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148-year-old Art Academy reflects on building a Cincinnati where art grads want to stay

3D printed figures by Art Academy student Kane Sargent.

From left: AAC grads Kim Flora, Jim Effler, Ran Mullins and Elyse Johnson

Art Academy of Cincinati

AAC students and alumni gather for the 30th annual Minumental exhibition.

Graduate Kim Flora believes AAC fosters a community for both old and new artists in Cincinnati.


While local business continues to factor greatly into Greater Cincinnati’s transformation of recent years, much of that growth — its cultural implications in particular — can be attributed to the Art Academy of Cincinnati, an unmatched provider of arts education in the region and beyond.

Many celebrated artists have come through AAC in the school’s 148-year history, shaping our scene as well as those of larger cities. As an AAC instructor, celebrated painter Frank Duveneck taught industrial designer Russel Wright and portraitist M. Jean McLane, both of whom would go on to international acclaim. Later, famous grad Charley Harper would hone his signature modernist style while also living, working and teaching here.

Now, after decades of creative flight that for a time threatened Cincinnati's creative identity, AAC administration looks toward a landmark anniversary, myriad successes and one particular point of pride: the growing number of graduates who are choosing to stay in Cincinnati, thanks to a reemerging arts scene and institutionally forged partnerships that have broadened the availability of sustainable local jobs for visual artists.

In 2016, Xavier University’s Community Building Institute released a community impact study showing that AAC contributes about $1.9 million to the local economy each year. The study also showed that more than 120 local companies currently employ AAC students and graduates — nearly double the number reported in 2005, when AAC relocated from Mt. Adams to Over-the-Rhine.

Those local employers — which include art galleries, marketing agencies and a number of retail providers — make all the difference in grads' choice to remain in Cincinnati, according to AAC vice president Joan Kaup.

“Cincinnati has evolved creatively to the point that it's less necessary for artists to leave for footholds elsewhere,” Kaup says. “We are seeing a trend that more of our alumni choose to stay in Cincinnati, where young people are encouraged and artists have an opportunity to make a difference with their art.”

AAC grads learn networking skills for the gallery and beyond
 

AAC graduate and visual artist Kim Flora came from Baltimore to attend AAC after visiting many art schools across the country. She graduated in 2004 with a focus in painting and art history, and, finding Cincinnati to be a good fit, she chose to stay.

“I am certainly glad I stuck around,” says Flora, who believes Cincinnati’s size lends to a close-knit arts community where both new and old talent can feel at home. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to enjoy this revitalized city.”

Her AAC connections have led Flora to people like Chris Williams, who helped her land her first job with Cincinnati Art Museum’s Exhibition Design and Installation Department.

“After starting as a preparator, I now manage that same design and installation department I interned for,” says Flora. She supports herself with gallery and museum work and will be showing six pieces in The Return to Beauty: Asian Influences on Contemporary Landscape at the Cincinnati Art Galleries beginning in March.

Jennifer Grote is another AAC grad who has found a niche in local galleries. Grote, who graduated in 2003, operated a corporate gallery space on Pete Rose Way before switching gears to paint and curate shows. She now serves on AAC’s alumni association council, striving to create opportunities for students throughout the creative process and career search.

“The Art Academy has been a staple for this environment by encouraging people to seek their voice and have the courage to share it with the community,” Grote says.

But galleries are hardly the only professional foothold available to Cincinnati’s growing number of young visual artists.

After graduating from AAC in 1992, Ran Mullins started Relequint, an inbound digital B2B marketing agency located downtown. Later, he helped found Metaphor web design studio and Cleriti and Allegori agencies, joining larger marketing firms like Curiosity, Barefoot Proximity and Envoi Design in expanding Cincinnati’s digital design footprint.

“Cincinnati continues to be a great market for those involved in branding, marketing and consumer understanding, with multiple opportunities in creative career advancement versus other cities,” says Mullins.

Professional illustrator Jim Effler agrees that Cincinnati is a good size for young professionals who want to grow in business. “It is big enough to offer work opportunities, but without some of the headaches of larger cities,” he says.

A former teacher at AAC, Miami University and Mount St. Joseph University, Effler is currently creating a portrait to be hung in renovated Music Hall, commemorating Robert Porco’s 25th year as director of the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus.

Ambassadorship: the key to Cincinnati’s creative future

While more and more creatives are choosing to stay put, thanks to an era of transformation that has brought unprecedented economic growth and a shift in cultural attitudes, many grads are still seduced by opportunities in cities like Chicago and New York. Art Academy President John Sullivan believes that's a testament to the education students receive.

“We do a good job of introducing our students to the art world, particularly what is to be found in NYC, so some of them want to go out into the world to try their hand,” Sullivan says. But he admits that the broader arts community in Cincinnati could be doing much more to sing its own praises and retain talent. “We are not a city that values the visual arts like other cities do.”

Manifest Gallery executive director Jason Franz adds that Cincinnati artists need to be better advocates for one another.

While giving a seminar at AAC in 1998, Franz posed the question: Why are so many students leaving Cincinnati after graduation? When one person answered that there wasn’t anything going on in this city, Franz responded simply, “It’s because people like you leave.” 

Franz believes those who choose to stay here should take root in the culture. That's why, since its founding in 2004, the nonprofit, community-facing Manifest has shown work by 2,283 artists from all 50 states and 40 different countries, as well as from 184 different academic institutions from all over the United States.

“I wanted to accept the responsibility for adding the creative value I thought the world needed, where it was needed — here,” says Franz. “Not only did these results happen because someone stayed in Cincinnati, and because of conversations with people who wanted to leave; they happened because people around the world were interested in the value being placed and cultivated here."
 

Read more articles by Erin Pierce.

Erin Pierce is a contributing writer for Soapbox, and a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University.
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