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Second Chance City

By Steve Ramos · August 4th, 2004 · Arts Beat
Was it just last summer that critics and arts reporters came from far and near to opine on Zaha Hadid's shocking, nonlinear building, the new Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, the home of Cincinnati's legendary Contemporary Arts Center (CAC)? The best summation of critical response to Hadid's sleek temple of art is this: The press loved it, not just local boosters -- practically everyone and especially everyone who mattered.

Cincinnatians reveled in the positive attention from the cognoscente, something we're not used to.

On bad days we're slammed as racist and conservative to the point of censorship. On better days, we're simply Midwest rubes, bumpkins in fly-over country with limited coolness and cool venues to frequent. (A recent story in Fortune Magazine points out Cincinnati's shared dullness.)

Chicago remains poet Carl Sandburg's "city of broad shoulders," a place of tough laborers whose hard work lifts the city high. In the last couple of years, Cincinnati, onetime Queen City of the West and Porkopolis, has become a city of broad-shouldered buildings.

This quaint river city -- full of neighborhoods, longstanding parks and hilltop overlooks -- now looks to its shiny new quartet of massive public buildings as its calling card to the world community: the new CAC, sports stadiums for the Reds and Bengals and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, all of them downtown or along an otherwise bare riverfront.

The international media spotlight surrounding the CAC happens just once in a lifetime, and hindsight begs the questions whether Cincinnati leaders took full advantage of our brief moment of coolness. I remember something Linda Schwartz, Fourth Street gallery owner, said on the eve of the CAC opening.

"The last time this city was getting attention in the arts was due to Mapplethorpe, and that was down energy," she told me. "The new CAC is up energy. I think it's going to be great, and I want to celebrate that."

Schwartz was counting on the new CAC to attract more downtown visitors and ultimately more customers to her gallery. But the gallery shuts down later this month due to poor sales, proving that the CAC, good publicity and all, can't single-handedly solve the city's ills.

It seems perhaps we Cincinnatians missed our chance to cement our international reputation.

With the new Freedom Center, Cincinnati leaders gain a second chance at selling the city on the international stage. The reporters are coming to the Freedom Center and, while it's unclear what their reaction will be to the museum's exhibits and scholarly resources, it's safe to say that everyone will applaud the spirit behind the space -- an institution dedicated to promoting tolerance.

The CAC has its shocking architecture, a breathtaking space that attracts attention no matter the art displayed inside its irregular galleries. A few blocks to the south, wedged between the stadiums, the Freedom Center has its pro-tolerance message, a humanistic theme so pure and uplifting that the quality of what happens inside the museum space will be overlooked, at least for the moment.

I'm not saying that the Freedom Center has the crutch of political correctness on its side. Rather, the people watching the three-pavilion Freedom Center from the outside want the museum to succeed. It's a good thing, and one wants it to be good, successful and something to be proud of.

The Freedom Center is Cincinnati's second chance at vanquishing its reputation of artistic intolerance deriving from the 1990 Robert Mappplethorpe exhibit at the CAC and the arrest of then-CAC Director Dennis Barrie on obscenity charges. It's a second chance to prove to the world that city residents have learned from the 2001 riots and have made positive changes.

Few towns get second chances at telling their story to an international audience. Let's hope we'll take full advantage of it this time.



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