Cincinnati Arts Leaders Reaffirm Freedom of Thought

Article excerpt

ARTS leaders here sighed with relief when the obscenity trial concerning the Contemporary Arts Center ended last month. But the acquittal of the center and its director has not quieted their fears that Cincinnati's national image has been tarnished, they say.

"Are we now synonymous with ultra-conservative prosecution of the arts?" asks Millard Rogers Jr., director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. "Time will tell."

Because local officials tried to shut down the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which they said violated obscenity laws, and took their case to court, arts leaders are concerned that the rest of the country may view the Queen City as a cultural backwater suspicious of the arts, unreceptive to whatever is unconventional.

Cincinnati, however, "is not a community that's been closed in and narrow-minded," asserts Kathleen Norris, managing director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Judging by the theater's audiences, "there's a lot of adventurousness out there," she says.

People involved in the arts here defend their city as a lively oasis of culture, reflective of Ohio's overall ranking in the country as a top supporter of the arts. While not as mighty as the cultural powerhouse that is Cleveland, nor as ambitious in cutting-edge art as yuppified Columbus, Cincinnati has a unique mix of offerings not typical for cities its size.

"It's small, yet it produces and supports a large number of world-class cultural institutions," says Mr. Rogers, interviewed at the palatial art museum, which rates among the top 20 in the country.

Besides the museum and the Contemporary Arts Center, headline attractions include the Playhouse in the Park, the city opera and ballet, and the 96-year-old Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which has been nationally recognized for its commitment to presenting new music. "You'd almost have to go to Chicago, New York, or Boston to find that same cultural mix," says Rogers.

In contemporary art, Cincinnati has been "an expected venue" for both national and international artists, says Derrick Woodham, a sculptor and director of the School of Art at the University of Cincinnati. …