Like so many businesses, this month ArtsWave conducted our annual United Way campaign. In a wonderful, full-circle kind of way, I feel that we ended up receiving more than we gave.

Our guest speaker was Mark (“M”) Shannon, Executive Director of Power Inspires Progress (PIP). PIP is the Cincinnati nonprofit which operates the Venice on Vine pizza café. Through this and other small business enterprises, it provides pre-employment training for individuals with chronic barriers to employment.

M inspired our team with his account of Over the Rhine’s history as one of the most densely populated urban areas at the end of the 19th century, then to its 20th century challenges as a beer-making economy during prohibition, and on to the loss of sons to two world wars, eventual decline as crime and drugs became prevalent, and then its more recent and ongoing transformation into a desirable urban lifestyle location. He detailed the different waves of immigration that shaped the community and how those different cultures added to the city’s character. We talked about the tensions that emerge as communities change, and how we can make room for “outsiders”.  

How can we help? We asked M what we at ArtsWave could do to be part of the solution. Buy more pizza? Visit the restaurant more frequently? 

To my surprise, M said that he needs ArtsWave to be successful in its push to make the broader community an inspiring, welcoming and vibrant environment through the arts. And, that we need to help ensure that the positive community improvements we are making are accessible to all.

It reminded me that our efforts – United Way’s and ArtsWave’s included -- to create the best possible community are intertwined and, if we do it right, mutually reinforcing. Arts organizations are not creating art in a vacuum, they are integral parts of the community and have the ability to bridge differences and reveal our similarities. 

The arts also can provoke dialogue and debate, pushing boundaries even to the point of discomfort. 

This month marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most unsettling moments in our city’s arts history. “When Art Fought the Law and the Art Won” is a fascinating feature in Smithsonian Magazine about the Contemporary Arts Center’s 1990 Mapplethorpe exhibit – one that landed the institution and its director in court. For the first time in history, a museum and its director faced criminal charges because of an art exhibition, bringing national attention to the subject of public funding for the arts as well as censorship.   The stakes were high – not just for the museum and the artist – but for the entire city of Cincinnati. Could we make room for art that unnerved us? Would this be a place where those who felt like outsiders could give voice to their experiences?
The answer, in that imperfect moment and twenty-five years later, is yes. As author Alex Palmer points out in the article, “Cincinnati itself, at the time seen as outright hostile towards the arts, has also grown into an unlikely advocate for the arts.”  And in embracing an expansive and inclusive arts scene, the region becomes a more welcoming place with more opportunity for all.   The arts have always played a big part in Cincinnati’s history; now, they must help to shape its future.