Monday, November 23, 2015


12th and Vine Streetcar Stop, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati

I’m grateful for artists. They create the opportunity for us to celebrate our place and come together to get to know each other in new ways. They build the platform for sharing joy.

In the city where I live in my Tiny Row House, many people worked long and hard to save the unique architecture in Over-the-Rhine. This neighborhood is one of our top differentiating assets, a piece of history and beauty that no other comparable city has to share with the world. Thanks to Cincinnati’s status as the first boomtown of the West in the nineteenth century, our geography, and a combination of factors (not all good at the time) that saved the buildings from demolition—we had a chance to create something special. And we grabbed it.

As in many other renovated urban places, the people of this neighborhood—old and new residents alike—are challenged by the changes here. We don’t know each other as well as we should, making it harder for us to address these issues. 
It is our artists who are leading us to a more connected place— creating a pathway to our future with art in the streets. They do this in neighborhoods across our region. Here are a few examples from Over-the-Rhine.

When city staff wasn’t ‘able’ (read: allowed) to plan the fireworks to celebrate the first tour of our new streetcar around the tracks, some lovely artists (professionals and citizens together) created a great, happy piece of welcoming street art at the 12th and Vine stop. Since chalk art is technically an illegal activity here, we won’t name any names. But you probably know some of the artists. Important because: everyone should know what’s happening in our community and that we’re super happy about this new asset!

Streetcar workers and fans admire the "Welcome Streetcar" guerilla chalk art.

Early Sunday, artists at work.


This cutie looks familiar, Pam Kravetz.

Dancers from DanceFix and Spirit of Cincinnati led citizens in a serendipitous coming together at Cincy Summer Streets on Pleasant Street. Important because: our sidewalks and streets are the place people meet, and dancing together is an easy way for people who don’t know each other to to connect.

Pones Inc revived their outdoor Over-the-Rhine immersive dance and video experience, introducing people to each other and the neighborhood streets at night. Important because: This show shines a spotlight on changes in the neighborhood through the eyes and words of residents whose voices aren’t heard often enough.

Artists are one asset that every community enjoys, as Jamie Bennett says. They are up near the front of the big parade creating memorable and equitable places. #GRATITUDE 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Video from Cincinnati.Com: Life Happens on Sidewalks, The Power of Art in Public

Thanks to the Enquirer and Cincinnati.Com for the invitation to be a storyteller at their Downtown Dreamers event. This is my talk about the WHY for art in public places and how it can change our sense of place and the way we SEE each other.

Art connects people - especially co-created, human-centric, place-based, serendipitous art.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mapplethorpe + 25: Sheriff Simon Leis Likes Art

Sheriff Simon Leis' Photograph of Paint the Street
Over-the-Rhine 2010

This weekend, FotoFocus hosted events at the Contemporary Arts Center for the 25th Anniversary of the acquittal of the museum for obscenity charges related to showing photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The conversations reminded me of a more recent art experience with Sheriff Simon Leis.

Simon Leis was "the sheriff whose deputies cleared out the Contemporary Arts Center...and hand-delivered indictments on obscenity charges to its director, Dennis Barrie," marking the first-ever criminal charges of a museum for an exhibition. But many people thought Leis was more culpable than that. He was the one who helped set the stage for the case by prosecuting numerous cases of obscenity and clearing the area of adult book stores and peep-shows, and was the first county prosecutor to take on Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine.

The Simon Leis Campaign Sign on My Wall: Is it Art?

In the Mapplethorpe case, it took a jury of eight only two hours to acquit. And this was a jury of people who’d never to be the Contemporary Arts Center, only some of whom had ever been to a museum at all. Only one of them had ever given to the local campaign for the arts, the Fine Arts Fund—a workplace-based fundraising group like a United Way for the arts.

In 2010, as part of the relaunch of the Fine Arts Fund as ArtsWave, we painted six blocks of street pavement on 12th Street in Over-the-Rhine with 1500 people coming together to co-create the mural designed by artists based on community input. 

Paint the Street 2010: 1500 People Painting Six Blocks of Pavement

While we were painting, and the street was becoming a vibrant riot of colorful art, someone asked whether we’d hired a helicopter to capture the artwork from above—this being before the days of drones.

In fact, we’d tried to find a news helicopter that might let us send up a photographer, but none of the local outlets had a helicopter at that time. And we didn’t have a budget to hire a private operator. Hearing this, someone suggested that I call Sheriff Simon Leis’ office because he had a ‘bird’.

Back in the days of the Mapplethorpe fight, the opponents of the Contemporary Arts Center had targeted the Fine Arts Fund. Contributors threatened to withhold corporate contributions to the annual campaign unless the museum was left out as a beneficiary. The museum is said to have voluntarily withdrawn from the campaign rather than forcing a decision that could harm other arts institutions with declining overall funding. Sheriff Leis was largely seen as the driver behind the overall campaign against the photo exhibit.

But what the hell, we decided to call the Sheriff’s office and ask about a helicopter for some art photos.

The answer? It was a Sunday and they’d have to wait until the ‘aviation team’ was back on Monday and then the Sheriff himself would have to approve. 

Now I was doubtful. But the Sheriff’s office assured me, “Sheriff Leis likes art!” Sure, I said, “That’s what I hear.”

A few days later, a disc of photographs was delivered to ArtsWave. The Sheriff had sent his own photographer up in the helicopter and they flew back and forth capturing multiple views of the streetart.

So yes, you might say Sheriff Simon Leis likes art.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Downtown Dreaming—Life Happens on Sidewalks

Life happens on the SIDEWALKS

Cincinnati Enquirer invited me to tell a story as part of the Downtown Dreamers Cincy Storytellers evening. This is a story of concern about what’s happening in my rapidly gentrifying place and a small step toward strengthening that neighborhood with community-created, serendipitous art.

2003. It’s the end of the day and my work is done and I’m squeezing in some shoe shopping in Soho before walking to the theatre which is basically what I do in any city—wander and see art.

Flash Mob #4
All of a sudden this shoe store is filling up with people. It’s just a big open space with a few dramatically placed tables with beautiful shoes on them, basically a shoe gallery. Now, hundreds, I’m not kidding, hundreds, of people poured into the space. They filled it up until they could barely move, took photos and talked on their phones. They stayed about 5 minutes and then they all walked out and disappeared on the streets of NYC. The other two shoppers and I are just watching with our eyes wide.

I had no idea what was going on but I was grinning and full of joy. It was so exciting to be in the middle of the experience. Later I learned that this was one of the first flash mobs ever, in the place the performance art form was born. It changed my memory of that place and I think of it every time I pass that corner, though the shoe store is long gone.

That’s the power of art, and especially art that’s co-created and serendipitous and participatory.

Leaving DC, Moving to Ohio
Flash forward. I leave the east coast, where I’d been living and working on urban and social policy issues, researching welfare and poverty, and move to Cincinnati for a dreamy job in the arts.

I wasn’t even sure I could return to my home town, but one walk from our public square through downtown and the historic neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine on a weekend visit showed me how much the city had changed. And was continuing to change.

Life of Connection on the Sidewalks
It was becoming the kind of place I’d left it to find. A place you can live and walk and ride a bike and have a life of connection on the sidewalks.

Five years later, downtown and Over-the-Rhine are changing so fast we’re spinning. We’re saving the unique historic neighborhood and buildings and that’s wonderful.

But what’s troubling is something happening on the sidewalks. All too frequently I watch as people miss each other. They are walking down a sidewalk or playing in a park, but it’s as if they can't see one another, like they are invisible to each other.

And at our neighborhood community council in Over-the-Rhine, the people who come to monthly meetings no longer reflect the diversity of our neighborhood. There are more new residents, white people of relative means, than there are long-time residents, and residents of the housing that’s affordable to people working for employers who don’t pay much.

Our council recognized this stress and we set out to create an experience. An experience designed to build community. An experience built on that moment in a shoe store in Soho.

At a monthly meeting, we asked everyone to sit with someone they didn’t know and gave them about 5 minutes each to share what they love about Over-the-Rhine: the people, the places, the buildings, the stores, the parks, their memories...whatever. There were a few, just a few, people who didn’t want to play. They stood apart from the rest of us, which was sad.

But, the people who were talking were engaged and loud. We gave everyone some tools for artmaking—colored pencils and crayons—and asked them to draw or write what they’d heard from their partner. We handed them pinwheels and asked them to attach their art to the pinwheels. Then some of us took all those pinwheels to Vine Street, in the block of Over-the-Rhine that’s arguably changed the most, between 12th and 13th—and planted a pinwheel garden in a patch of dirt in front of a parking lot. We put up a sign that said This Neighborhood Fun Brought to You by the Over-the-Rhine Community Council. The pinwheels were an attraction, bright and colorful like candy, spinning in the breeze, a little bit of surprise art by the sidewalk.

Sharing experience
We did this because we’ve learned that creating something together, sharing the experience, gets people talking. It creates a stronger community, and gives us the opportunity to open the door to talk about other things, to working together on making the neighborhood we want to live in, to focusing on equitable development, not just economic development.

I stalked that little patch of garden. I watched people stop and look at it, take pictures of it, wonder about it. They talked to strangers standing by them about it. They met and were able to see each other. And occasionally an adult took a pinwheel and gave it to a child who carried some happiness off into the neighborhood.

We thought the summer rain might batter the garden or that all of the pinwheels might disappear at once in a late night prank. But that’s not what happened. The pinwheels were sturdy. The garden did get smaller week-by-week as people took a little bit of the joy out into the neighborhood and home with them.

Sharing joy
Until one day, riding by on my bike, I saw just one pinwheel left—spinning in the breeze. It made me smile.  

A little later, as I was heading home, I saw little girl walking on the sidewalk, clutching that pinwheel. She’d gotten the last bit of joy out of that community created, serendipitous art—and she was sharing it with everyone she saw. 

And everyone could see her.

Planting the Pinwheel Garden

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

When Theatre Fails Us—Acting Like We Mean It

Imagine this: a local community college board of trustees is meeting to discuss deferred maintenance issues and safety just hours after national news outlets start covering a deadly building collapse in another city. Is there any chance that the meeting would occur with no mention of the events of the day? How likely is it that the school board members will ask everyone to have a moment of shared silence and consideration for the victims?

As the arts community begins to request a role in planning and community development our responsibilities are shifting. This is a tale of opportunity squandered.

It’d been a long time since I was in Minneapolis with some free time for an art adventure. So when the workday looked to be ending in time for an evening performance, I asked around at an artsy reception the day before: What theater should I see on Thursday night? Many offered suggestions—there are a lot of shows in that city. The most passionate recommender heralded The Events, a play in previews at The Guthrie.

I’d never been to The Guthrie and was curious about the space, and the atmosphere. The play was described movingly as one inspired by community response to a mass-murder in Norway. And as this out-of-town production company presents the show, it always engages local choirs to take the stage, with the singers taking on small roles in the story.

The play’s theme—a community coming together after a tragedy—and the participatory engagement of local artists, intrigued me. I spend so much of my work time thinking about and creating art that crosses boundaries, strives to build community, and includes citizen artists in creating the art.

On the day of the show, news broke early that there had been another campus mass-shooting, this one in Oregon. By the time we were taking our seats, the shooter was dead, and so were a reported nine others, whose lives he had taken. We had no sense of why.

The theatre space at the Guthrie is memorable, but this hall is not intimate. It’s up to the show to create the connections. I found the play mostly fascinating. The actors are high-passion and energy; one of the leads takes multiple parts, and near the beginning offers a long monologue while jumping rope (fast and hard) the whole time. The anguish and confusion of the characters was palpable. The singing was sweet and sad. The final song delivered, making me cry, as the choir sang the words “We are all here….”, and there was a momentary feeling of community in the cold theatre space.

But then the show’s producers failed us. While they reportedly offer a talkback after some shows, they chose not to do so on this night. No one took notice of the day’s events from the stage. It was a perfect moment for conversation about the nuanced and confusing narrative of this play. And it was a night for coming together after the pain of another mass-killing, in a country that seems unable to find a way to address the problems that contribute to these events.

So the mood shifted. I left feeling let down and empty. The Events seems designed to show the humanity of community, and the contribution of music and singing in a group to address pain. This goal was undermined by an obvious omission: the failure to take the time to discuss the events of that very day, and how we felt about them after seeing this play.

If we’re serious about being a partner in community development efforts, we’ll have to be attentive to and prepared to act in these moments, and in those that are less obvious as well. There are many examples of artists and arts organizations doing so, like the Boston museums remaining open free-of-charge to all after the Marathon bombing.

It’s on us, the arts producers, to notice those moments and do what we can. There are times when we can’t, and not all organizations and artists are built to do this. Still, the producers of The Events failed us, the community that its audience might have become that night.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

When the Reviewer Unconsciously Mirrors the Art...and Misses the Point

We went to see Rasheeda Speaking because I love The New Group. The company has never failed me. 

Seeing The New Group production of Hurlyburly in 2005 (with the banging-good cast of Bobby Cannavale, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke, Catherine Kellner, Parker Posey, Wallace Shawn, and Halley Wegryn Gross) in 2005 remains one of the most memorable theatre experiences of my lifetime. 

Getting a last minute ticket to the completely-sold-out show by standing at the doorway and asking people to sell me one of theirs actually worked. And I am pretty sure I bought my ticket—at face value—from, and sat with, Ellen Barkin.

So, when we decided to travel to NY in Feb, I checked to see what The New Group had going.The casting and director and synopsis for Rasheeda Speaking looked promising. 

Cynthia Nixon directs this tense workplace thriller by Joel Drake Johnson, examining the realities of so-called “post-racial” America. Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins star as co-workers who are driven apart by the machinations of their boss. A chilling power struggle ensues that spins wildly out of control. Rasheeda Speaking is an incisive and shocking dark comedy that keeps you in its claustrophobic grip until its final moment. Also featuring Patricia Conolly and Darren Goldstein.

We were headed to NYC while the show was still in previews, so we had no reviews to consider.

No matter. A completely gripping 100 minutes left me in tears and audience members on their feet.

The play made me ache with pain for most of the characters. (The icky subtly-racist doctor...not so much.)

This felt like a pretty genuine tale of subtle racism, unconscious racism, tentative friendship (or friendliness anyway) between races gone awry, and even blatant racism—albeit perhaps with some dementia.

Seeing the show caused me to consider again my own experiences, through a new lens. There's lots of privileged behavior and attitudes in my gentrifying neighborhood these days. And a lot of anger too. So we spend hours every month talking about how to have a conversation about issues that I'd long considered beyond talk. (Mostly because people won't talk about it, not because we don't need to do so.)

This seemed a perfect play to encourage even those of us who believe we are mostly beyond all that (and wish everyone else would just catch up) to remember that we are all racists. That it's impossible really not to be so.

The experience is not going to appeal to everyone, for sure. But this was an audience of people who came—on purpose—to see a play about racism in the workplace. Many would reject the idea as too hard, not fun, old hat even. For those of us who are open to considering how very vigilant we have to be about our own privilege and anger, it's an elegant starting point for a real conversation about race.

I've never wished more for a talkback session at the end of a play. The New Group is hosting several, just not on the day we were there. I wanted so much to hear what other members of the diverse audience thought of it. Did the black audience members react at all as I did? Was it as real for them? What did the actors feel about their character and her actions? 

I told my friends in NY to buy tickets before word got out about this terrific show, before the reviews.


It was a shock then to read the NYTimes review of Rasheeda Speaking a few days later. 

Charles Isherwood likes the acting, and the dialogue. But he thinks that it's just not very real. And that perhaps the playwright is trying too hard to be provocative about race. 

He writes this:
But the characters’ behavior is often so erratic, and occasionally incredible, that you begin to suspect the playwright is more interested in stirring troubling thoughts about racism than in truthfully exploring a complicated subject.  
And this: 
During a later visit, Jaclyn apologizes to Rose for her unwelcoming behavior. Rose accepts the apology and offers a preposterous response. “My son thinks it’s in your culture to act the way you did,” she says. “Something about your way to get revenge for slavery.” While it is conceivable that an older Chicagoan might have such thoughts (or a son who does), we can conclude from Rose’s voicing them only that she’s a nitwit, and, yes, a racist.
And this: 
The fine acting cannot always paper over the implausibility. 
And finally this:
There is certainly something provocative in Mr. Johnson’s desire to infuse a social-issue play with the dynamics of a psychological thriller, as he attempts here, but with a subject as sensitive as the issue of race in America, a more probing and less sensational approach is not just advisable, but necessary.
This review shocked me. Isherwood is a white man. I don't know him. But his review certainly reads like that of someone who saw the show through privileged lenses. It reminded me of hearing white, well-off neighbors say that they don't judge anyone by race, and don't expect to be judged that way by others. Easy for you to say.

There are currently 22 comments on the review. Roughly half of the commenters seem to have had a reaction similar to mine, and most of these are now voted up as readers picks.

There's this:
See, this is the problem when the roster of theatre critics is so overwhelming white. Someone writes something like this: "Rose accepts the apology and offers a preposterous response. “My son thinks it’s in your culture to act the way you did,” she says. “Something about your way to get revenge for slavery.” If Charles Isherwood were black, he wouldn't feel that that response was preposterous. I've heard it several days in my life. He is utterly unqualified to make a preemptive determination that white people don't say preposterous things, like ...your way to get revenge for slavery.
Walk in my shoes, Charles. Walk in my shoes.
 Godfrey Simmons

And this:

Mr. Isherwood should listen to my 73 year old friend describe taking the Metro North to CT with her daughter to spend last Christmas Eve with her son and his family. Only two empty seats, both commandeered by women, one white, one Asian, for their packages. Both refused to clear off the seats for my African American friends until a conductor came along and ordered them to do so. 
The seeming banality of racism experienced every day. Ms. Pinkins said in a recent NYT interview that she experiences it every day of her life. Her partner, a white former cop, doesn't believe her. Or at least he didn't: he should see this remarkable play, acted beautifully.
It is the stuff of psychological thrillers, Mr. Isherwood, as real life can be if we're paying attention. 

And finally, satisfyingly, this:  
While Mr. Isherwood saw the play, I'm not sure he sees the world. Or, rather, he sees a white man's world. I saw the play recently. Immediately after, I overheard a group of black women in the lobby talking passionately about how accurately the playwright captures the experience of black women in professional situations. And Mr. Isherwood's surprise at a woman of Ms. Saunders age making the statement she did about slavery demonstrates a white man's blindness to the real experiences of black people in America. Mr. Isherwood's review unwittingly proves the point, importance and truth of Mr. Johnson's play.
William Hight 

In the end, I'm left with disturbing questions. If reviewers of engaging art about race can't see or hear the point, if they see a play about honest racial tension and misunderstanding and privilege and anger as somehow exaggerated and implausible....then what? Should this play be reviewed by a person of color? (For the record, I am not that.)

I'd like to see this play produced all over the country.

It's engaging and thriller-like, and disturbing and thought-provoking. I mean: it's memorable. It makes you love theatre. It makes you want to talk with strangers in the audience. It stays with you. It's painful, but it still makes you feel happy because it's so good.

And it's about something we all need to consider. I'd like for this play to start new conversations in communities. Could a so-so, even dismissive, Times review prevent that from happening? 

This post is my small way of putting a pebble on the other side of the scale. Writing about race, or even about any play in this way, is a big departure for me. But Rasheeda Speaking at The New Group moved me to do it.

Images from Rasheeda Speaking: Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest | Photos: Monique Carboni | Via NYPost and NYMagazine