Artist and founding director Toilynn O'Neal-Turner leads ROMAC's preservation and transformation

Traditionally, Cincinnati art has consisted of European focused pieces. But in recent years, the region’s art scene has made a strategic try to re-imagine its role in raising up past looked-over great works of art created by African Americans. When peeling back the layers of former wrongs, Toilynn O’Neal-Turner was able to identify a swath of different colors at play. 

O’Neal-Turner is the founder and chief curator for the Robert O’Neal Multicultural Arts Center. For the now open, “Robert O’Neal: Open to All” exhibit on display at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, she worked with Stephanie Kang, independent curator and assistant professor, Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, Denver, to select critical works created from the incredible cache of artwork from her late father, Robert O’Neal. The exhibit, which runs through September 24, 2023, shines a light on the artist-activist who worked outside of the dominant white, middle-class narrative. 

O’Neal-Turner’s eye for art and the message that it conveys makes her divinely aligned for the career path she chose as an art curator. Technically, an art curator is a professional who outfits galleries with pieces for exhibitions but beyond that, the true calling of a curator is to create a space for a vision which transcends what the naked eye can see.

A native of Cincinnati, O’Neal-Turner was born into a family who existed where art and community intersected. Though her mother was a histologic technician at the University of Cincinnati, her father, Robert O’Neal, helped to meld art with community engagement. 

All throughout his rich life, Robert O’Neal traversed in and around Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, becoming a fixture in the region’s local arts community. For over five decades, before his passing in 2018, O’Neal created works that represented the rich histories of Greater Cincinnati’s African American neighborhoods.

Much of that work took place at the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati, a West End arts institution that provided art education to the community, carving out space for performances and exhibitions for artists and O'Neal's daughter now wants to revive its spirit. 

But artistic aspiration was not always on the forefront of O’Neal-Turner’s mind. “I originally wanted to be a zoologist,” said O’Neal-Turner. “As a kid, though I was always very comfortable in the art world, I didn’t really see myself as making a living just through my art. I always wanted to be a Black scientist, so when I entered The Ohio State University, I majored in zoology but only minored in art.” 

Deciding to put a temporary hold on her zoological aspirations, O’Neal-Turner returned to Cincinnati to work with her father and to hone her education in art curation, something that was seldom heard of or spoken about in Black circles, but O’Neal-Turner knew it was the path for her.

“Back then we didn’t look at ourselves as a social service agency, because we lived it,” said O’Neal-Turner when asked about her time working with her father at the Arts Consortium of Cincinnati. “We made an impact with community involvement by creating a safe space where ideas could be shared.”

According to data provided by Zippia, an online job placement tool, 59.6% of all curators are women, while 40.4% are men. The average age of an employed curator is 44 years old. The most common ethnicity of curators is White (80.0%), followed by Hispanic or Latino (8.0%), Black or African American (4.4%) and Asian (4.3%).

So, literally to be, Black, a woman and an art curator is indeed incredibly rare. Fortunately, O’Neal-Turner is able to transcend traditional barriers by creating her own opportunities, while working with like-minded organizations who share her vision of creative empowerment like The Port, Artswave, Duke Energy, Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Haile Foundation, to preserve and transform the majestic Regal Theater in the Robert O’Neal Multicultural Center (ROMAC) which plans to help bridge gaps between artists and galleries.

Read more about the 
The Robert O’Neal Multicultural Arts Center (ROMAC) project which plans to be an arts destination anchored in the historically African American West End neighborhood. 

Beyond her incredible work and long career, one of the reasons for her strong presence in Cincinnati’s art community is her simultaneous commitment to art and social justice. O’Neal-Turner is one of a tribe of local creatives who consistently align themselves with the social act of justice promotion and equity provision. 

“I remember living through the death of Timothy Thomas,” said O’Neal Turner.

Timothy Thomas was shot and killed 20 years ago by a Cincinnati police officer. The 19-year-old’s death on April 7, 2001, sparked riots and protests in the city that proved to be a tipping point in the city’s community-police relations.

“The horrific incident led to a phenomenal exhibition housed in the, then new, Cincinnati Museum Center located at the Union Terminal. Within this exhibit, we were able to create a safe space to unload the trauma that our city had encountered, by not only exhibiting pieces that chronicled the history of riots in Cincinnati where African Americans were speaking out but exhibited all of Cincinnati’s riot history.”

The exhibit, “Civil Unrest in Cincinnati” chronicled how riots were the way of life in the 1800s. Not just in Cincinnati, but in many urban centers across the nation. More than 1,200 riots occurred in the United States during the four decades leading up to the Civil War, according to American Mobbing: 1828-61 by David Grimsted.

“This exhibit was powerful,” continued O’Neal Turner. “The exhibit went so far as to contain police perspectives which helped to contribute to the facilitation of the city’s Collaborative Agreement.” 

The Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement is considered to be one of the most innovative agreements devised to improve police-community relations in response to the brutal rash of killings of Black men at the hands of the Cincinnati Police Department and lack of understanding between police and community members.

“COVID is when I decided to paint again and focused on painting youth. Much of my inspiration comes from kids and in much of my own art you will see a great focus on the light that shines through their eyes.”

In a current state of diversification of artistic practice, the doubled-edged figure of the artist-curator has emerged to a state of curatorial independence and artistic freedom…and O’Neal-Turner is well suited to take up that space.

O'Neal Turner continues to hold many hats in our region’s cultural, educational, and artistic communities. She is a talented artist, businesswoman, and cultural activist who passionately promotes diversity through the arts and education while connecting local artists, businesses, and cultural institutions.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

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.