Cincinnati arts organizations don’t shy away from conversations about social justice.
As the country grapples with issues of social justice and equality, Cincinnati arts organizations are taking a lead in starting community conversations around these topics through their arts storytelling, thought-provoking arts spaces and leading diversity initiatives.
Earlier this year, as Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati took audiences this spring into a women’s shelter in the days of the Roe v. Wade verdict with “When We Were Young and Unafraid,” the Contemporary Arts Center opened Noel Anderson’s “Blak Origin Moment,” which explores the moments when people knew they were black, and Andrea Bowers’ survey of the feminist movement, “Womxn Workers of the World Unite.” Playhouse in the Park presented a version of “Jane Eyre,” with black actress Margaret Ivey starring, that considers the feminism and classism of the classic story, while Cincinnati Shakespeare Co. produced “A Raisin in The Sun.”
Then, Cincinnati Ballet hosted a season in which more than half the choreographers are women.
“Here we are in an art form that’s nearly all women, and it’s the man who gets to be the artistic director, the choreographer,” said Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director Victoria Morgan, one of just a handful of women artistic directors in American ballet. “The woman is supposed to be the muse. She’s not supposed to be the leader. But it’s such a rich, fun, interesting thing to do. Why should women not do it?”
Morgan’s season was rare — no other major company has head so many works by women — and by putting it together, she’s was asking audiences, “Why?”
Name a Cincinnati arts organization, and the chances are good it is producing something in the next year that asks audiences to consider a question like that — about socioeconomic class or culture, race or gender, or all of the above.
“The arts are uniquely able to promote dialogue and change perceptions and increase awareness of cultures that are different than our own,” said Alecia Kintner, CEO of ArtsWave, the Cincinnati region's leading arts organization. “There’s a strong desire (in Cincinnati) to push this to its fullest potential.”
Many organizations also run ongoing programs that promote equity directly. For example, the Diversity Fellowship Program, a partnership of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, offers an unparalleled two-year learning experience for graduate-level players coming from populations historically underrepresented in classical music. Low-income students across the region also have access to arts performances and education through the work of organizations including the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, community arts centers and the Cincinnati Boychoir.
As Kintner notes, the arts have a natural ability to spark social conversation and change. What’s happening in Cincinnati is an intentional effort to harness that inherent power. ArtsWave is one of the drivers of that effort; the organization provides operational financial support to more than 100 organizations across the region and, several years ago, began asking its arts partners to show how programming was impacting the community in five key ways, including bridging cultural divides.
“We see so much need for having healthy dialogue around differences of all kind,” Kintner said.
About 60 percent of Americans support government funding for arts that promote social and racial equity, according to Americans for the Arts.
But funding isn’t the only reason arts organizations are pursuing work around social issues.
“Diversity and inclusion are important for every organization and in some ways, the corporate world has been way ahead of the nonprofit one,” said Blake Robison, artistic director of Playhouse in the Park.
When he arrived in Cincinnati five years ago, Robison began the associate artist program to bring a diverse group of nationally known directors to Cincinnati.
“Every community has valuable stories,” Robison said. “Every community deserves to have its stories told and the easiest thing is to have people at the table who can identify those stories.”
In addition to bringing new perspectives to the stage, associate directors such as KJ Sanchez have reached out to the community and found more stories to tell. Sanchez is working on a documentary theater piece about the history of King Records, the integrated Cincinnati recording studio that produced groundbreaking rock-and-roll.
Once arts organizations get people thinking about social issues, the next step is giving people a place to discuss their thoughts and questions. Cincinnati Art Museum attributes the “terrific response” to “30 Americans,” an exhibit of the work of 30 African-American artists, last year to a discussion area — filled with art and resources about the experience of being black in America — that encouraged people to learn more and talk about the work they were seeing.
The museum recently completed a $1M renovation creating a more permanent version of this discussion space — “a living room of sorts for the community,” Executive Director Cameron Kitchin said. While not every exhibit deals directly in social issues, all art prompts questions about the world in which it was created and in which we live.
“The museum has a role in trying to bring people together around civil discourse on these sensitive issues,” Kitchin said. “The museum shouldn’t be shy around social change and in allowing artists to speak around all sides of ideas.”
And art can be a social glue, he added.
“You can put two people together in a blank room and little will happen,” Kitchin said. “You put those same people in a room with art and there’s something there. There’s a conversation. There’s a connection.”
To find arts performances and programs to make you think, visit www.cincyartsguide.com.
Hillary Copsey is a writer and editor enjoying all the exhibits, music, libraries and restaurants Cincinnati has to offer. Follow @HillaryCopsey on Twitter and Instagram.