ArtsWave: the Engine for Arts in Greater Cincinnati

January 2nd, 2022  |  Published in December 2021

You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to see first-rate productions. They are right here. ArtsWave plays a crucial role in support of arts in Greater Cincinnati helping it succeed as a region. It is the first and largest united arts fund in the county.

The arts bring us joy, an escape from everyday living, and a broader perspective of the world.

In this article I focus on a few of ArtsWave programs and funds as well as give examples of recipients such as the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, African American artist Brent L. Billingsley and Clifton Cultural Arts Center. ArtsWave funded more than 100 organizations and artists in the Tri-State area in 2021 with significant contributions.

In an era of the pandemic, the community missed the arts. Many arts organizations pivoted quickly to offer virtual productions, Zoom events, streaming and podcasts to meet the demand for entertainment.

ArtsWave stepped up to the plate and recommenced or distributed nearly $8,000,000 in pandemic relief funding. Nearly $300,000 was earmarked for artists.  The city of Cincinnati, the Kent and Martha Savage Family Charitable Fund and generous donors made funds available.

Alecia Kintner, ArtsWave president and chief executive officer, said, “We’ve appreciated the joy of the arts in entirely new ways. The importance of sustaining our collective community and humanity has never been more profound. Many Americans believe that arts are a common connector.”

Those of us who thrive on the arts are now able to get out and see exhibits, museums, dance, theater and music performances giving us the opportunity to enjoy what Greater Cincinnati offers.

Mary McCullough-Hudson, former ArtsWave president and chief executive officer, called Kintner to interview for her position when McCullough-Hudson decided to retire after 35 years. She first declined, but reconsidered and interviewed. “I felt the energy of the city,” Kintner said. “It was a hard decision to leave New England, but the recruiter said if you want to lead the nation’s largest arts fund, here it is.”

Beginning in 2014, Kintner assumed her new role. She led the organization to continue to provide much-needed funding to the arts. In some cases, without the support of ArtsWave, organizations and artists would be hurting financially.

In addition to supporting major arts institutions such as Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Art Museum, ArtsWave provides funding to smaller organizations such as Band in a Bus, Church of Our Saviour/La Iglesia de Nuestra Salvador, Corryville Suzuki Project, ERS Affordable Living, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum, Behringer-Crawford Museum, The Carnegie, Chase Elementary School and Sunset Players.

As a result, “The nonprofit arts sector in the Cincinnati region created $300 million in annual economic impact through jobs, direct spending and audience spending on dining, lodging, parking and more,” according to the 2021 community report.

Kintner added, “Public art helps create values of the city, celebrates artists and gives it a sense of place.” “The arts attract national acclaim and drive tourism. They make our region a more attractive place to live and work. They bring vitality to our neighborhoods. They foster creativity and learning in our future leaders. They even help bring us together as a community across cultural divides,” according to ArtsWave’s website. “With funding, services, and advocacy, ArtsWave fuels a more vibrant regional economy and connected community through the arts.”

One of ArtsWave major recipients is the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, an 85,000-square-feet building designed by architect Zaha Hadid. The center is currently led by Marcus E. Margerum, deputy director and chief business officer (interim director), who joined the organization on March 1, 2021 in a newly created position. He assumed responsibility for overseeing business management of the institution, including all administrative, operational and financial matters.

When he interviewed with the center, he became fascinated with its rich history beginning in 1939. He liked his new experience in the arts industry. In addition, he found the role of the chief business officer interesting.

One of the first calls he made was to ArtsWave, a major funder of the center.  Margerum said that the center receives $300,000 from ArtsWave every year.

“Without their support,” Margerum said, “Arts organizations would have gone under.” He noted that ArtsWave promotes great arts in the city, helps bring families to Cincinnati and adds to the quality of life. He finds the art scene in Cincinnati diverse.

When former Alice and Harris Weston Director Raphaela Platow became executive director of The Speed Museum in Louisville in June 2021, Margerum agreed to serve as interim director while the board does a national search for a director. He added he would make the determination whether to put his hat in the ring once the board determines what it is looking for in its senior leadership role.

Before joining the center, he held several key community leadership positions in Atlanta, including vice president of government and community affairs at the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. Raised in Chicago, Illinois, Margerum attended Hampton University and received his MBA in marketing from Clark Atlantic University. In this position, he brings his background in business analysis and marketing principles to the forefront.

“We bring a different voice,” Margerum said. “The exhibitions are new with contemporary artists, free to the public. We work closely with other arts institutions. We want a more collaborative approach and drive our attendance.”

“People aren’t working downtown,” Margerum said. “We’re still leveling out from COVID. Hopefully, next year things will open. This uncertainty hurts our attendance,” he said. Masks and proof of vaccination are required for general exhibits. The center was closed for two months and went online. “It was a huge shift,” said Margerum. “We were in survival mode,” he added. Now, the center is open Wednesday through Sunday and has a full house with three exhibits.

In the summer of 2022 the sixth floor of the center, originally called the UnMuseum, will open as the Creativity Center with a $4.9 million renovation. There will be space for educational programs as well as a place for artists to come and work in a studio setting.

A good example of ArtsWave supporting diversity in the arts is artist Brent Billingsley 46, an African-American who received several grants from the organization.. One example was $2,000 as part of the compensation for the Black Lives Matter Mural Artist in 2020.

A Catalyzing Impact Grant of $5,000 was made in 2021 for Billingsley’s organization ARTE (ART Empowerment). The project title was Painted Pieces of Truth and Spoken Words of Reconciliation Day of Artistic Celebration. It involved creating 30 iconic portable murals done in pieces by different communities or organizations to be displayed at different venues.  Subjects included numerous figures from Abe Lincoln to Barack Obama. The murals hung at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Strauss Art Gallery in Hamilton will feature the images at the beginning of February in 2022.

For 2022 Billngsley received $15,000 for a Truth & Reconciliation Project Grant for Black and Brown Artists titled “I’m Listening.” It deals with law enforcement and community engagement. He has a liaison with the five police districts in Cincinnati and wants to create a safe space for them to engage youth in the community for a four-month duration period.  The goals are to build relationships, empower one another, have needed conversations and use art to accomplish this feat.

Billingsley said Janice Liebenberg, director, Equitable Arts Advancement and Community Campaign of ArtsWave, has supported him throughout the process of creating art. “She’s a big reason why I have been so successful,” he said.

Billingsley came into art later in life. After a technical career, he took a buyout package from Ford Company and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Miami University in 2013. That said, he needed to earn a living, so he pursued a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Cincinnati in 2015. With that background, he was eventually able to find a job as a full-time behavioral specialist and medical artist at Children’s Hospital Medical Center where he works now. Billingsley believes the world can be changed through art one piece at a time.

Another recipient of ArtsWave funds is Clifton Cultural Arts Center, which is temporarily located in a 6,000-square-feet space rented from the University of Cincinnati at 2728 Short Vine Street in Corryville. Plans for a new building in the area are in the works.

Executive Director Leslie Mooney refers to the economic impact arts organizations have brought more people to attend arts events. “It makes for a well-supported arts community,” she said.

Mooney talked about the impact of ArtsWave. “They spent a lot of time rebranding Fine Arts Fund to ArtsWave. The changeover affected us positively, specifically having more accessibility to art experiences and keeping costs low for classes. They changed their funding model by using unrestricted operating funding.”

“ArtsWave support is critical. In the $38,000 range, it represents 10% of our budget of approximately $400,000.  It would be difficult to replace the income stream,” Mooney said.

Mooney said CCAC is a collaborative, inclusive multi-venue arts center for children, families, adults and seniors as well as hosting established and emerging artists. “CCAC is a community center that uses arts and culture as a vehicle to bring people together,” She added.

“It is in a location where it serves the variety of demographics that we serve, ” said Mooney. There is racial and socio-economical diversity in an area that has students, young employees and retirees. In addition to its Short Vine location, the center has a gallery on Calhoun Street in Clifton Heights and rents space for a variety of arts classes from Every Nation Church and Clifton United Methodist Church, both on Clifton Avenue. CCAC has ten to twelve exhibits each year bringing in about 40,000 visitors.

Now, CCAC is building a brand-new structure. It has a purchase agreement on property next to Clifton United Methodist Church. Skanska, a local construction company, will build the $9 million project with architecture by Emersion DESIGN, LLC. Plans call for an 18,000-square-feet, three-story modern building with brick and glass. To date, CCCAC has raised $7 million. Focus groups continue to decide on gallery space for classrooms, dance, music, writing and performance. Mooney hopes that the new building will draw 50,000 guests in the first few years.

“Few community arts organizations get to build a new center,” Mooney said, who lives with her family in Clifton. “I felt it was an opportunity to make a difference in a community where I lived,” she said. It was important for her to have a work/life balance, but she enjoys talking with people and soliciting. Mooney has a B.A. in history from Georgetown College in Kentucky and a M.A. in history from Northeastern University in Massachusetts.

–Laura Hobson

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