An institution that’s been in existence for a century and a half must be doing something right, including response to changing times.  The Art Academy of Cincinnati, which will celebrate 150 years in 2019, fits these criteria.

Although modern memories may assume the school’s earliest existence was as an appendage to the Cincinnati Art Museum, where it was housed in an adjacent building from 1887 to 2005, the actual history is more complicated. Founded as McMicken School of Drawing and Design in 1869, its earliest years were as a part of McMicken University, which would become the University of Cincinnati in 1871. The initial aims were practical; Sunday painters have never been the heart of the student body.

McMicken School stated its purposes succinctly:  “. . .improvement of the industrial arts. . .thorough technical and scientific education in Art and Design, as applied to manufacturers, so as to aid them in obtaining that taste and skill in fashion and finish of their work. . .”  Note that while function is paramount, “finish,” or how things look, really has equal billing.  The segue into full art school was not hard to accomplish.

Cincinnati was on an upswing.  The Cincinnati Art Museum, founded in 1881, opened in a new building in Eden Park in 1886. A practical Cincinnati philanthropist, Joseph Longworth, proposed that the McMicken School of Drawing and Design become a part of the Museum and in November, 1887, that entity moved into its own new building alongside the fledgling art museum and became the Art Academy of Cincinnati. The Museum’s director was its titular head. For around a hundred years this was a practical and useful arrangement, with a dean handling direct leadership of the Academy.

Names known to anyone at all conversant with Cincinnati artists are part of this story.  Frank Duveneck came back from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1874 and taught a class in life drawing at the Academy, with the first nude live models to appear in the city. Elizabeth Nourse, who would achieve wide recognition, attended the Academy and studied under Duveneck. Lewis T. Rebisso taught sculpture to a generation of students including Clement J. Barnhorn and woodcarver Henry Fry.  John Ruthven and Charley Harper, both of whom would become well known artists with reputations far beyond the city, were among those who attended the Academy on the G.I. Bill following World War II.

By the end of the 20th century the Academy felt a growing need to be on its own. The Cincinnati Museum Association board agreed, and September 1, 1998 the Academy emerged as an independent college of art and design.  In a series of arrangements not unlike a family member moving out the Museum took over the original Art Academy building in Eden Park and the Academy got a 120,000 square-foot warehouse at 1212 Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine, where it moved in 2005.  This wealth of space provides what Academy literature describes as “24 hour access to more than 100 student studio spaces, improved instructional studios, and other updated campus facilities.”  The development of the new facility has been recognized by numerous awards.

There’s a pleasant sense of energy and things-being-accomplished in the Academy’s generous atmosphere on Jackson Street. In preparation for this report I had an email exchange with Mark Grote, currently the Interim President and at that moment out of town, but talked with Tyler Hildebrand, Director of  Development, and Paige Williams, the Academic Dean, in their offices at the school so experienced the place at first hand.  I also had an email exchange with recently retired Kim Krause, whose association with the school began as a student in 1973-77, was re-established as a faculty member in 1985 and continued until his retirement as Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the end of May this year.

Krause considers the most significant change in the Academy has been “to fully embrace artmaking as being necessarily a product of its time. . .The Art Academy changed the focus of the curriculum and adopted a new mission, to produce “creative professionals who establish the rules that the future will follow.”  During his years the school evolved from a certificate program to a full-fledged college offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts in fine art or design.  “Students today desire an examination of their world and culture that they can bring to their studio work,” he says.

Mark Grote, whose background includes three decades at Procter & Gamble and a long association with strategic planning, wrote “I believe strongly that creativity will be the currency of the 21st century and that the AAC is well positioned to be the go-to college in our region for creating the most radical and forward thinking creatives.  Our small size and personal attention, our storied history, our terrific professors and dedicated staff, and our location in the creative center of Cincinnati-OTR all are positives that give us reason to believe this vision can come true.”  He went on to discuss the necessity for a strategic plan to “meet the needs of today’s students, that builds strong legacy of support within our community, that creates new forms of revenue to help fund our growth, that solidifies our role in the community as a partner, that invests in our infrastructure, including technology, and that continues to attract new and talented students.”

Paige Williams, Academic Dean, came to Cincinnati from Lexington in 1990 to attend the University of  Cincinnati – “I was in Robert Knipschild’s last class,” she said – and later became a staff member at the Art Academy. She feels the mission of the Academy is to be bold and innovative. “You can’t prepare for specifics.  Strategic thinking requires multiple solutions, as the business world is now recognizing.  But hand skills still are valued.”

She says of the students “many are brilliant” but they need the atmosphere the school can provide.  “Flexibility here is important. We need to embrace possibilities. We are so small; we can change on a dime. There’s a need to be open, to be changing, to be creative.  Smaller rather than larger is good.”  The Academy, she says, awards a Bachelor of Fine Arts; new are minors in film, art history.  “We have about 200 students.  This location provides them with opportunities – so much within walking distance.”

I also talked with Tyler Hildebrand, Director of Development for the Academy. He did not attend the Academy but is a trained artist, graduated as an illustrator.  “Art today fosters divergent thinking,” he told me. “Versatility, flexibility are valued.  Produces problem solvers.”  He wants to create more visibility for the Academy and engage the community to a greater extent.  “We have a story to tell. Cool things to do. Lots of opportunity.” He has taught elsewhere, but among the advantages of the Art Academy, he says, its its size. “Because this is a small place we’re able to cut through red tape, to be flexible.  Students can pick a major, but do other things as well.”

Hildebrand has lived in various places, including an earlier stint here, but has been back and at the Academy for two years, to his satisfaction. Designer firms are within reach of the school, he says, and students tend to stick around as the city has a place for them.  “They’re the creative thinkers of the future.”  He has a good word for Cincinnati’s most visible elements of creative thinking, the urban murals. “They changed everything,” he says.  “Cincinnati is the coolest.”  Am sure Academy students agree about the murals, and perhaps have a thought or two on possible additional ones.

–Jane Durrell

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