitating a summit on improving public transportation. Asked how public transportation fits into the mission of a literacy group, Syroney laughs before explaining.

"Our five-year goal at InkTank is to turn Cincinnati into a literary Mecca. We want to create a diverse and exciting city capable of attracting quality writers to Cincinnati, and quality public transportation is part of that mix.

"You know, I have received some support and partial funding for every harebrained scheme for arts development I have ever proposed. This is a generous city, and I have always been given the chance to get the momentum going."

Syroney is convinced that scrappy underdogs like InkTank will thrive in 2006 and that there is no better place to be in Cincinnati than Over-the-Rhine. His New Year's resolution? Belief in a better Cincinnati.



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