My Soapbox: Cate Yellig, Art Director, City of Covington

In Covington's Artisan Enterprise Center, Cate Yellig perches on a blue exercise ball, typing at her desk. Yellig, 31, is the new art director for the City of Covington. Her path to self-discovery has taken her around the world—from Italy to India—and finally lead her to a love for art and community development. 

Yellig earned a degree in international studies from Ohio University before coming back to get her masters in art history from the college of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning at the University of Cincinnati. On the job less than a month, the Cincinnati native took the time to talk with Soapbox about her experiences and her hopes for the future. 

Q: What in your life has caused you to become so passionate about art in the community?

A: So, funny story. I was an actuarial science major for my first three years of college, until I took my first art history class and had the awesome opportunity to study abroad in Italy. I realized at that point in time that as good as I am at math, it wasn’t my passion. As I was standing in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, I told my professor how unhappy and displeased I was with school, and she asked me why I wasn’t considering becoming an art historian.  

It was almost like I had an epiphany in front of St. Peter’s. I came home after studying abroad, and told my dad that I was going to be an art historian, and of course, he said, ‘No you’re not, you’re going to get a degree that pays the bills.’ And rightfully so. 

That’s how I found international studies. It allowed me to take art, business, geography, geology and political science courses. It was challenging but it was awesome. I think that really spearheaded my interest in foreign policy; I have more of a global perspective on things. I am excited to bring a lot of that here with me.

Q: You recently made a big shift from working at The Phyllis Weston Gallery in O’Bryonville to art director of Covington—how does that indicate what your professional trajectory is?

A: It’s really interesting because I have found that my interests are going so much more in the direction of economic development. I’ve always been very involved in community engagement and building collaborations across multi-disciplinary groups and organizations. It seems like a natural progression for me. 

Having a profound understanding of the commercial environment is very good. I grew up working in a small business environment; Phyllis Weston was a small enterprise. Having the understanding of management and operations is really helpful; however, I think that for the arts to survive and thrive, you have to find very innovative ways to do that. I think Covington has figured out a really cool municipal model for the arts. It not only proves the city's long term dedication to the arts initiative, but it’s one that’s very avant garde. My role is not dependent on the sale of artwork.

Q: What are bringing from your experience at The Phyllis Weston Gallery?

A: A very profound love of the arts. Phyllis was an amazing mentor. She has this rich, long history behind her, and I was very fortunate to get to work with her for such a long period of time. 

She’s like this iconic book of history from the 20th century. It was all very inspiring. 

I hope to achieve a very small portion of that during my lifetime. On top of that, Phyllis taught me how to be a very good businesswoman and to operate with integrity. She really appreciated the global outlook I had on things. 

For example, I went to India to curate a contemporary Indian art exhibit. Not only was that an amazing experience, but I learned how to manage projects and work with various communities and cultures. I think it’s great to have a global perspective, but it’s immensely important to give back to your local community. Being from Cincinnati, I genuinely believe that the art that is being made here can compete on national and international scales. It is really amazing to be a part of it. 

Q: What lead you to becoming the art director for Covington? What kinds of steps did you take that prepared you for this role?

A: Growing up, my family was determined to make me profitable. My family owns Soulmates Jewelry in Cincinnati. I worked there for about 10 years. Not only did I learn how to talk to people, but also how to be a bench-jeweler. It taught me an appreciation for craftsmanship, helped develop my love for things that are beautiful and gave me an eye for detail. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, but I can build things. On top of that, I can use a blowtorch.

Q: How many other cities do you know of that have art directors?

A: This is a really rare opportunity. There are other cities that have art directors, but they’re often hired through a nonprofit, whereas my role is funded by the general operating budget for the city. It allows a unique opportunity to promote arts and cultural happenings while also being the voice on behalf of our stakeholders. In addition to that, by having a municipally backed art director, it proves that the City of Covington takes a serious look at art and its integral part in the community.

Q: What are your thoughts about the role of art in revitalization, and how does that impact Covington?

A: Part of what my role is is to promote all of the arts—to say yes to art. I think when you have a thriving art scene, not only does it make the area attractive and interesting, but it promotes the vibrancy of the city. 

I’m looking forward to promoting this beautiful history of Covington, and the very diverse character not only of the neighborhoods but of the people that live here. By expressing an artistic connection, you can really create an environment that is conducive to a thriving economy.

Q: What are you most excited about?

A: Learning more about Covington—there is so much energy down here. The spirit of collaboration and partnership is exciting and inspiring. Everybody has been really supportive. I’m excited to integrate the arts initiative more into the economic development of the city.

Q: What are some challenges you face?

A: Resources and funding. People are not spending money on the arts like they once were. But as I said, my role is not dependent on the sale of artwork. If we can come up with more innovative programming, then we can do more and more. I think it’s just a matter of monetary resources. I would love to be able to pay someone to be a social media intern, so I’m not Facebook-ing all the time.

Q: Soapbox published an article on Urban Impresario back in November, a nonprofit for promoting emerging artists. Are you still involved with Urban Impresario?

A: Urban Impresario is more of a creative impact agency. We look at any kind of urban artist—photographers, musicians, visual artists, performers—and the idea is to provide professional development for them. Once they go through that educational program, we then provide economic opportunities through placement and connections. 

I think that the educational and developmental component of teaching urban creatives how to be entrepreneurial is hugely important for sustainability in the arts. That is a vastly different component than what I’m doing now. If you think about the title of this place, The Artisan Enterprise Center, it’s all about promoting the arts through enterprise. 

Q: What is the best kept secret of Covington?

A: The AEC. This is a beautiful, 5,000-square-foot gallery that is open to the public. I’m so excited about it.

Q: Do you have any advice for young professionals like yourself? 

A: I grew up in Cincinnati when it had become this hollow shell of itself. My dad used to have a boat on the river, but you’d never spend much time downtown. You wouldn’t be downtown at night, other than for a baseball game. 

But now, it’s bustling with activity and young people. Young professionals are coming back to the urban areas and starting cool companies. They’re not going to New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago—they’re staying here and thriving. 

I think it’s important to take a responsible role in your community and give back. Our communities are what made us the people that we are. Whether it’s through mentoring or volunteering or going out and shopping local, it’s how we’re all going to survive, sustain and thrive. Now that I’m here and getting further and further into my career, it’s an awesome place to live.

I’m really glad that I’m here.

Kelsey Kennedy is a journalism student at the University of Cincinnati and editorial and social media intern at Soapbox Media.