Artworks' monumental task

The old adage “History is written by the winners” needs to be retired. In this context, what does winning mean? Reducing societal evolution to a zero-sum game implies that some populations will inevitably suffer, facing exploitation and denial of equal rights, citizenship, or personhood.

In 2024, those in positions of political, cultural, and moral leadership must reframe social parameters. DEI must be more than just a trendy acronym or box to be checked; diversity, equity, and inclusion must drive the conversations of what, who, and how we celebrate our culture, and that we strive to celebrate the accomplishments of many societal segments. A high-school history teacher once eschewed the concept of our nation as a melting pot in favor of “hash,” meaning that vestiges of individual ingredients in the “dish” were still recognizable and distinct. This seems a more apropos metaphor for recognizing the many diverse cultures that comprise the American tapestry.

ArtWorks, a catalyst in the Queen City arts community since its 1996 inception, adopted this philosophical bent in undertaking the New Monuments Initiative (NMI), which followed the lead of Monument Lab’s National Monument Audit, which evaluated monuments and memorials across the U.S. The Audit reached the predictable conclusion that public art was disproportionately white and male, with a heavy emphasis on tributes to war and conquest.

ArtWorks’ Civic Studio, which strives to curate inclusive public art throughout Cincinnati, focused a local lens in its NMI approach. Under the direction of Asha White, the organization’s civic artist in residence for this project phase, and its advisory committee, the artists (young adults aged 18-24) logged 218 monuments – which entail sculptures, murals (including those produced by ArtWorks), memorial markers, and statues, among other forms of public art --  painstakingly categorized them by type, demographics, gender, and subject. The five most common focal points included local history, community identification or branding, war, education, and African American history.

From this NMI launch point, the Civic Studio implemented Arts-Based Research, an information-gathering system that, according to a Stanford Libraries quote ArtWorks cites, uses “naturalistic study of social meanings and processes using interviews, observations, and the analysis of text and images.” Throughout 2023, the Civic Studio collected input from 2,153 community members from a wide array of backgrounds. The process entailed 23 community engagement events, some of which were available to the general public, whereas others targeted specific populations, such as minority populations, homeless and low-income residents, and the elderly.
Not surprisingly, such a thorough canvassing of Cincinnatians unearthed myriad priorities and preferences.

These mock-ups created by the Civic Studio artists convey the team's goals and methodology.

Here’s a summary of the Top 5 among several categories:
What type of public art do you prefer?
  1. Murals
  2. Sculptures
  3. Statues
  4. Interactive Exhibits
  5. Fountains
What aspects of monuments are meaningful to you?
  1. Historical Significance
  2. Representative of Diversity
  3. Plaques
  4. Location
  5. Aesthetics
If you don’t feel personally represented by the monuments of Cincinnati, why not?
  1. Lack of women
  2. Lack of racial diversity
  3. Lack of LGBTQ+ representation
  4. Lack of religious, ethnic, or other cultural representation
  5. A combination of two or more of the above factors
The five most commonly mentioned themes:
  1. Love
  2. Places
  3. Connection/Togetherness
  4. Support
  5. Family/Friends
The five most commonly mentioned places:
  1. Downtown
  2. Ohio River
  3. Xavier
  4. UC
  5. Washington Park
The Civic Group's year-long efforts resulted in a presentation and celebration of the completed audit on January 27 at the Holloman Center for Social Justice, a part of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio. Several ArtWorks and community leaders spoke about the report’s significance. City Councilwoman Meeka Owens described the city’s monuments as “a living canvas that tells stories and invites connection.”

Asha facilitated a conversation with five Civic Group artists (see the full list of contributors below) about their most meaningful conversations. Caitlyn Hyland, a sophomore art major at Xavier, said her most meaningful experience was participating in an engagement session at the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which serves the visually impaired, when facilitators used puffy paint, which inflates to provide dimension, and tactile and oral methods to better connect with the sight-challenged population. Lia MacAskill, a senior medical sciences major at UC, added art therapy as a field of study because her participation made a profound impression on the importance of art on quality of life. Madison Lentz, a senior planning major at UC and a multimedia artist, reflected that inclusion entails mindfulness: “You have to start a conversation with your audience in mind. The words you use matter to encourage responses.”

Like a college graduation, this initiative isn’t a conclusion, but is beginning an exciting new phase in determining how we choose to frame Cincinnati’s narrative through the stories its public art tells. ArtWorks describes the second phase as monument creation and activation that’s anticipated to begin in 2025. ArtWorks hope to use the report’s findings to harness community, government, and funding support to locate, design, and create monuments that articulate stories of events, individuals, and places that capture the local imagination and reflect the broad patina of histories and experiences that enrich our community. The Civic Studio will be paused while ArtWorks fundraises for future New Monuments projects, with the goal of reviving it as Phase Two progresses toward fruition.

More About Asha White

Like many artists, Asha White’s career path was nonlinear. She graduated from UC with a bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations, but hadn’t earned admission into UC’s Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) program. She found a position in banking, and her career advanced to a role supervising 20 employees. However, she wasn’t happy.

“My work in banking was important in developing my leadership skills, but I wasn’t happy,” she said. “I didn’t feel like my work had a purpose.”

She began volunteering at Robin Imaging Services fine-art print shop, which eventually developed into a part-time role, and then gallery coordinator at The Mohawk Gallery. When COVID-19 shuttered the gallery, Asha immersed herself in her own artistic creations. Through her gallery connections, she was invited in summer 2020 to contribute a segment – the second T in “Matter” -- within the Black Lives Matter mural in front of City Hall on Plum Street.

“My goal for the mural was work that expressed my desire for women to be seen as equals, depicting women in both prestigious and relatable roles,” Asha said.
In December 2021, she was hired was at Civic Studio’s artist in residence. Most of the student artists had been hired by this time, but she had a role in hiring some replacements as attrition occurred.

“We were looking for a background beyond just artistic experience,” Asha said. “We wanted students who were civic-minded individuals who were interested in engaging the community in meaningful ways.”

During the process, White and the studio team refined their engagement. An early at ArtWorks’ V² Gallery in Walnut Hills was intended to reach neighborhood residents, but was largely attended by those already aligned with the organization.
“This helped us realize that we needed to improve our reach to nonprofit organizations that serve marginalized communities,” she said.

Considering Cincinnati’s current monument repertoire, Asha said her favorite is the Marian Spencer statue installed at The Banks. She noted the lack of monuments that paid homage to women, and researching Spencer’s career deepened her admiration for Spencer’s contributions to the Cincinnati community and civil rights.

Her dream monument would be a tableau that fully encapsulates the community’s diversity and the many communities that contribute to the city’s rich legacy and future.
January 31 was Asha’s last day as ArtWorks Civic Studio artist in residence, but she looks forward to a thriving year. She continues to teach art twice a week to elementary students in Covington, and will begin a new WavePool residency in March, and will be curating an exhibit at the Kennedy Hights Arts Center entitled Hearts of Liberation, which will be on display at Kennedy Heights Arts Center from May 4 through June.

Civic Studio Artists Group
  • Asha White, Civic Artist in Residence
  • Karla Batres Gilvin, Director of Community Impact
  • (student artists in alphabetical order)
  • Caitlyn Hyland, sophomore, Xavier
  • Madison Lentz, senior, UC
  • Lia MacAskill, senior, UC
  • Eve Miller, junior, UC
  • Zero Pruitt, sophomore, Art Academy of Cincinnati
  • Lexi Spurlock, junior, UC
  • Niya Steagall, Central State graduate
  • Aspen Stein
  • Claire Wagner, senior, UC
  • Coniah Zoogah, junior, Xavier
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.