Ruth Dickey – Founding Executive Director of Clifton Cultural Arts Center
By Laura A. Hobson
Walking into the office of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center at 3711 Clifton Ave., one is immediately struck by an interactive quilt with movable faces created by textile artist Barbara Sferra. What an apt introduction to the Clifton Cultural Arts Center managed by Ruth Dickey, founding executive director. With a background in nonprofits and a passion for the arts, Ruth is well suited for this role. “I’m a sucker for big ambitious dreams. This is one. It takes a village,” she says as she describes her work from the inception of the center in 2008. Her goal is to have the center be a civic hub serving children and adults, busy from morning to night. “We want this a place where everyone is welcome,” she adds.
“This opportunity allowed me to combine my building a just, vibrant community with my love for the arts,” she says. When she interviewed, she felt it was a great fit. Her educational background includes an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetry from University of North Carolina at Greensboro, an MA in Latin American Studies and a BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University. Before coming to CCAC, Ruth worked as executive director of New Futures, a nonprofit agency, in Burien, Washington. She moved here because her partner’s father was ill and lived in the area.
Upon obtaining the position, Ruth entered a four-story building vacant for two years. It was filled with cobwebs, unpainted walls and in need of renovation; there were no phones, no computers and no infrastructure. “What do we need to do?” she asked. One issue at a time she tackled. “Build the plane,” she comments, “while flying the plane. No one knows we’re here. We need to draw attention to us.”
To mark her first exhibit and its Midwest debut, she chose a Flood Wall, which was a memorial to Hurricane Katrina victims created by Jana Napoli. “That launched us.” Ruth talks about three categories: classes, 8 – 10 exhibits per year and events, which she chooses to share with the community at large. To date, 67,000 people have come through the door, but it wasn’t always so.
Offering a myriad of activities, the center has expanded throughout the years. The seed for the center, however, was sown as early as 2004 when a series of community engagement meetings were held. For the first time this year, Summer Fair Cincinnati hosted an exhibit of top emerging artists, junior and senior students from the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, Miami University, the College of Mount St. Joseph and Northern Kentucky University, at the CCAC.
In a Beaux-Arts style building, originally the Clifton Elementary School more than 100-years old, Ruth manages a staff of 1.5, handles the marketing, directs the fundraising, works on the programs and networks in the community. She started slowly and gradually added more options for the public. When she arrived, she didn’t choose to do things her way; she asked the community what it wanted. Ever since, she listens to people who have suggestions in person, via e-mail or phone calls.
Now, she has gallery space for several art shows and has shown 300 artists’ work over the course of the years. The Golden Ticket show encompasses artists from a 25-mile radius who participate in a juried exhibition. “School of Fish: One Fish. Many Visions,” a Weavers Guild of Greater Cincinnati show, runs from February 21 – March 8.
In addition to art shows, CCAC houses the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus, the COR Music Project and the Starling Project Foundation. A believer in collaboration, Ruth partners with Ballet Theatre Midwest, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Madcap Puppets, to name a few. On the education side, CCAC works with Fairview-Clifton German Language School and Annunciation Elementary School featuring children’s art. Classes include piano, ballet, tap, Pilates, painting, classical guitar and tai chi at a reasonable cost.
Other opportunities are renting the space at CCAC for meetings or events. In its first year, Sunsets at the Center program consists of concerts and lectures celebrating the treasures of the community. For children, there’s the Second Sunday Family Showtime. Overall, the numbers speak for themselves: 27,000 people visited the CCAC in 2012, an increase of 46% over 2011.
Wednesdays on the Green, a free concert series featuring a diversity of performers, is now in its fifth year during June and July. Such institutions as ArtsWave, PNC Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Eleanora C.U. Alms Charitable Trust of Fifth Third Bank have supported all these endeavors. In addition to money, Scripps provided volunteer labor in refurbishing the center. Ruth has done everything from taking out the trash to having lunch with major donors. Wearing many hats, she is an executive director, fundraiser, grant writer, supervisor, volunteer director and marketing director. “It has been a wild adventure. You have to be willing to do a little bit of everything,” she says.
Renovation costs are $1 million with $330,000 raised. She now is in Phase II of the renovation. “It’s the nature of a startup,” Ruth says to have to deal with a myriad of issues. In the beginning, she worked 70 -80 hours; now her time spent is more reasonably.
In 2008 when the economy was tanking, several nonprofits failed. Ruth counts herself lucky to be in the black every year except one and to continue to attract donors. “There is incredible tension between dreams and reality that keeps us up at night,” she notes. But, she observes that people have been insightful and generous. In 2012, for example, she cites 366 donors, 100 more than 2011.
Ruth always has her ear to the ground, open to other ideas, always tweaking the programs she has. She listens to surveys and feedback, learning from the community and an effective board of directors. “Is this a resource the community is using?” she asks.
At the end of the day, Ruth wants the place to be used and vibrant. “The biggest challenge,” she says, “is the resources.” The roof leaks, the boiler needs work, and the light bulbs in the auditorium need to be replaced. It makes you be really creative with limited resources. Every person matters.”
“Not everyone likes everything we do, but we want people to see something exciting here,” she says. “It’s making the community better, where you can meet new friends or neighbors. Their experience is richer,” she concludes.