Art Works Blog

Postcard from Charleston, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland (Part One)

When I was in Charleston Mayor Joe Riley (left) and Michael Thomas Maher of the Charleston Civic Design Center showed me the plans for transforming neglected open space in the Gaillard Center Arts Precinct.  The project received one of our inaugural Our Town grants. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Arts Commission


This was my tour, basically of the “C” Cities: Charleston, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. If it didn’t begin with a “C”, it wasn’t likely that I would be there. I started in Charleston where they always hold one of the Mayors' Institute on City Design (MICD) workshops each year. The guru of the mayors in Mayors' Institute on City Design---Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley---really kind of invented “creative placemaking” many, many moons ago. We toured an Our Town project site in Charleston with the mayor himself, and with Michael Maher who’s the director of the Charleston Civic Design Center. They have this Gaillard Arts Center, which has posed an aesthetic challenge to the city. Their project is looking at open spaces around the center and how the whole area can become more beautiful, more aesthetically pleasing. We’re looking forward to seeing how that grant develops. Charleston is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, and it’s been kept that way by Mayor Riley.

This was the first time I’ve been able to spend some time in Charleston, which is the home of one of our National Council on the Arts members, Bret Lott. I’m already planning on returning to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival  next spring and look forward to spending some time with Mayor Riley at Spoleto, and also with Bret, who’s going to show me the good restaurants and neighborhoods. He promised I’m going to get my own walking tour.

There was a great evening event at which I was able to meet all of the participating mayors. Ron Bogle who runs the American Architectural Foundation was there, and also Tom Cochran who’s the head of the United States Conference of Mayors. Mayor Riley gave the keynote speech, and it was a wonderful dinner and a chance to socialize with the mayors in a more informal setting. The mayors who attended this session were Dan Sullivan from Anchorage, Alaska; Dave Bing from Detroit, Michigan; RT Rybak from Minneapolis, Minnesota; Betsy Price from Fort Worth, Texas; Angel Taveras from Providence, Rhode Island, and also Kentucky Mayors Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville.

The next day I basically sat in on a couple of the MICD sessions, which are fascinating. What happens is that a mayor presents a case study of a problem that he has in his city, and the MICD people surround him with designers, city planners, architects, people who are very tuned to the aesthetic issues, and they will advise him about the problem he has and suggest different approaches to it. It’s a kind of back-and-forth session where the mayor presents the issues, he gets feedback on it, and hopefully they evolve a consensus about what to. I sat in on two of the sessions---with my now friend, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, who I got to know a little bit when I was in Alaska a couple of weeks ago, and Mayor Dave Bing who I met on a recent trip to Detroit but had never had a chance to talk to very much in a more informal setting.

I also spent some time with Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, who is also becoming a good friend, and we talked about a collaborative effort by the different federal agencies to use the arts as the fulcrum for development in Minneapolis. I also spent a little time with Betsy Price from Fort Worth; she’s a very high energy, engaging mayor.

It was great to start to get to know these mayors. They are our natural allies, our biggest advocates, and we want to be just as big an advocate for them that we can be because when we’re talking about “creative placemaking,” we’re talking places, we’re talking about cities and towns, and it’s the mayors that know that territory better than anyone. The longer I’m at the NEA the more I realize that MICD and the work with the mayors is at the center of what we’re doing.

I should mention that while I was in Charleston, I was also able to spend some time with Susie Surkamer who is president of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. I had a good interaction with her talking about NASAA issues and got to know her a little bit. She’s a delightful, open, and engaging person

Here I am in Cincinatti with (from l-r) Josh McManus, Create Here; Eric Avner, Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr., US Bank Foundation; Tamara Harkavy, ArtWorks; Jim Stapleton, ArtWorks Trustee; Colleen Houston, ArtWorks; and Sarah Corlett, ArtWorks. Photo courtesy of ArtWorks Cincinnati


The next day we were in Hamilton, Ohio, to visit an ArtSpace project there. We want to work more and more with Kelley Lindquist and the ArtSpace people. They are all about creative placemaking, and they have a project---Artspace Hamilton Lofts---that they’re building to create affordable live/work space for artists and their families.

You can see that there’s an arts tradition there in Hamilton; everyone I met cares passionately about the arts, like Mayor Pat Moeller---he gets it about the arts. Rick Jones is the executive director of the Fitton Center, which we toured and where we had a roundtable discussion. The Fitton Center is an arts center that’s very central to the aesthetic and community life of Hamilton. It’s great work that they’re doing there with the arts; and I think the Our Town project there is really going to make a difference in bringing Hamilton back to its roots as an arts city. And it’s going to make a difference in revitalizing its downtown, which is what Our Town and creative placemaking is all about. It’s a very appealing town and I hope to go back there before too long.

That afternoon we were in Cincinnati, and we met with Tamara Harkavy and her ArtWorks people. ArtWorks does work with youth in Cincinnati engaging them in the arts. They go around the city painting murals and have a lot of other programs. I love to tease her that ArtWorks is a great name for an organization, and, of course, she points out that they were called ArtWorks before I came to the NEA. Their partner on the ArtPlace grant that they’ve just been awarded is Josh McManus’s CreateHere. He’s been working with them on their strategic plan, and I think the ArtPlace project there is going to be very exciting. They’re going to provide their creative community with business development training and an incubation facility in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood where ArtWorks is located, along Cincinnati’s proposed street car line. We’re looking forward to a very productive showcase there in Cincinnati. After visiting with ArtWorks, I was happy to do a bit of a PSA for Margy Waller of ArtsWave. We spent a lot of time with her and her group during my last trip to Cincinnati.

Our final stop of the day was at Walnut Hills High School, where my best friend Rick Steiner was being honored. They set up a Performing Arts Fund at the school in his honor. Walnut Hills is really one of the most progressive public schools in terms of the arts in the country. It’s not actually an arts school, but it might as well be: half the kids there are enrolled in the music program, and they have programs in all of the arts---music, visual arts, drama. All the kids are engaged in the arts; it’s taken very seriously there. We saw some performances---choral performances, classical music performances, and a piano recital. At the NEA, we’re not in high schools very often, and it was encouraging to see this degree of investment in the arts. What’s happening here is very different from what’s happening in a lot of places across the country where the arts are the first thing shut down when there’s a budget crunch. I think at Walnut Hills, it would be the last thing.

Check back on the blog next week to find out what Rocco was up to in Columbus and Cleveland…

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