10 years of the Art Academy in OTR, a story of potential realized but not yet realized

When the Art of Academy of Cincinnati moved to its new location in Over-the-Rhine 10 years ago, it was ahead of the curve in showing its faith in the neighborhood’s future.

The site itself was rugged and post-industrial – a six-story building that had housed a printing press and an adjacent four-story building that had first been a Shillito warehouse and later an art museum storage facility from Cincinnati. They were both on Jackson Street extending north from 12th Street.

Seeing this as a future university campus – an art school – was visionary. Especially considering that the Art Academy was moving from an idyllic “mansion on the hill” location in Eden Park, in a building adjoining the Cincinnati Museum of Art.

The overall area around 1212 Jackson St., the Art Academy’s new address, was quite rough, although there are signs of improvement.

Across the Rhine was still recovering from the upheavals of 2001. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) had not yet intensified its massive intervention in the dilapidated housing stock of the historic district; Washington Park was considered too dangerous for nighttime visits; the tram was a memory rather than a vision of the future; and Main Street, which had flourished as a bar/club destination in the 1990s, was struggling again.

Now, of course, the revival of Over-the-Rhine has gained international acclaim. And the Art Academy’s idea of ​​combining the two buildings into a single, redeveloped, LEED-certified facility has become both a catalyst and a symbol of the neighborhood’s recent gradual transformation.

“We like to think we were the pioneers who saw the potential here,” says John Sullivan, president of the Art Academy since February 2012, when he arrived here after serving as vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty of Watkins College of Nashville. Art, design and cinema.

But the rewards are not money. And in some ways, the Academy of the Arts has given Over-the-Rhine — and Cincinnati — more than it has received in return.

Shortly after the move, she found herself in debt after a fundraising campaign failed during the Great Recession. And some parents were nervous about their kids going there.

The worst of the money problems is over now, Sullivan said. But the school has yet to attract more students for its four-year degree-granting undergraduate program.

“If I were to think back on it, it was a difficult move and there was the stigma of moving to Over-the-Rhine,” he says, noting that 85% of Art Academy students are from the area. of Greater Cincinnati. “People suddenly didn’t want to come to the Academy of Arts because of the new location. We still haven’t gotten past that stigma of having to move into a “fortress in the middle of Dodge City.”

“A huge sense of heritage and history here”

The Academy of Fine Arts had to leave its former home. He and the Cincinnati Art Museum, both members of the Cincinnati Museum Association, had agreed to sever the relationship that had existed between them since 1887 as they both needed to grow. (The Art Academy’s roots go back even further, to 1869, as the McMicken School of Design.)

The Art Academy left with a $14 million endowment as part of its spinoff, according to Sullivan, and the art museum building on Jackson Street.

No longer a museum school, the private, nonprofit Art Academy has begun a new chapter. The hope and expectation was that her future would be as remarkable as her past. The list of famous alumni and teachers includes Frank Duveneck, Joseph Henry Sharp, Elizabeth Nourse, Ralston Crawford, Paul Chidlaw, Charley and Edie Harper (they met as students), album cover illustrator Jim Flora, Op-Art pioneer Julian Stanczak and many more.

To mark the new beginning, the Academy of Arts sought to make a bold and creative statement with the adaptive reuse of the old buildings that were to be its new home. Because the floors of the two buildings don’t naturally align, architects from Baltimore’s Design Collective—working with input from faculty and students—joined the buildings with a sprawling atrium featuring a black steel staircase.

The whole place is funky and chic like a SoHo loft, full of smartly integrated new spaces for classrooms, artist studios, galleries, a community hall, and offices. And its now-iconic “ART” neon exterior sign, designed by the architects, resembles the marquee of one of the city center’s long-gone old movie palaces.

The message to the community as a whole was clear: cherish your architectural history, don’t destroy it.

Today’s Art Academy carefully nurtures the “ghosts” of the past, like the yellow tape on the concrete floor that once marked security lines to help keep its distance from the printing machines.

“There’s a huge sense of heritage and history here,” Sullivan says. “We try to keep all the pieces we can.”

For some of those students who moved in 2005, the rewards were thrilling.

“A year before the move, I bought an apartment downtown on Clay Street so I could be right around the corner and ready to go,” recalls Steve Kemple, who graduated in 2007. “A something that was unexpected for me was the difference the space felt, how much it affects everything and changed the dynamics of the classrooms. I had kind of taken for granted the amount of fuss and psychic ruts that had been carried into old space. All of a sudden you’re in a space where you don’t feel that. It was a bit like having just come down from a building.

Other recent graduates feel the same way. If only that word spread a little, Sullivan says — right now the school has just over 200 students and needs 250.

“We are sustainable at this level,” he says. “But in order to give us the kind of elasticity in our operations where we can absorb a little loss or deal with an unexpected expense or do some extra construction for a program, we need a little more revenue from tuition fees.

“But there is another factor in addition to the economic factor. You need to have enough students for the class dynamic to be acceptable. You don’t want to be a teacher in front of a class of three students.

The Academy of Art requires accreditation for its students to receive government-backed loans for the payment of tuition fees. Sullivan is proud to be accredited by two institutions, the Regional Commission on Higher Education and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. (In addition to the undergraduate program, the school offers a summer master of arts sequence in arts education, primarily for teachers who also want to do art.)

Although the annual undergraduate tuition cost is approximately $27,000, 100% of students at the Academy of the Arts receive some kind of tuition assistance. Sullivan calls it, essentially, “sticker price” discounts.

“Has the man paid!”

Sullivan arrived after a search to replace the chairman who oversaw the 2005 move, Gregory Smith. The latter left in 2009 in what was labeled by The inspector as a “redesign”.

Sullivan said the Art Academy is “light and tight” (a cycling term) now. He paid off his mortgage in 2011, sold a third building (at 12th and Walnut Streets) to 3CDC for $500,000 in 2013, raised some $200,000 at Chidlaw and Stanczak’s art auction, did further cuts and is now virtually debt free with an endowment valued at $1.6 million.

Under Sullivan’s stewardship, the Art Academy has purchased a revenue-generating parking lot and is seeking to develop vacant space on the first floor – 12th and Jackson – where a brewery once stood. But the right developer should have a community focus that matches the Art Academy, and Sullivan estimates construction costs at $1.5 million.

“I hate sitting on top of 8,000 square feet of space on the silver corner of Over-the-Rhine,” he says.

In the meantime, the move from across the Rhine necessitated a new, broader pedagogical approach.

“It’s downtown, an urban landscape,” Sullivan says. “So we are seeing a bit of friction between traditional methodologies and new design and electronics methodologies. It’s very constructive and makes us all progress. »

An example of this growth is the current pilot project involving film/videography, which may one day join design, illustration, painting and drawing, photography, print media, and sculpture as majors. (Art History and Creative Writing are currently only offered as minors). The school is converting half of its traditional “wet photography” lab facilities to film and video.

“We’ve already offered classes,” Sullivan says. “Children can come in and sign up for an animation course, for example. I will tell you that some of the work already produced here with minimal inventory of equipment and minimal space is just amazing. A child builds wonderful little creatures out of sticks and balls and pieces of fabric and brings them to life and makes them do all this interaction. It was wonderful. So that tells me that we picked the right time to jump in and do it the right way.

The positivity at the start of the new school year extends to the faculty.

“The creative process involves taking risks and blurring various boundaries, and… we had to come down the hill so that we could expand beyond our walls to be part of a larger urban community,” says Ken Henson, associate professor and head of illustration, in an email. “Those who remember Germany 10 years ago know how much we risked moving here. But has the man paid!

Truly, this positivity can be seen even in the artwork on display in Sullivan’s office. There’s a spectacular Stanczak belonging to the Academy of Arts, a gift from the Drackett Corp., on the wall of his office, its bright colors amidst the sunlight streaming through the windows. Sullivan displays only two of the five panels that make up this important 1983 acrylic painting, “Medopher Five”.

If all the innovations and improvements work, and more students—and Cincinnati itself—discover what the Art Academy brings to its mission to educate the artists of tomorrow, growth could happen. The space can accommodate up to 350-375 students.

“If we got any bigger than that, we should start worrying about what we’re going to do next,” Sullivan says. “We should start moving to West Chester, to a shopping centre.”

Mildred D. Field