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Jim Tarbell, Half-Off Arts Czar

By Steve Ramos · December 15th, 2004 · Arts Beat
The latest news flash in Councilman Jim Tarbell's three years as chair of Cincinnati City Council's Arts & Culture Committee is the recent elimination of 50 percent of the city's funding for the arts.

On Dec. 13, a majority of city council approved a version of the 2005-06 budget that includes a 50 percent reduction in arts funding. The $432,000 in grant money awarded last year to individual artists and local arts organizations, both large and small, will be shaved to approximately $224,000.

The lone bright spot for arts supporters is that the news could have been worse. Councilmen John Cranley and Pat DeWine recommended eliminating arts support from the budget completely.

News about the city's budget woes go back to Tarbell's announcement as the arts czar, when Mayor Charlie Luken created the arts and culture committee in 2001 as a permanent council committee and promptly named Tarbell as its head.

Tarbell's task is to handle all arts-oriented funding requests and recommend projects worthy of the city's attention. If there's less money, there's less to handle and less clout to wield.

Tarbell has been downsized. He's the incredible shrinking councilman, and his newfound challenge is to remain relevant despite having less money to pass around.

At a Dec. 6 public budget hearing, I watched the foot traffic in the College Hill Recreation Center as numerous staff and clients of the city's social service agencies expressed their needs and worthiness for city funding. Tarbell was there, sitting near a dapperly dressed Luken, sharing a front table with fellow council members.

Tarbell's expression was rock solid solemn. Perhaps he sensed the end was near for his arts czar reign.

With half of the arts grant money, it will become more difficult for Tarbell to breathe life into his beloved Over-the-Rhine neighborhood to create the city's arts neighborhood and cultural district. Of course, he's experienced when it comes to setbacks.

Renovating the Emery Theatre remains a dream. A parking garage in Mount Adams for the Cincinnati Art Museum and Playhouse in the Park has yet to occur. And we all know that Tarbell will never see a Reds stadium at Broadway Commons.

But there's always the chance that he and his Arts & Culture Committee will serve a greater role sometime in the future.

Tarbell once said, "You give me 10 percent of that stadium money to spend on the arts, and I'll make your head spin." Now he has half of his previous arts money, and his own head is spinning.

For now, Tarbell continues to be a city fixture, someone who makes the news whether he's robbed in a downtown alley or he's announcing high-profile arts capital projects.

People will continue to love him or hate him, although his City Hall crowds for regular Arts & Culture meetings will probably diminish. But his showman theatrics are more important than ever.

Tarbell remains the man with the golden carrot on a stick. But there's a lot less money to be handed out, no matter how worthy the cause or project.

He's still Cincinnati's arts czar, but his clout is quickly shrinking. Basically, when it comes to helping out the arts community, he's half the man he used to be.



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