As interest in urban living continues to take hold in Cincinnati and those once-neglected pockets of the city attract the gaze of developers, the future of unique do-it-yourself places has become uncertain.
I thought a lot about this article, Disappearing DIY.
For the last fifteen years I have subsisted on meager album sales, singing at weddings, freelance web-design, painting commissions, and anything I could get my hands on that would prevent me from working a desk job or retail. But unlike many members of the “creative class”, DIY was never the end game for me. Doing It Yourself was always a means to ensure that at some point in the future I would be able to Do It Myself but with Support From Others. Let’s call it DIY-SFO (incidentally also a flight from Diyarbakır, Turkey to San Fransisco, USA).
Somehow this has essentially worked out twice for me: first a major label recording contract, then a job offer as an art professor. Being in the right place at the right time has had a lot to do with this–I was helped by getting involved with a growing energetic community of creators in Cincinnati, Ohio. We created opportunities for each other.
But I also acknowledge that these goals are in some ways counter to the DIY spirit in Cincinnati. The CityBeat article mentions the well known long running DIY gallery Semantics, which recently closed its doors after more than 200 exhibitions “without selling a single piece of art or charging admission.” This of course is a point of pride for a defiantly noncommercial space–idealistic DIY Cincinnatians had carved out spaces that were seemingly not beholden to the forces of capital. But for DIY to work people have to stay. And for artists to stay, there needs to be some sense of stability and support. As a mid-sized rust belt city, Cincinnati, has few serious contemporary art collectors. Consequently, other than the few existing commercial art galleries, the art scene is so underground, conceptual and so awesomely weird it has been described as fugitive. Unlike cities like New York and Los Angeles, where artists enjoy constant exposure to big name artists and galleries, artists in Cincinnati (and musicians) distill the influence of these places virtually and indirectly while drawing from locale lore, often supported by many surrounding major arts institutions and non-profits to create works and events that are wholly unique.
Unfortunately, these DIY spaces are disappearing. This is my first-hand account of the rapid transition of Over-the-Rhine, followed by some ways I believe contemporary artists can maintain a presence in Cincinnati.
EYE OF THE HURRIGENTRIFICATICANE
Across the street was a crack house. My car was consistently broken into and she was purse-punched in the face by a sidewalk stranger. About ten years ago my sister and I convinced each other to move out of the suburbs and into an illegal warehouse in the heart of Over the Rhine, the notoriously dangerous (more so at the time) predominantly black (more so at the time) ghetto of Cincinnati. My momentarily-popular alternative rock band was floundering and I was looking for ways to redefine myself as an up-and-coming visual artist. I re-enrolled in college to study painting, grew a beard that made me look like both Charles Manson and Jim Henson, and moved to the cavernous, partially abandoned former brewery adjacent to the post-apocalyptic landscape of Tinderbox, an underground event and party space. In 2007 most of the stories coming out of Over-the-Rhine were of neglected buildings (tinderboxes) catching fire and shootings–by both gangs and police.
Still, I came to enjoy certain aspects of punk rock ghetto bohemia and the second floor of the warehouse felt like an impenetrable fortress, far from the banality of suburbia. One of my favorite summer pastimes became sitting on the roof watching white men in nice cars stop nearby to purchase drugs and prostitutes. Where were they from? Did their families know? At school and at holiday dinners I had stories of my perpetually stoned warehouse mates, ariel acrobats practicing in the common areas and occasional inspector raids that would force us to scramble and hide our mattresses in what looked like a contemporary art installation about sleep and sex.
While I didn’t immediately connect with any social group, these adventures were credentialing among the anarchists and craftspeople in the neighborhood: I was a real artist, living in poverty but focused on my craft, while peers spent their evenings working at pizza shops and department stores. Like a lot of artists at that time, I had moved to Over-the-Rhine in large part because it was cheap.
Today, the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine is barely recognizable. On the weekends hoards of middle class khakis come buying hand crafted beard conditioner (now even accountants could be mistaken for Jim Henson or Charles Manson) or shirts emblazoned with the letters OTR or Cincinnati.
A couple summers ago I was sitting with a friend outside a new restaurant on what is one of the most economically diverse blocks in the country. We watched four kids remove a box of discarded donuts from a trash can and begin hurling them at white people in white clothes on the other side of the street. That moment revealed a perfect distillation of the problems that will continue to face gentrifying neighborhoods; the donuts were artisanal (and thus overpriced), wastefully discarded, and the kids were clearly within and without the neo-Portlandia that grew up tentacles around them almost overnight, and by the next day had transmorphed into a kraken of tour groups and restaurants serving faux mexican and faux pan asian foods. In short, Over-the-Rhine has been gentrified and I was left asking if I was a witness or a participant.
This story is not unusual. The beginning of Over-the-Rhine’s transformation was fueled not by city-sponsored condo development projects but by idealistic artists and residents moving the needle, before the bigger conversations about race, the ethics of displacement. Public art works and street events were happening, stores were opening and closing but then opening again. Community organizers were organizing and rallying and running DIY galleries showing works made of cheese or about cheese or were simply consuming cheese at openings and everything was wonderfully weird. The mayor would even stop by my regular Tuesday gig at a bar on main street and i felt for the first time like I was a part of a creative community and by extension part of the entire city of Cincinnati.
In a personal move that paralleled the small community uptick in opportunities for creative people, my sister and I moved from the warehouse (motivated in no small part by an upstairs suicide, the arrest of our landlord and police intervention in enforcing the housing code) and into a “real” apartment closer to downtown. I didn’t leave my heart in Over-the-Rhine, but I had a great time leaving a mark: after a four year stint that included two years in graduate school, a year running a gallery and a semi-secret art collaborative, being involved with a not secret experimental curatorial collaborative, creating several murals, a few months ago I finally moved out and away to the state of Washington. The rent for my last apartment immediately increased several hundred dollars.
Just a few weeks before we moved, my partner and I were attempting to take a walk but were unsettled by the crowds. It’s hard to know how to feel about it all. I know that economic growth is good for the city at large, but that the good is not distributed evenly. I also know that the neighborhood had changed to the extent that the reasons that drew artists there in the first place–cheap rent, grit, diversity, the possibility of weirdness, and (believe it or not) quiet–were gone. Large areas of Over the Rhine have “turned the corner” (to use the white colloquialism) from black community and bohemian artist hide out to a kind of small-batch hand-crafted weekend tourist Disneyland.
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What happens next? There is no rallying cry to Keep Cincinnati Weird. Cincinnati has slogans Ohio Against the World (which was co-opted by sports enthusiasts) and OTR (which, according to some is basically a gentrified version of Over-the-Rhine that neglects the moniker’s significance). While Ohio Against the World once stood for DIY and OTR was once a hipster insignia, for better or for worse both are now for everyone.
Can we identify ways that progressive contemporary artists can participate in the new urban economy/community without selling their souls? In the absence of collectors and a gallery system that could commodify works, are there ways more artists could be more supported in their individual pursuits?
BRING IT TO THEM!
Instead of waiting for Cincinnatians to become interested in exhibition openings, one way artists are bringing contemporary art to the masses i is through pop-up exhibitions and events in non-conventional spaces supported by local businesses and non-profits. Curatorial collective Near*By (of which I am a member) has a mission to “bring art to pluralistic audiences”. In November of 2014 we staged a pop-up exhibition of light based art at new craft brewery Rhinegeist that drew hundreds of people–artists and beer drinkers and artist beer drinkers. The success of the event was due to word of mouth buzz about Near*By at a time when Rhinegeist’s visibility in the neighborhood was peaking. Beer drinkers wanted to get a look at the inside of the historic former Christian Moerlein bottling plant. What better time to do it than during a light-art show?
Groups like Pop-Up Cincy have garnered ongoing support to do non-commercial contemporary art events and happenings in store-fronts, streets etc. Pop-Up Cincy (spearheaded by related group Modern Makers) is always looking for artists to show in the Clifton area. As far as I know there is no group like this in Over-the-Rhine.
Artworks Cincinnati, while best known for representational rainbow colored murals featuring portraits of diverse people created by diverse groups of apprentices, also accepts proposals for more progressive kinds of projects including temporary installations and performances.
21C is an amazing model of ways businesses can leverage contemporary art to thrive. Granted, it was founded by millionaire art collectors from Lousiville, but this model could work on any level. Pizza Shop with contemporary art gallery? I could see it.
PUSH OUT (BUT NOT TOO FAR OUT)
Like Williamsburg in brooklyn and other gentrifying neighborhoods I guess it’s inevitable that artists will be forced to find other places to gather. However, a dispersed network could be a good thing–there’s much more to Cincinnati than the city center. I had some success running Boom Gallery with friends in Norwood, where there is still some inexpensive space to be utilized and close proximity to Xavier University.
PUT DOWN ROOTS
Husband and wife team Geoffrey and Calcagno Cullen (or Skip and Cal) recently opened Wave Pool gallery in Camp Washington and it is thriving, bringing in contemporary artists from all over through a residency program, and hosting community events as well as compelling exhibitions. Unlike many previous galleries in Cincinnati, in a show of commitment the Wave Pool owners bought the building, an amazing old firehouse. The current exhibition, up through January 3rd, is in fact about the “association between art and capital”. Work on right by artist Lauren DiCioccio.
Ultimately, Cincinnati artists will need to continue self-organizing to help each other out. In order for self-organization to result in maintaining the presence of contemporary artists, artists could also be more proactive about turning young professionals into supporters and collectors. I would love to see something like the Chicago Artist Coalition happen in Cincinnati. Their mission is to “build a sustainable marketplace for entrepreneurial artists and creatives.” One way they do so is through a collectors circle program, that builds interest in artists through studio visits etc.
This is something of a sign off. With it I must acknowledge some hypocrisy–I am now about as far away from Cincinnati as possible while remaining in the lower forty eight. I must also acknowledge that to the most radical DIY Cincinnati scenesters this pragmatism may seem like compromise. Indeed, without balancing the needs of artists with the demands of a rapidly growing inner city, artist communities will be rolled over and discarded across America.
I look forward to coming back to participate in exhibitions as Cincinnati artists continue to fight for the visibility of contemporary arts Godspeed artists. May your pigs fly with authenticity, whatever that means.