Arts outreach and inspiration flow from city center to first ring suburbs

CSO, Cincinnati Playhouse, CAM, Cincinnati Ballet, CAC – the list goes on and on when calling to mind Cincinnati’s highly regarded arts scene. While the city has long held a reputation for the arts thanks to its strongholds, Cincinnati has become a hub for new, immersive, and collective experiences like BLINK and FotoFocus.

This energizing cultivation has helped bring the city into national view as a regional arts hotspot, drawing commerce from near and far. Brimming with beautiful murals, diverse music venues and quaint eateries with art-lined walls courtesy of up-and-coming locals, the overall Cincinnati arts vibe is charmingly unique and enticing.

As with other activity and developments near the city’s core, the arts pulse extends outward to the furthest corners of the Queen City’s first ring suburbs. Excitement is generating in waves that can be felt from Wyoming to West Chester to Montgomery to Madeira. Community theater groups put on shows starring the local mayor, adding an extra dash of native camaraderie to the mix. Older residents watching their grandchildren’s performances are inspired to put on their own Christmas concerts. Youth from various area high schools gather in nature for a Plein Air Art Competition. All around the region, art is inspiring and connecting communities and generations in unexpected ways.

Amazing progress is being made at the Sharonville Cultural Arts Center. Its theater is being modernized with an upgrade to all new digital lighting and sound. Additionally, a deck behind the gallery space and an updated handicap ramp are currently being built. These amenities are four years in the making.

The pandemic not only delayed such improvements but practically shut down the nonprofit due to most of its volunteers being seniors. The long-awaited upgrades will improve accessibility and enhance the overall experience for artists and patrons alike. SCAC Development Director Matthew Taylor is excited for the changes, to say the least.

“I worked for 11 years at Playhouse in the Park, on the professional staff there. For me, it's bringing the equipment up to the kind of stuff I'm used to working with in some of the places I worked at before,” says Taylor. “And that will take us from 20th century lighting – almost 19th century theater lighting – into modern day lighting and sound. It's really a change for the place.”

Beyond his expertise with high quality sound and lighting, Taylor says he also brought with him an emphasis on outreach gleaned from his previous roles. He hopes to bring SCAC’s performances to schools and retirement communities just as larger art organizations he’s familiar with have done for years.

“We've got an art gallery; got a theater—we've got a rehearsal space and another space upstairs where people come and have a party or do a thing,” recognizes Taylor. “So we've got some space where we can have things done, but we also want to send things out into schools. And I would still say that there's plenty of room for that kind of outreach.”

Taylor is proud of the community connections that have been formed by the very nature of the space’s utilization. He says that various groups crossing paths have inspired one another to take on different artistic challenges due to their close proximity in the building.

“A children's theater program was kind of the primary focus of the building, and the art gallery served an older population when we first arrived,” says Taylor, referring to himself and his wife, Executive Director Michelle Taylor, who are the first and only actual employees SCAC has ever had. “The artists were all over the age of 65, and what we've managed to do is get older people interested in theater and to get younger people interested in art.”

The help of SCAC’s involved and inspiring board members has also pushed the envelope towards connecting the surrounding community and joining different generations of artists. 

“Princeton's superintendent is a board member, and he's been very active and very helpful,” continues Taylor. “And in fact, next month’s art show is going to be the Princeton Young Artists show that we've had. It will be our fourth annual.”

SCAC’s theater programs are not only community-oriented, but place a large emphasis on family bonds. In fact, family members often perform together.

“We've got a local judge that acts in the shows and he comes with his daughter and they're both in the shows. We've had council members. The former mayor, who is on our board, has been in our shows. So we've got lots of community folks who are involved in this place and not just giving money, but also participating – acting, making art, showing stuff.”

Taylor says that while he realizes the larger organizations closer to the city get the lion’s share of available grants and funding, he’s far from jealous. He is elated to have the support of local community members and businesses from Sharonville and neighboring areas such as West Chester.

“Folks have a vested interest in supporting us because they're on our board and they act in our shows. Even though we're part of a big city—we've got a big city zip code—but we have a small-town feel.”

He’s also glad that some of that city-centered support does come SCAC’s way thanks to arts support powerhouses like ArtsWave.

Arts & culture funding legacy

ArtsWave, formerly known as the Fine Arts Fund, adopted its new moniker in 2010, but has been around since 1927 when an endowment was created by Charles P. and Anna Sinton Taft. The goal was for Cincinnati to distinguish itself through its arts and cultural assets.

By 1949, the organization was the first of its kind in the nation to have a community-wide arts campaign. Initial support was directed at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Art Museum, the Taft Museum, and the Cincinnati Opera.

Expansion of support in the 70’s bolstered the CAC, Playhouse in the Park, May Festival and Cincinnati Ballet; and offered one-time grants for smaller, emerging arts organizations. Fostering these fledgling galleries and studios through workshops, volunteers and other resources, the fund ignited the arts and spurred cultural growth throughout the city.

Gaining support through an annual campaign and producing groundbreaking research on building community support made The Fine Arts Fund a national model for generating community support. Incorporating marketing strategies aimed at regional tourism and transforming its own image with the updated ArtsWave brand, the organization has not only expanded its reach locally – branching beyond the confines of the city to neighboring areas such as Sharonville’s SCAC – but outward, pulling in dollars from regional and national tourism to help further its mission.

Keeping local arts afloat through the COVID-19 pandemic by disbursing essential aid, ArtsWave went beyond being instrumental in building and sustaining Cincinnati’s incredible arts scene, but also helped to rescue it from the perils faced by many cultural entities in light of widespread pandemic shutdown.

Similarly, to SCAC, the Wyoming Fine Arts Center is another organization that is grateful to have received funding through ArtsWave.

“We have had some really successful students come out. Outside of the downtown area there is a rich arts scene, and it's getting better and better with more support that we get from places like ArtsWave,” says Ramona Toussaint, Executive Director for WFAC.

Toussaint was hired into her current position in July based largely on her expertise in fundraising and community engagement. She’s amazed by the accomplishments of the community of artists working in the building and excited to expand the benefits of being a part of that cooperative spirit to WFAC’s dedicated employees.

She says the center supports its staff in the form of scheduling, phone reception, marketing, bonuses and other benefits in lieu of perks the organization can’t provide – such as health insurance. WFAC appreciates that its resident instructors are not only employees, but are also local artists who are working various gigs and trying to stay afloat.

Expanding outreach beyond Wyoming is part of Toussaint’s master plan to get the center in a good place financially. The pandemic opened her eyes to the positive energy, resourcefulness and creativity flowing out of WFAC. She testifies that the handling of such a crisis by an organization that was run strictly by artists at the time was sublime and inspiring.

“When COVID happened, everybody shut down. Like, no theater, right?” jests Toussaint. “We closed for a little while. But we found a way to reopen with our protocols. Our COVID protocols were actually adopted by other organizations.”

In 2020, day-to-day operations switched from musical and art instruction to serving as a home away from home for local children attempting to do remote learning. Providing organization and structure while employing necessary safety measures, WFAC saw that the children could attend to their studies in a routine fashion similar to their school setting, and parents could have necessary respite to work from home. Families were lucky enough to experience near normalcy within a regional and national landscape of isolation and unmatched stress.

“Because we were open, we were able to be a resource to others. We connected with reels on wheels. We did movie night in our parking lot. We connected to the Cincinnati Opera and did outside performances, because they had no place to perform anymore, because we were functioning. We became this resource to all these parents and families in the community,” says Toussaint.

“So we're trying to do a lot of outreach right now – this idea of being a community center and becoming more of an asset,” sums Toussaint, in light of that success. This wasn’t a success in terms of financial stability, she acknowledges. However, she hopes that through greater outreach WFAC can cultivate its resources based on that model.

“I mean, we lost tons of money. It wasn't necessarily profitable,” admits Toussaint. “But that wasn't the point. The point is that we turned into a community asset and I've heard parents just go, ‘Oh my gosh, you saved my life.’”

According to Toussaint, only 47% of residential homes in Wyoming have school-aged children, so a large portion of their students are coming in from surrounding areas to take part in the renowned arts education offered there. Many of WFAC’s educators have been on staff for nearly 30 years, and the center was the first to offer a Suzuki learning program in the state of Ohio. She hopes to continue increasing the organization’s reach, drawing others to Wyoming to experience not only the newly expanded offerings at WFAC, but the city’s other charms and amenities as well.

132-year-old art club partners with heritage farm 

Nicole Gunderman is the Executive Director of Gorman Heritage Farm in Evendale. While the farm is not necessarily thought of as an arts institution, Gunderman says she recognizes it as an influence on the arts due to its beauty and accessibility.

“We are a site that attracts artists in general because, being so close to the city, we're pretty accessible. People will either paint or photograph our gardens, our fields, our animals, that sort of thing,” says Gunderman.  “We've also participated with the Evendale Cultural Arts Center in various ways. We do a photo focus day with them during in the fall where participants use the farm as a location for their photography. And we are also planning an open-air painting event in June.”

On September 24th and 25th, Gorman will host area high school students in a Plein Air Art Competition organized by the Cincinnati Art Club. Talented budding artists selected by area teachers at schools from across the area will have the opportunity to compete, showing off their skills by painting beautiful natural scenes around the farm. Different stations attended by members of the Cincinnati Art Club will offer students breathtaking subjects as the focus of their pieces.

“Our children's garden right now – I mean, it's a riot of blooms and buzzing pollinators and it's just so beautiful. And then, they're at the springhouse, which is such an idyllic little setting with the sunflowers in the lower field – that'll be really pretty to be able to have some flowers in front of the bank barn,” Gunderman elaborates, dreamily. “The third station is up in the farmyard, which of course has our historic structures. The bank barn was built in 1835. The alfalfa barn was built in 1911. And then, of course, the adorable farm animals can be part of the painting as well.”

Gunderman’s enthusiasm for the upcoming art contest is palpable, but pales in comparison to her excitement for an event happening the following weekend at Gorman – the annual Sunflower Festival.

“One of the reasons that I think the art club wanted that weekend of the 24th and 25th here at Gorman Heritage Farm is because our sunflower fields will be starting to bloom in preparation for the Sunflower Festival,” explains Gunderman. “It’s the weekend of the year when we are able to welcome the largest numbers. The sunflower fields will bloom and there will just be a lot of fun things to do at that event and also a lot of beauty.”

This year’s Sunflower Festival takes place on October 1st and 2nd. Gunderman encourages amateur photographers and other visual artists, as well as those who simply enjoy taking in natural beauty to attend this spectacular opening, where the art of nature will be on display in the picturesque gallery of Gorman Heritage Farm.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.