The best piece of conceptual art on display in area galleries can be found taped to the wall in the back room of Semantics Gallery, a storefront space in Cincinnati's squalid Brighton Corner neighborhood. Walk beyond the front room media installation, Sloppy, by artist and longtime Semantics volunteer Andy Marko. Squeeze past the ladder in the stairway where a building resident keeps busy painting the walls in lieu of paying her rent.
Look closely alongside the unused fireplace, and you'll see a State of Ohio Liquor License valid for Aug. 2, 2003, the date of a recent Semantics Gallery opening. The piece is worth the search, because no other artwork sums up the current anxiety among Cincinnati artists.
The Fall Arts Season is underway, and one thing people continue to talk about is the June 7, 2003, shutdown of a Semantics opening by members of the Cincinnati Police vice squad. Semantics operator David Dillon was convicted at an Aug. 18 court hearing for selling beer at the exhibition opening. While he avoided jail time and his fine was limited to the donation jar money confiscated by the police, ill feelings remain about his arrest.
How could this happen in a town where government and business leaders regularly promote their belief in and support for the arts?
The Semantics liquor license packs no visual beauty. It's a pink scrap of paper, something you'd toss in the trash if you passed it on the street.
It has little monetary value ($20) although it's probably worth nothing now that its valid date has passed.
Like many conceptual artworks, the license has value to those people who view it as meaningful. For the city's malcontents, whose numbers are on the rise, the Semantics liquor license is the new Big Pig Thing, the symbol of all that's troubling in this city of brotherly discontent.
What does it matter if the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra receives rave reviews and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park attracts sizable crowds to a likable production of My Fair Lady if local artists and art supporters are losing faith in the creative vitality of their hometown?
All is not entirely bleak. The MidPoint Music Festival, a music conference and new band showcase modeled after South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, is underway through Saturday thanks to the efforts of its co-founders, Sean Rhiney and Bill Donabedian. The 20/20 Festival, an eclectic calendar of cultural happenings sponsored by the arts advocacy group Enjoy The Arts, is also underway and running through Oct. 12.
MidPoint and 20/20 are both in their second years of operation and looking to avoid any sort of sophomore slump.
They're good examples of what's possible when artists, politicians and business leaders collaborate on a common, creative cause. It's a shame the two groups don't program year-round.
The latest round of bad news, or news that raises feelings of uncertainty, is the departure of SSNOVA (Sanctum Sanctorum Nonprofit Organization and Venue for the Arts) co-founder Emily Buddendeck. The hulking Mockbee Building on Central Parkway has become the city's top arts and performance venue for young adults since reopening its doors two years ago, and she deserves a large share of the credit for its early success.
Buddendeck has no claim to the bricks and mortar surrounding SSNOVA. They belong to Mockbee owner Fred Lane, who continues to be involved with renovating the building.
Buddendeck's legacy is one of volunteerism and creativity. She helped convert a vacant building in a rundown city neighborhood into an alternative arts venue so successful at attracting crowds that it's no longer alternative.
All arts projects and institutions experience growing pains, and Buddendeck's departure from SSNOVA might be nothing more than that. Still, her decision raises the question about what's next for the city's most successful new arts venue in years. A faltering SSNOVA would be a devastating blow to Cincinnati's creative spirit.
It's another reason to be anxious, to question whether anything new and different can make it here. That's what the pink scrap of paper hanging in Semantics' back room, its State of Ohio liquor license, is all about.