History in the making

The Art Academy of Cincinnati (AAC) has a long, enduring legacy that doesn’t always appear in the most likely of places. Rookwood Pottery, Columbia Records, the National Park Service, Play-Doh, the White House, and Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky, have all benefitted from the work of Academy alumni.


This coming weekend, on the cusp of its 150th anniversary, the Art Academy of Cincinnati is releasing a self-published book that traces its story from 1869 to the present day.


In AAC150: Make Art, Make a Difference, the AAC enlists the talents of local writer, historian and Cincinnati Enquirer archivist Jeff Suess, and Envoi designer Steve Weinstein. The resulting 150-page publication appears to tap into every dimension of the school’s community — alumni, faculty, and local partners — In order to capture high-quality images, artwork, anecdotes, and insights.


In addition to serving up a visual feast, AAC150 lays out a detailed, chronological narrative. Emerging in 1869 as the UC McMicken School of Design, the school’s earliest mission was to support local industry through design and decorative arts classes for blue-collar workers. Then came its shift toward the fine arts while attached to the Art Museum in Eden Park. While in this location, it absorbed influences from the European art scene (Munich in particular); saw the rise of commercial art and advertising in the post war years; trained many a war veteran on the G.I. Bill — including Charley Harper and John Ruthven — and ushered in the 21st century.


Then came its present-day Over-the-Rhine era. Long before Final Fridays, there were art walks. And long before Over-the-Rhine was attracting cultural visitors — or any visitors at all — the Art Academy left behind its hilltop perch and descended into a precarious urban neighborhood that had yet to rise and was still defined by the riots in 2001.


In 2005, the school established its independent campus in two adjacent warehouses, one of which was owned by the Art Museum for storage space and, at the time, partially occupied by BarrelHouse Brewing.


The two industrial buildings — now LEED-certified and adjoined by a sky-lit atrium — stand on the block of Jackson and Vine, with six stories of art studios, classrooms, and office space.


The school took a hit in the process of this transition, but here it is more than 10 years later, modeling the ever-evolving journey of a work in progress, this time at the epicenter of some seismic neighborhood shifts that have yielded, practically overnight, a burgeoning urban arts scene.


its present-day incarnation, the school is small, agile, and a “trans-disciplinary” independent college, encouraging fluidity between majors and mediums. And while its BFA degrees are defined by the studio arts — design, illustration, painting and drawing, photography, print media, sculpture, creative writing, art history, and film/video/audio — the school also emphasizes the liberal arts to nurture critical thinking, writing, and historical research.


With a healthy respect, even reverence, for the unknown and its latent possibilities, the Art Academy is bent on leaving space for experimentation, cross-pollination, and curiosity beyond a defined specialization.


The results are indeed less than predictable. While one graduate might move to Indiana and establish an independent studio in his garage (illustrator/animator Chris Sickels, 1996), another might be called upon to help navigate post-civil war reconstruction in Mogadishu, Somalia, or to help re-think refugee camp design in Kenya (Mitchell Sipus, 2004).


Anything is possible, it seems. Marketing director Amanda Parker-Wolery says that the overarching goal — and one that sets the school apart from others — is to nurture “divergent thinking” that can navigate “less predictable outcomes and pathways.” And to guide students toward their unique voice and capacity to do influential, visionary work in all contexts. Because the AAC believes the world needs it on every scale.


The Art Academy of Cincinnati is throwing its book release party for AAC150 on October 27th, 6-9pm, at Rookwood Pottery, 1920 Race St.

Read more articles by Sarah Dupee.

Sarah Dupee is a freelance writer, teacher, translator, and musician with a background in French and Francophone Studies.
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