Art Academy of Cincinnati Looks to the Future

May 22nd, 2013  |  Published in May 2013  |  3 Comments

Art Academy of Cincinnati Looks to the Future
Led by John Sullivan, President


Laura A. Hobson

John Sullivan, president of the Art Academy of Cincinnati since 2012, looks for teachable moments when dealing with his student body of 200. He offers a supportive comment or a suggestion as he walks the halls of the 150,000 square foot building which moved from its Eden Park location adjacent to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2005. When faculty took a lead role in designing the building, they created an open, accessible environment that promotes interaction. The new building includes three exhibition galleries, group critique cubes and student studios adjacent to the staircase which actually joins two buildings. “You’re in an intensively design environment,” remarks John. Each room was created with a specific activity in mind, such as painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture.

Now in the heart of Over-the-Rhine at 1212 Jackson St., the Art Academy is joined by ArtsWorks, School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Music Hall, Washington Park and Know Theatre to create a vibrant arts community. “We’re a beacon in the Gateway Quarter,” says John. He translates the recent energy and vitality that this location offers to the school where 30-40 faculty teach a variety of arts courses. Since its origin in 1869, the school brings a long tradition of arts education and training to the city.

Although the Academy strives to be a leader in the neighborhood by forming a variety of partnerships, it has had its challenging moments. John cites a rough patch that the school has gone through financially. While it is an accredited four-year college offering a bachelor of fine arts and a master of arts in art education degrees, AAC has struggled for the last five years resulting in a cash flow problem, predominantly due to the economic climate. A lower student enrollment has also contributed to a lack of monetary stability. As a result, some of the endowment was used to pay off the debt on the building. John says that while the school carried a deficit balance last year, he hopes to bring the finances into the black this year. In addition, grants have been received from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission, the Charles Moerlein Foundation at Fifth Third and the P&G Foundation, among others.

One area that contributed to financial improvement was a structured buyout of many of the senior faculty members from a number of departments because enrollment just wasn’t supporting the salaries. John notes that this was handled in an effective manner, letting the faculty know that their efforts were appreciated. “This has not been an unkind place,” says John. “We’re subject to the same academic pressures as other institutions.” As background, all faculty have a master’s degree, are practicing artists and are recruited via a national search.

Although John is not ready to go to the community with a full-fledged fundraising campaign, he has three priorities: a green roof top installation, a $1.2 – $1.5MM renovation of a former barrel house and replenishing the endowment, which has dropped significantly. In addition, he wants to build faculty and staff levels back up, contingent on enrollment and a more positive economic environment. “We’re moving toward a better place,” he says. Without a development or public relations staff on site, John relies on himself and other board members to perform some of those tasks. In addition, he has a supportive board, a community education program for adults and an art academy camp for students 5 – 12 years.

Innovative projects that John is working on are new courses in animation and film video. He will test the waters for these subjects and then bring them to a second level of complexity. The school is also looking at a degree alternative to the BFA as some students want art instruction, but not the intensity of a degree. This will be done on a trial basis as well. Furthermore, in partnership with Bad Girl Ventures, a micro-lending organization for women in Cincinnati, an entrepreneurship course will be offered. A dual enrollment with the Cincinnati Public Schools is also in process. Other partners are Sinclair Community College and Gateway College.

Originally incorporated with the Cincinnati Art Museum as The Cincinnati Museum Association and located adjacent to it, AAC has now branched out on its own to forge other alliances while retaining its relationship with the CAM. John says the separation was a matter of available space as well as parking and housing issues. Students do internships at CAM in areas such as curatorial or collections. While AAC doesn’t have a library, the school offers free services at the Mary R. Schiff Library and Archives at the CAM. A formal library support agreement is with the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

One initial concern with the move was the neighborhood, which experienced a high crime rate, particularly in 2005-2006. With the addition of several organizations alongside AAC, however, crime has decreased making it a safer environment for students, faculty and staff. “There’s just so much creative activity in this part of the city that the AAC naturally seems to belong here. And, as you might imagine, we are working to capitalize on this advantage,” observes John. At first, the location influenced the number of students. Now, they have returned and are often housed in a building close by. Transportation around town is via a car or buddy rides. For convenience, John is anxious to have the streetcar system in place.

“When we moved down the hill, we put on another skin,” comments John. Formerly a European style academy, the school now more clearly aligns itself with designs of the local community. That is evident in the architecture of the building: open, airy, beams and pipes showing, a central staircase unifying two edifices. It looks like a current art academy. With this new persona, John talks of updating his strategic plan to reflect these changes of energy and vibrancy.

With a tuition of $23,950 per year, the AAC has a tough sell in this economy. However, financial aid often provides students with assistance with the tuition, bringing the average yearly net cost of attendance down to $17,000. Of its peers in the country, it has one of the lowest tuitions. Courses can also be taken at other Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky institutions through the Consortium of Colleges and Universities.

Demographically, students range from 18 to 24 with equal numbers of males and females. Most (85%) of them come from Greater Cincinnati. Recruitment is primarily in the Tri-State area, but efforts are made to attract students nationally. While diversity is a priority, there are few African-Americans, Hispanics or international students. To address this, John plans to partner with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to offer scholarships to deserving students, who receive an intensive education in the arts. In addition, students are offered internships at such places as LPK, P&G, dunnhumby and the Taft Museum of Art as well as volunteer opportunities. A consortium supports a semester program for students in New York City. When students graduate, job satisfaction is often higher than those with non-arts degrees, according to Special Report 1 of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project published in 2010.

To move from up on the hill to Over-the-Rhine, the AAC received a one-time $500,000 incidental appropriation from the city. As part of the urban pioneer scene, AAC has rebranded and marketed itself as a hub. Corporate partners include Procter & Gamble, Fifth Third Bank, PNC and 3CDC, a strategic collaborator. Donations have been made by ArtWorks, Joseph and Susan Pichler, the Thomas J. Emery Foundation and the Helms Foundation. In addition, AAC rents its space for meetings to such organizations as ArtWorks, Leadership Cincinnati and Miami University. AAC actively seeks academic partners as well.

Famous alumni include Joseph Marioni, Charlie Harper, Julian Stanczak, Tom Wesselmann, Jim Dine, Paul Chidlaw, Dixie Selden, Petah Coyne, Tony Tassett, Kevin Kelly and John Ruthven. A legacy of students is in their hands. The Cincinnati Art Museum has scheduled a major Wesselmann retrospective in 2014. On the walls of the hallway are art works by students, alumni and other artists.

Although John’s background is in graphic design, he has no intention to turn AAC into a graphic design school. He says that there’s an excellent program in graphic design at the Design Art and Architecture Program, University of Cincinnati. AAC differs from DAAP in that it has more of an art school emphasis. John notes that the perception of the Art Academy has dulled. “The challenge is to restore its shine,” he adds. He wants to make the city proud of his institution. Local businessman and former City Council member Jim Tarbell took John under his wing when he first arrived and showed him the view of Over-the-Rhine from Kroger headquarters at 1014 Vine St. The vista astonished John.

Formerly Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, Tennessee, John has 35 years of experience as an exhibiting artist, graphic designer and design consultant in addition to academic roles in higher education. “Bring it on,” says John. “I’m ready for it. The president is the leader of the pack. I’m a gregarious individual and easy to move around. The kids appreciate it. Transparency is really important to me.” He holds a master of fine arts degree in graphic design from Louisiana Tech University and a bachelor of science degree in advertising design from Northwestern State University. In Cincinnati, he enjoys Reds baseball, Paddlefest, great dining and a variety of beers.

The Art Academy of Cincinnati is accredited and is a charter member of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) and the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. AAC is also a charter member of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD), a consortium of 41 professional colleges of art and design.

Lastly, it’s interesting to note that Frank Duveneck, famous Cincinnati painter, served as the first president of the Art Academy. His legacy lives on.



  1. Constance McClure says:

    June 5th, 2013at 5:16 pm(#)

    Thomas Satterwhite Noble was the first “president”* of the AAC, not Frank Duveneck. Maria Longworth Nichols Storer had him replace Noble in a political move. See: Birchfield, James D., Albert Boime, and William J. Hennessey. “Thomas Satterwhite Noble, 1835-1907” (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.)

    Noble was truly “noble” and was hired when he was the most famous painter in the US at the time. He was originally from Kentucky, had been drafted into the Confederate Army close to the end of the Civil War then studied painting in France before returning to the US.

    He painted “Margaret Garner” who killed her children that they should not live in slavery (P&G owns the painting) and “The Last Slave Market in St Louis”, both paintings being visual statements against the earlier despicable act of slavery.

    *The heads of AAC originally were called “Directors” until Greg Smith, then Director, changed the title to “President” in the late 1990s

  2. marlene steele says:

    June 16th, 2013at 11:17 pm(#)

    One of the best known alumni is unfortunately forgotten here: Franklin Folger, cartoonist, creator of “The Girls” syndicated for 35 years worldwide. HIs estate left a sizable amount to the Academy as well as several additional art organizations and institutions in Cincinnati.

  3. Gregory Allgire Smith says:

    September 9th, 2013at 4:27 pm(#)

    The heads of the Art Academy were variously “Head”, “Dean”, from Noble’s time to over a century later, from 1869 until 1977 when the school was brought out from within the administration of the Cincinnati Art Museum. At that time Roger Williams became “Director” parallel to the Director of the Art Museum. Both reported independently to the Board of Trustees of the Cincinnati Museum Association, which governed both operating entities.

    Similarly, from my hire in 1994 through August 31, 1998, my title was Director. When the Art Academy legally separated from the CMA, effective September 1, 1998, my title was changed by the Board of Trustees to President in keeping with most academic institutions.