Filmmaker Ya'Ke Smith, the Taft Museum of Art's 2019 Duncanson artist-in-residence
Photo provided by Ya'Ke Smith

The arts unify us, regardless of our race, religion, age or background. According to a survey by Americans for the Arts, nearly 75% of Americans agree with that sentiment. 73% believe the arts help them better understand other cultures. That's why ArtsWave's Blueprint for Collective Action for the Arts Sector lists one of the valuable outcomes of the arts as the ability to bridge cultural divides. That can only work if those in the arts sector are proactive about creating opportunities for understanding. That means a concerted effort to promote diversity within the arts. Luckily, our region's arts are taking such steps today, with plans for bigger leaps in the near future.

The Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program was established by the Taft Museum of Art and The Robert S. Duncanson Society in 1986 to honor the achievements of contemporary African American artists working in a variety of disciplines. The program honors the relationship between African American painter Robert S. Duncanson and his patron, Nicholas Longworth, who commissioned Duncanson to paint landscape murals in the foyer of his home, now the Taft Museum of Art.

In recent years, the program has attracted multiple artists to Greater Cincinnati, including mixed-media sculptor Vanessa German last year and dancer/choreographer Stafford Berry the year before. The residency began with the intention to highlight local or regional artists, but as part of its growth, it now appeals to artists on a national scale. This year, the 33rd Duncanson Artist-in-Residence will be filmmaker Ya'Ke Smith.

Ya'Ke Smith has had an impressive career so far. The filmmaker's work has appeared at more than 90 film festivals worldwide, bringing him over a dozen awards and accolades. This year, just in time for the OTR International Film Festival, Ya'Ke Smith will be bringing his considerable talent to the Taft Museum of Art. It's all part of the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program at the museum — one of the increasing number of opportunities our region offers to expand diversity in the arts.

"This residency creates connections between the community and our important Duncanson murals," says Deborah Emont Scott, Louise Taft Semple President/CEO of the Taft Museum of Art. "We look forward to welcoming Ya'Ke to Cincinnati to share his work with us as a continuation of the legacy of Duncanson's lasting influence in our community."

The Taft Museum of Art is in good company as they take intentional steps to bridge cultural divides. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music are also leading through their Diversity Fellowship program. The Fellowship is awarded to graduate level musicians from underrepresented populations, so that the CSO is ever more reflective of our community. They are addressing an endemic program: just 4% of players in U.S. orchestras are Latinx or African American. The CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship is one step our local institutions are taking to bolster that number.

Diversity Fellows spend two years performing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. They also gain access to focused mentorship by professional musicians, mock auditions and audition travel stipends. All the while, Fellows are enrolled in a two-year Master of Music or Artist Diploma graduate degree program at CCM with a full tuition scholarship. Since 2016, the CSO has mentored and helped accelerate the careers of 13 musicians from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the orchestra field. With national support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the CSO and CCM are working to remove barriers so that more voices are heard.

ArtsWave supports organizations and programs like these that work to increase opportunities in the arts. This summer, ArtsWave invested in a new project designed both to enliven downtown and give local, less established musicians a way to earn a living. The Street Stage Project, an initiative of Cincinnati Music Accelerator in partnership with 3CDC, pays artists to play music on the streets in the central business district and Over-the-Rhine neighborhoods. It's all part of CMA founder Kick Lee's mission to help artists develop the skills they need to make the arts a viable career path.

Meanwhile, urban arts organization Elementz will soon launch a series of public concerts and events, presenting art and artists from the region's hip hop community. This series, “Thrive,” will include performances from top hip hop and spoken word artists drawn from Elementz and the local hip hop community. In fact, one of the planned performances in the concert series will feature none other than Ya'Ke Smith, the Taft Museum of Art's Duncanson Artist-in-Residence — a testament to the collaborative nature of our region's arts organizations.

The arts can build bridges between people and between cultures, but it doesn't happen on its own. It takes earnest investment and concrete action. ArtsWave and Greater Cincinnati's arts organizations are stepping up to the challenge, with actionable financial and artistic plans emerging that will energize our community for years to come.