The Art Academy's 10 years in OTR a story of potential realized but not yet fulfilled

When the Art of Academy of Cincinnati moved to its new location in Over-the-Rhine 10 years ago, it was ahead of the curve in showing faith in the neighborhood’s future.
The site itself was ruggedly, grittily post-industrial — a six-story building that had housed a printing company and an adjacent four-floor one that had been first a Shillito’s warehouse and then a Cincinnati Art Museum storage facility. They were both on Jackson Street extending north from 12th Street.
To see that as a prospective college campus — an art school — was visionary. Especially considering the Art Academy was leaving an idyllic “mansion on the hill” location in Eden Park, in a building adjoining the Cincinnati Art Museum.
The overall area around 1212 Jackson St., the Art Academy’s new address, was pretty tough, although there were signs of improvement.
Over-the-Rhine still was healing from the 2001 upheavals. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) hadn’t yet ramped up its massive intervention in the historic neighborhood’s dilapidated housing stock; Washington Park was considered too dangerous for evening visits; the streetcar was a memory rather than a vision of the future; and Main Street, which had blossomed as a bar/club destination in the 1990s, was struggling again.  
Now, of course, Over-the-Rhine’s renaissance has won international acclaim. And the Art Academy’s idea to combine the two buildings into one repurposed, L.E.E.D.-certified facility has come to be seen as both catalyst and symbol for the neighborhood’s recent progressive transformation.
“We like to think we were the pioneers who saw the potential here,” says John Sullivan, the Art Academy’s president since February 2012, when he arrived here after serving as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Nashville’s Watkins College of Art, Design & Film.
But the accolades aren’t money. And in some ways the Art Academy has given more to Over-the-Rhine — and Cincinnati — than it’s received in return.
Not long after the move, it found itself in bonded indebtedness after a capital campaign came up short during the Great Recession. And some parents were nervous about their children going there.
The worst of the money problems appears over now, Sullivan assures. But the school still needs to attract more students for its four-year degree-granting undergraduate program.
“If I had to think back on it, it’s been a rough move and there was the stigma of moving to Over-the-Rhine,” he says, noting that 85 percent of Art Academy students are from the Greater Cincinnati area. “People suddenly didn’t want to come to the Art Academy because of the new location. We still haven’t got past that stigma of having to move into a ‘fortress in the middle of Dodge City.’”
'A huge sense of legacy and history here'
The Art Academy had to leave its previous home. It and Cincinnati Art Museum, both part of the Cincinnati Museum Association, had agreed to sever the relationship that had existed between them since 1887 because they both needed to expand. (The Art Academy’s roots go back even further, to 1869, as the McMicken School of Design.)
The Art Academy left with a $14 million endowment as part of its split, according to Sullivan, and the Art Museum’s building on Jackson Street.
No longer a museum school, the private nonprofit Art Academy began a new chapter. The hope and expectation were that its future would be as remarkable as its past. The list of famous former students and teachers includes Frank Duveneck, Joseph Henry Sharp, Elizabeth Nourse, Ralston Crawford, Paul Chidlaw, Charley and Edie Harper (they met as students), album-cover illustrator Jim Flora, Op-Art pioneer Julian Stanczak and many more.
To mark the new beginning, the Art Academy sought to make a bold, creative statement with the adaptive reuse of the old buildings that were to be its new home. Because the floors of the two buildings aren’t naturally aligned, the architects, Baltimore’s Design Collective — working with input from faculty and students — joined the buildings with an expansive atrium featuring a black steel staircase.
The overall place is funky and chic like a SoHo loft, full of smartly integrated new spaces for classrooms, artist studios, galleries, a community room and offices. And its now-landmark outdoor neon “ART” sign, designed by the architects, looks like the marquee of one of the old long-gone downtown movie palaces.
The message to the community at large was clear: Cherish your architectural history, don’t destroy it.
Today’s Art Academy carefully maintains the “ghosts” of the past, like the yellow tape on the concrete floor that once marked the safety lines to help keep one’s distance from printing machinery.
“There’s a huge sense of legacy and history here,” Sullivan says. “We try to hold on to all the morsels we can.”
For some of those students who made the move in 2005, the rewards were thrilling.
“A year ahead of the move, I got an apartment downtown on Clay Street so I could be right around the corner and ready to go,” remembers Steve Kemple, who graduated in 2007. “One thing that was unexpected for me was how different the space felt, how much it affects everything and changed the dynamic of classes. I had kind of taken for granted the amount of history and psychic ruts that had been worn into the old space. All of a sudden you’re in a space where you don’t feel that. It was kind of like you just stepped off a building.”
Other recent graduates feel that way, too. If only that word would spread a little, Sullivan says — right now the school has a little over 200 students and needs 250.
“We’re sustainable at this level,” he says. “But in order to give us the kind of springiness in our operations where we can absorb a little bit of loss or accommodate an unexpected expense or do an additional build-out for a program, we need a little bit more revenue from tuition.
“But there’s another factor besides the economic one. You have to have enough of a student body to make the classroom dynamics be acceptable. You don’t want to be a teacher in front of a class of three students.”
The Art Academy needs accreditation in order for its students to receive government-supported loans for tuition payment. Sullivan is proud it’s accredited by two institutions, the regional Higher Learning Commission and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. (Besides the undergraduate degree program, the school offers a summertime Master of Arts in Art Education sequence, primarily for teachers who also want to make art.)
Although the cost for annual undergraduate tuition is about $27,000, 100 percent of Art Academy students get some sort of tuition assistance. Sullivan calls those, in essence, discounts off the “sticker price.”
'Man did it pay off!'
Sullivan arrived after a search to replace the president who supervised the 2005 move, Gregory Smith. The latter left in 2009 in what was labeled by The Enquirer as a “shake-up.”
Sullivan said the Art Academy is “light and tight” (a bicycling term) now. It paid off its mortgage in 2011, sold a third building (at 12th and Walnut Streets) to 3CDC for $500,000 in 2013, raised some $200,000 auctioning artwork by Chidlaw and Stanczak, made other cuts and is now virtually debt-free with an endowment valued at $1.6 million.
Under Sullivan’s aegis, the Art Academy has bought a revenue-generating parking lot and is looking to develop a vacant space on the first floor — at 12th and Jackson — where a brewpub used to be. But the right developer would have to have a community purpose that fits with the Art Academy, and Sullivan estimates build-out costs at $1.5 million.
“I hate sitting on top of 8,000 square feet of space on the money corner of Over-the-Rhine,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Over-the-Rhine move has necessitated a new, expanded teaching approach.
“This is the inner city, an urban landscape,” Sullivan says. “So we’re seeing a little bit of friction between the traditional methodologies and the new design and electronic methodologies. It’s very constructive and making us all up our game.”
One example of that growth involves the current pilot project involving film/videography, which someday could join design, illustration, painting and drawing, photography, print media and sculpture as a major. (Art history and creative writing currently are offered only as minors). The school is turning half of its traditional “wet photography” lab facilities over to film and video.
“We’ve already offered coursework,” Sullivan says. “Kids can come in and sign up for a course in animation, for example. I’ll tell you, some of the work produced here already with a minimal inventory of equipment and minimal amount of space has just been extraordinary. One kid is building wonderful little creatures out of sticks and balls and pieces of cloth and bringing them to life and having them do all this interaction. It was wonderful. So that’s telling me we picked the right time to move out into this and do it the right way.”
The positivity as the new school year begins extends to the faculty.
“The creative process involves risk-taking and the blurring of various borders, and … we needed to move down the hill so that we could extend beyond our walls to become part of a larger urban community,” explains Ken Henson, associate professor and head of illustration, in an email. “Those who remember Over-the-Rhine 10 years ago know what a risk it was for us to move down here. But man did it pay off!”
Really, that positivity can be seen even in the artwork displayed in Sullivan’s office. There is a spectacular Art Academy-owned Stanczak, a gift from the Drackett Corp., on the wall of his office, its colors vivid amid the sunlight streaming in from the windows. Sullivan is displaying just two of the five panels that comprise this important 1983 acrylic painting, “Medopher Five.”
If all the innovations and improvements work, and more students — and Cincinnati itself — discover what the Art Academy brings to its mission to educate tomorrow’s artists, growth could occur. The space can accommodate up to 350-375 students.
“If we got any larger than that, we’d have to start worrying what in world to do next,” Sullivan says. “We’d have to start moving into West Chester, into a strip mall.”

Read more articles by Steve Rosen.

Steve Rosen is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer who serves as CityBeat's Contributing Visual Arts Editor and is a frequent contributor to The Enquirer. His writing also appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Variety,, Western Art & Architecture, Paste and other publications and websites.