Place 16 of 52: The Arts Are Flourishing in Cincinnati

The Mural Women

Everywhere you go downtown, you’ll notice beautiful, elaborate murals painted on the sides of buildings. Favorites include a hyper-realistic vignette of vintage toys (Care Bears, Yoda, Mr. Potato Head), and a bright, graphic tribute to Henry Holtgrewe, a German immigrant once touted as the strongest man in the world.

They’re almost all the creations of a remarkable, 22-year-old, women-led nonprofit called ArtWorks Cincinnati. I spent an inspiring evening with its founder, Tamara Harkavy — through Dargie, who knows her and was in town — and learned that teenagers, under the supervision of an adult guest artist, had painted every mural I had been admiring. Beautification is just a side effect of teaching children from all over the city the value of diverse team building.

“Somebody asked a question like, ‘Why did you get into art?’,” Ms. Harkavy said, describing a meeting. “And this young woman, high school student, just lost it talking about being bullied. And this young man, who’s 14, just put his arm around her and gave her a moment.”

The Performance Triangle

In the late 1800s, OTR’s Vine Street once contained 136 saloons, taverns, and beer gardens, as I learned on a terrific tour of the city’s underground beer-brewing tunnels. Today, the neighborhood is the booming heart of the city’s performing arts scene.

Last October, the blocklong, 140-year-old Music Hall — a marvel of Gothic architecture and home to every classical-arts institution in the city — revealed a $143 million face lift. Down the block is Memorial Hall, a concert venue in a building from 1908 (also recently renovated). And across the street from that, the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, just moved into its new $17-million home, modeled after the Royal National Theatre in London and Shakespeare’s Globe, among others.

It’s designed so that no seat is more than 20 feet from the stage. The names of all 38 Shakespeare plays are engraved onto its steps; Cincy Shakes, as they call themselves, was one of the first five companies in the world to complete the canon. Even the bathroom sinks have a relevant quote from “Macbeth”: “A little water clears of us this deed.”

But the venue that had me tearing up was the Ensemble Theatre, which recently renovated after hanging strong in OTR for 32 years. For a long time, they were one of the only businesses, and the only theater, in the neighborhood. Their new lobby was created from a parking lot and an abandoned tenement building. “Even a few years ago, having a glass front in the theater was unthinkable,” said Lauren Carr, the theater’s director of education and outreach. “Everything down the street was bulletproof, but we wanted to be open to the neighborhood, and that’s why we stayed.”

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