On any given day at just about any time, Woodburn Avenue in East Walnut Hills is as quiet as its empty storefronts. It's what urban developers call a sleeping giant, a stretch of historic buildings with sky-high potential. But it's currently in a rut. (I know the stretch well, living just a block from there.)
Woodburn Avenue's latest developers are three individuals without an hour of banking, real estate or legal experience between them.
Jason Franz is an assistant professor of painting and drawing at Xavier University. Elizabeth Kauffman is the president of the Society of Visual Arts at Xavier University and a current student. Brigid O'Kane, Franz's real life partner, is associate professor of design at the University of Cincinnati. Together they've opened Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center, the type of gallery space neighborhood supporters everywhere crave but seldom acquire.
In a city landscape dotted with instant check cashers, bars and Family Dollar discount stores, a new art gallery is a rare thing. But time and time again it's artists who boost cities while bankers and corporate leaders stand by and watch urban neighborhoods falter.
It wouldn't have happened on Woodburn if not for Franz, O'Kane and Kauffman's trailblazing spirit and a willingness to take risks.
They considered opening Manifest in the former IMAGO offices in Price Hill, a spot near Keith Benjamin's Warsaw Project Space.
Kauffman says they didn't bother looking downtown or Over-the-Rhine, pointing out that Manifest is about the neighborhood as much as it is about the art on display.
"We wanted to be in a place that would benefit from us being there and we would benefit as well," Kauffman says.
They put up approximately $3,000 to open the space. Renovations began last May, Franz says. Building owner Charles Wolff didn't charge them rent during the start-up.
People filled the gallery for the first exhibition, Terrestrial Domains. Responses to the art were positive. The trio achieved their first-night goal -- to convince people that a new, quality gallery space had joined Cincinnati's arts community.
Standing outside the gallery, Kauffman says that from here on out half the shows will display the work of student artists and the other half will focus on professionals. Their third show, Rites of Passage (running through April 22), represents senior thesis work by area college students.
Slashing black strokes make up the single female nude figure drawings of Sarah Intemann. The show's standout work belongs Carly Nicole Witmer, whose geometric abstract works on paper fill the gallery's backroom. Penciled lines and paint create concise geometric and arithmetic grid patterns, skilled workings of traditional Op Art.
Woodburn Avenue is affordable, but Franz and his partners say there's something more to the location. They share the dream of the long-range plan from the East Walnut Hills and Walnut Hills neighborhood associations, "06 Vision 2010," to guide the area's revitalization.
The vision plan's laundry list of ideas includes housing development, commercial corridor revitalization, business recruitment and job training. But the arts play a major role in the plan. Manifest is proof of the solid anchor an art gallery can be.
Manifest Gallery is committed to the current Woodburn space for five years, but Franz and his cohorts have big plans. They look across the street to a vacant building with skylights and enough room for classrooms and studios, and they see a bright future.
"If we had the money tomorrow, we would go for it." O'Kane says without hesitation. "We have a 'let's do it' attitude."
There are other projects that reflect the Manifest spirit -- the rehabbed Ford Factory on Lincoln Avenue is now contemporary offices; DeSales Plaza has apartments and a restaurant, plus a bank and pharmacy new to the neighborhood; the burned-out Alexandria apartment complex has been converted into senior housing; and communitywide wi-fi Internet service is closer to becoming a reality.
Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center is just one piece in an expansive plan to rejuvenate a sleeping street. But it's the piece everyone wanted most -- whether they knew it or not.