Sunday, May 28, 2000

DEMALINE: Regional plan relies on county




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        It's the end of May and you know what that means: summer reruns. What better time to re-visit favorite arts topics from last season that may have gotten lost in the daily mix of too much information and too little time?

        In order of importance:

        The Regional Cultural Alliance. It's now been well more than a year since a regional cultural plan was unveiled by a committee of volunteers led by businessman Otto Budig Jr.

        If you'll recall, there never had been concrete support from local/regional political and corporate leadership during the two-year planning process.

        After the very conservative plan was unveiled, arts-loving Hamilton County Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr. was persuaded to lead the committee, who would steer the plan from report to reality.

        Mr. Neyer inherited a well-intentioned plan, which, one can argue, is a desperately needed beginning for the region. But it remained low on the list of priorities for its volunteer advocates, each of whom had many other calls on time and energy.

        As a result, there is still no paid executive director, no board and no commitment of cash from any of the eight counties that would profit from an alliance. This despite a potential boost when last year's Gallis Report included the importance of culture to regional development.

        By contrast, Cleveland started a similar study at about the same time. The differences were that Cleveland's was backed by a powerful, far-sighted local foundation and professionally staffed from day one. The Community Partnership for Arts & Culture employed paid professionals who could — and did — sell the idea full-time to the region and its key players.

        Earlier this month, Cleveland's morning daily The Plain Dealer reported, on the front page, that “a group of prominent arts, business and political leaders” unveiled a plan to raise $25 million to $35 million annually for Cuyahoga and six neighboring counties “through a combination of new taxes and redirected spending of existing tax revenue.” (Those counties now spend about $4 million.)

        Will it be a hard sell? Sure, but at least Cleveland arts advocates have moved the issue to the center of the table.

        Cleveland's scenario will no doubt be similar to several national models, most notably Denver's. In the Mile High city, in return for tax dollars, cultural organizations work with area arts councils to play a highly visible role in education, community development and other civic issues.

        The Cleveland study included a survey asking residents how they felt about using tax money for the arts. A two-thirds response for the arts was the lowest positive number (City of Cleveland). In the surrounding six counties when people were directly asked: “If taxes would increase $25 a year...?” response climbed to 71 percent.

        That's what comes of hiring professionals to work in communities and explain the benefits of arts and culture to communities.

        Watch for the Regional Cultural Alliance to come off the back burner as early as this week, when Hamilton County Commissioners meet.

        The county has been shamefully absent from local arts support for years. If commissioners step forward now with even moderate financial support, it's only because of strong-arming from Mr. Neyer.

        The big questions are ones of timing and trust.

        The ongoing Paul Brown Stadium issue has a lot of voters fuming. The ground work for supporting a regional cultural alliance has never been properly laid.

        Cross your fingers that angry citizens don't see cultural investment as more money down a very large drain, or mistake the arts for the punching bag they'd like to make out of Bengals president Mike Brown.

        The Aronoff Center. You may recall that in January, Cincinnati Arts Association board president-for-life Dudley Taft said he wanted a new CEO in place by June. He and his executive committee have since decided there's no rush to replace Elissa Getto, who left in March.

        They think veep Steve Loftin, who's been second-in-command since the CAA's earliest days, is doing a fine job holding down the fort while Taft & Co. consider whether the job needs redefining. They don't have that answer; they do have a pile of resumes.

        Meanwhile, Mr. Loftin is putting together the 2000-2001 calendar, most of which will be announced in August.

        The Emery Center. Here's a schedule for you: cabaret singers Betty Buckley, Andrea Marcovicci, Spanish/Catalonian torcher Misia, the fabulous Ute Lemper.

        On the classical side, how about Yo-Yo Ma & Friends musically exploring The Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected the peoples and cultures of Asia and Europe? Violinist Itzhak Perlman offering a tribute to Jascha Heifetz? Opera's Frederica von Stade fronting “orchestra of voices” Chanticleer? Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg revisiting her folk roots with guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad?

        These are all programs you won't see in Cincinnati next season. (They will be in Columbus.)

        Niche programming is the present and the future. A key reason we don't see it here is that Cincinnati doesn't have the right-sized hall.

        If you have to keep asking why we need The Emery Center, re-read the above partial list of the quality shows that tour the rest of America to mid-sized halls.

        What would fill a 1,500-seat auditorium to the rafters would look half-empty in Procter & Gamble Hall. And worse, the cavernous space would destroy any sense of intimacy. The 440-seat Jarson-Kaplan is too small to make an event pay.

        Did this issue desperately need to be resolved in the Aronoff's planning stage? Of course. Because it does not negate the fact that we deserve the same excellent niche programming the rest of the nation sees.

        If you watch cable TV or sample radio stations or eat at ethnic restaurants or read special interest monthlies on magazine racks you know we have evolved into a nation that demands choices.

        That is also true of how we want to be entertained. Niches are often more profitable than those big expensive musicals.

        There is an extraordinary opportunity to exponentially increase economic development downtown by filling a performing calendar with high quality one- and two-night stands of shows that will pull fans back downtown.

        An independent study of the Emery predicts 300 days of use and 150,000 patrons a year, $2.7 million in ticket sales annually and $6 million in economic impact to area businesses.

        Add to that a confirmation from School for Creative and Performing Arts principal Jeff Brokamp earlier this spring that SCPA is interested in using a restored Emery.

        Despite all this, Emery fund-raising has plateaued at $2.7 million with $15 million still needed. City Council is thinking about it. The state of Ohio is thinking about it. Businesses are thinking about it.

        What you can't help wondering is what they're all thinking about. The necessary $15 million, while not insignificant, is a mere fraction of the stadia overruns.

        This is simple addition: A restored Emery plus a smart programmer plus good street-scaping would equal an entertainment magnet for downtown and an anchor for Over-the-Rhine.

        Jackie Demaline is the Enquirer's theater critic and roving arts reporter. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax, 768-8330.

       



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