by Daniel Brown
The recent trip to New York by our symphony, The May Festival Chorus, The Cincinnati Opera, The Cincinnati Ballet, The Art Museum, The Taft Museum, The Ariel String Quartet from CCM, and seven area chefs represents a new opening wedge in branding and marketing Cincinnati nationally. What at first appeared to be an attempt to showcase mainly our performing arts institutions (the CAC did not participate) in a major American city is turning out to be a method of getting corporations to move here or to do business here. People vary on their response to the idea in the first place, because an opposite way of looking at this culture fest would be an ongoing sense of Cincinnati’s lack of self-esteem, that we are still asking New Yorkers to either support our arts or to wow them into understanding their excellence. If you follow the feedback in The Enquirer, you will note the creation of a feedback loop wherein it is impossible to see this blitz as anything but a huge success by aggressive marketers and branders coming from the world headquarters of marketing and branding. We could also claim that the idea is a bush league attempt by an up-tight provincial city to claim a prize where there wasn’t a game. I note that no one has yet mentioned what other, Cincinnati sized cities are also doing to win new business, and to use the arts as an opening wedge in doing so. A fair and balanced approach would let us know what the corporate and civic leaders in such cities as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Denver, Baltimore, Boston, Indianapolis, Columbus, Kansas City and other such cities are doing to achieve the same goals.
There is potential in all this activity, but I wonder why no living visual artists were invited to go and wow New York, since one of this region’s great strengths is its unusual number of very gifted visual artists. An exhibition of some of this talent might well go far towards achieving the stated goals of this trip: no doubt they might respond that, say, The Art Museum could have chosen to do this, but I think such a response misses the point.
We have been sold on the idea of Cincinnati’s specialness, in the past five or so years, because of the renovation of Over the Rhine, its draw for young professionals, and an understanding by both corporate and civic leaders that without such young talent and the amenities they demand, no city can succeed. Enormous amounts of money and talent have created this lively urban scene, led by 3CDC, and often financed by money from Western Southern and Fifth Third Bank. The corporate equivalent of this renovation seems to be the new branding and technical companies such as The Brandery, CentriFuse, and whatever the end products of the streetcar will be if it connects uptown and downtown (I believe that the intention is to connect UC with new businesses in OTR). It thus seems that some version of the talent in OTR might somehow be packaged as a draw for other businesses, and other young professionals. I caution that I know of no other city in America that isn’t creating a version of OTR, going all the way back to the renovation of The East Village in the 80’s. It is unclear which parts of Cincinnati might best be marketed and/or showcased to attract new businesses and new young professionals. But I note that the institutions selected to go to New York to represent Cincinnati’s arts were, with the exception of Ariel, all large ones, and almost all performing arts; the visual arts appear to be very much a step child of leadership mentality here. Our Fringe Festival and Bunbury Music Festival, combined with a new movement here in furniture design and fabrication, along with some of the exhibitions moving outsider artists into the mainstream might be wiser indications of Cincinnati’s future than dragging out our reliable old warhorses, excellent though some may be. There are others, like Ixi Chen’s musical group (I am less familiar with the performing arts) and possibly the Know Theater, which reflect the newer cultural stews of our younger creatives.
I also suggest that it’s time to look west, not necessarily east, as Los Angeles takes over the west coast and has begun to be America’s main city interacting with the Far East, and even towards Texas, an increasing political and financial powerhouse which looks directly at Central and South America. New York is not the only major cultural capital anymore. I am suggesting that if these trips and others are going to continue, that our younger creative people in both performing and visual arts, along with the marketers at The Brandery, be considered as the cutting edge of Cincinnati’s cultural future, and that an alternative view of this region might better be served in achieving the stated goals of those who created this trip to New York: as before in Cincinnati, we need to acknowledge that our future and our past may be different, and we need to decide what versions of Cincinnati that we want to market and to brand.