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How Will the Arts Deal With the Boycotters?

By Steve Ramos · April 23rd, 2003 · Arts Beat
If I were to walk the protest line outside the new Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) during its opening festivities, my sign would read something like this: "When you stick your head in the sand, you're bound to get your butt kicked."

The boycott by the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, asking entertainers to avoid playing Cincinnati and local citizens to withhold spending their money in the city, continues in its second year. So far, most local arts leaders have been publicly mum on the issue. They have nothing to say because saying anything could offend some potential checkbook holder.

It's better to sit back and quietly wait things out in the art gallery and theater hall shadows. Here's the one time where the esoteric status of the arts community has a benefit: The arts lie below the dollars-and-cents radar, and the coalition couldn't have been bothered. If you were to boycott an empty Fourth Street gallery, would anyone know?

The May 31 opening of the new CAC changes everything. For the first time in recent memory, a visual arts institution in Cincinnati is front-page news. Large crowds, even out-of-town visitors, are expected to visit the sleek new museum.

CAC staff members have done a good job promoting the opening as a significant event that promises to bring wheelbarrows of tourist dollars downtown. They've caught the coalition's attention, and some street protests are expected.

What are liberal artists and arts lovers to do?

For progressives, the Iraqi War dilemma has been protesting the war and still showing support for U.S. troops. In Cincinnati, liberals struggle to show their support for social justice while trying to find a comfortable stance on the boycott. It's been difficult.

A leaderless City Hall refuses to talk with boycotters, allowing the chaos to continue. Boycott leaders lose credibility due to changing demands and ugly demonstrations of anti-Semitism. Downtown business leaders watch apathetically from their mile-high offices, convinced that as long as the boycotters leave the parking garages alone it's safe to zip out of downtown to their suburban homes.

Little of real merit has been accomplished over the past two years. Lawsuits by the Cincinnati Arts Association -- which manages the Aronoff Center, Music Hall and Memorial Hall -- against the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati over lost ticket sales from cancelled performances by Bill Cosby, Wynton Marsalis and Whoopi Goldberg have been settled, easing the boycotters' heat just in time for performances of The Lion King.

Now the boycott attention shifts to the CAC. Local arts leaders have to take a stance now, because the boycott has come to their front door.

"I don't know what to think about the boycott," says Linda Schwartz, owner of her self-titled gallery on West Fourth Street. "Normally, artists are behind these causes. We're a little bit to the left, but I'm very torn.

"How can I support the boycott? I want people to come downtown. I want people to come to my door. You don't have to be a boycotter to be for police reform."

Schwartz looks out at an empty Fourth Street from behind a long white counter at the back of her gallery. It's a rainy weekday afternoon, and business is quiet, like most days. She wants downtown to get better. She wants new stores to open around her gallery.

Schwartz has a business to operate, and supporting the boycott isn't good for her bottom line. She's also planning an extensive exhibition in conjunction with the opening of the CAC.

"It's called Welcome, and it's my biggest show yet," she says. "I've been working on it since last year. There will be pieces by Mark Fox, Keith Benjamin and Stewart Goldman. It's going to be great. It's my way of welcoming all the people who come to Cincinnati this summer to see the CAC."

Asked if she's welcoming the boycotters, Schwartz laughs.

"Why not?" she says. "I want to welcome everyone, even boycotters. I want this summer to be a great party."



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