Back in 1995, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company was an impudent startup theater called Fahrenheit. There was no Fringe Festival, no Visionaries and Voices, no Kennedy Heights Arts Center. There were very few small arts organizations in our cultural ecosystem and those around were pretty much on their own.

Then along came the LeBlond-Joseph Report, which suggested that the country’s first and largest united arts campaign — Cincinnati’s Fine Arts Fund — embrace more organizations, especially small and emerging ones. It was the first tremor in a seismic shift that led to the Fund’s evolution into ArtsWave. 

Enter Heather Hallenberg.

Working with a shoestring budget, Heather assembled an extraordinary group of volunteers who were convinced that our arts community could grow and prosper in new ways. She knew that if the FAF extended its support beyond anchor institutions such as the Cincinnati Symphony and the Cincinnati Art Museum, the entire arts sector would advance.

The results of that conviction are all around us today in our thriving arts and cultural community, rich with organizations that didn’t exist in 1995. For more than 20 years, Heather Hallenberg has been “the best friend small arts ever had.”

As is her way, Heather has consistently lead from behind to foster momentum and change. As she retires from ArtsWave, three words come to mind.

Heather built a chapter of Business Volunteers for the Arts (BVA), matching people with skills to similar needs in the arts community. Along the way, the Cincinnati team became best practice for the nation.

Then she built a powerful training program, BoardWay Bound, that prepared business and community leaders to serve as directors of arts and cultural organizations. 

Heather saw the rise of community-based arts centers and wove them together in a network that today sustains neighborhoods around the region.

And she led the charge to provide unrestricted operational funding for the FAF’s first “associate members”—today they are wholly part of ArtsWave’s investment portfolio.

Heather’s immersion in the work was unparalleled. One particularly busy summer, she rose at 4 a.m. to review resumes and prepare for interviews with potential Business Volunteers for the Arts. 

When a theater lost its founder and was in danger of closing, Heather assembled a crisis team to work with the board and save the company, setting the stage for a brighter second act. 

And Heather fiercely loved her volunteers. She lavished them with genuine appreciation and support, instilling a sense of purpose and getting the best from everyone. 

No detail is too small and no courtesy is forgotten in a Hallenberg production. 

Like the best stage managers, Heather recorded every cue and ran the show with the practice and precision that ensured a standing O when the curtain fell. 

And while the curtain is closing on Heather’s two decades of service to our arts and cultural community, her legacy is secure. Many of those “small” arts that she championed have grown to significant scale and undoubtable sustainability, strengthening the arts sector from within. 

Best friend indeed.