Life's purpose for Duncanson artist: 'Leave my portion of the world better than the way I found it'

On a recent Sunday evening at the Taft Museum of Art, cellist Anita Graef surveyed the audience and, holding her bow aloft like a staff, told the attendees of her love of the cello and how playing the instrument was one of her earliest memories.

It was at this performance, in partnership with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s distinguished Diversity Fellowship program, that the Taft welcomed Graef as the 36th Duncanson Artist-in-Residence. Graef has earned national recognition as an artist exploring traditional and contemporary works and has gained recognition for her commitment to service, outreach, and education.

During the concert, the Chicago musician moved swiftly between classical and contemporary works, covering Gershwin as well as Bach. In a classical music industry that encourages performers to be either/or, Anita has chosen to embrace both.

Graef was recently named as the 2022 Gheens Foundation Young Artist. In 2021, she was announced as the recipient of the American Prize in Instrumental Performance.

Born into a family of professional musicians, Graef grew up surrounded by music. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. She completed her work for a master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

“It’s such a treat and a privilege to take part in this program and to continue the artistry and legacy that has already been established,” Graef says. “Because I’ve received a lot of my formative training here in Cincinnati, while I’m here in this role, I’d like to give back, take what I have learned and spread that knowledge. I'd also like to share that connection.”

Themes of belonging, journey and history punctuated Graef’s two-week residency, which culminates April 29 with a collaborative concert at Covington’s Carnegie arts center at 7 PM.

“I feel that my purpose in life and on this planet is to leave my portion of the world better than the way I found it,” Graef explains, riffing off of advice given to her years ago from her grandfather. “Music is my way of doing that.”

Graef’s notable appearances include Strings magazine’s “Sessions” video performance series, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert series, and “Concerts from the Library of Congress.” She has performed as a guest on radio stations WQXR, WFMT, WGTE, WUOL, WOSU, and on NPR. Highlights from the 2022–2023 season include her New York debut with the Riverside Symphony; concerto appearances with the Louisville Orchestra, Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra and others; and recital appearances, including the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, Ojai’s Chamber on the Mountain, Kenyon College, the Nielsen Concert Series, and return appearances to “Live from WFMT” and “Temecula Presents.”

The Taft's Robert S. Duncanson Society was founded in 1986 by the late Doris Rankin Sells, the late William Joel McCray, and Ruth K. Meyer to affirm an ongoing African American presence within the structure of the museum. 

Over its more than three and a half decade history, The Taft’s annual residency program has selected prominent artists in their respective fields — invited by local and regional professional artists and Duncanson Society board members — to live and work in Cincinnati to enhance the area’s vibrancy as a center of artistic and creative expression.

The artist in residence program celebrates the area’s creative residents while attracting artists, thought leaders, and literary luminaries into the heart of downtown Cincinnati for lively discussions and artistic gatherings of all kinds to not only celebrate art at its core, but also celebrate the beauty of the African American diaspora. Recent artists in residence have included author Ajanae Dawkins in 2022, fashion designer Asha Ama Bias-Daniels in 2021, and film maker Ya'Ke Smith in 2019.

The program’s namesake, Robert Duncanson, was commissioned by Nicholas Longworth in the 19th century to paint landscape murals in the foyer of his home, now the Taft Museum.

Duncanson made a living working as a small-time artist, mostly in Detroit and here in Cincinnati. But in 1848, his career received a major boost when anti-slavery activist Charles Avery commissioned him, which led to a relationship with abolitionists who wanted to support black artists, and spurred a passion in Duncanson for landscape painting.

While he never overtly addressed racial issues in his paintings, subtle messages appear in works. In his “View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky,” Duncanson contrasts blacks laboring alongside the Ohio River on Kentucky’s slave plantations as whites lounge nearby.

Longworth's home was eventually purchased by David Sinton, father of museum co-founder. Anna Sinton Taft, married to Charles Phelps Taft (President William Howard Taft’s half-brother) rediscovered the home’s precious murals and elevated them to public works of art. She bequeathed the historic home and its private collection of 690 works of art to the people of Cincinnati in 1927. After extensive remodeling and updating, Anna Taft’s home was opened as the Taft Museum in 1932.
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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.