Mu Sinclaire thrives at the intersection of risk and community
By JOHN FAHERTY
Mu Sinclaire has a Mu Sinclaire problem. If a proposal seems like it might lead to greatness, or beauty, or community, he wants in. He cannot help himself.
“One time my wife had me stand in front of the mirror and practice saying that word,” Sinclaire said from his downtown office. “It is just two letters, and sometimes I can’t say it.”
Sinclaire seems to have a hard time saying the word even when he is talking about having a hard time saying the word. If the project is right, Sinclaire can’t get to “no.”
And this city is better for it. Murray Sinclaire – everybody calls him Mu – is involved with the Cincinnati Opera, Music Hall, ArtWorks, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center. His role in the renovation of Music Hall cannot be overstated. He is the chairperson of WVXU – Cincinnati’s Public Radio.
These might be the types of things you expect from a person who has made an extraordinary amount of money. It would be honorable, certainly, but almost an expected form of largesse.
Sinclaire rarely does exactly what is expected of him. That is why he takes chances on people who have ideas, but may lack the necessary resources. That is why he has helped talented restaurateurs and idealistic brewers. It is why he was there at the start of MusicNOW.
MusicNOW might seem like a safe bet in hindsight, but in the early days, when Bryce Dessner of The National was dreaming it up, it screamed risk. It was pitched as a Cincinnati music festival for contemporary artists with an avant-garde bent. Keep in mind that The National wasn’t really The National yet and the guys in the band had only recently quit their day jobs. That is probably why Dressner went to Sinclaire for support.
“We stood here in this office, and he pitched it to me. I loved it. I thought it would make good music, and I thought it would help this city,” Sinclaire said. “And it has worked.”
The intersection of risk and art and community is where Sinclaire thrives. And where he has the hardest time saying that two-letter word.
“He supports the little guys, sometimes in ways that make them big guys,” said Tamara Harkavy, the founder of ArtWorks. ArtWorks is everywhere now. Its budget is in the millions of dollars, but it was not always. “Mu was with us, in the down and dirty, when our budget was hundreds of thousands. But he liked what we were doing.”
The sign outside the door of the sixth-floor offices of Ross, Sinclaire & Associates explains exactly what the company does: financial advisory, brokerage services, public finance and investment banking. Sinclaire co-founded the company in 1989 and now runs it. The company fairly reeks of money.
But as soon as you walk through the door and enter, you are greeted by two pieces of art. White canvases with phrases written on them in a simple black font. On the first: “Nowhere better than this place.” And on the second: “Somewhere better than this place.”
The art could summarize Sinclaire’s affection for this city, the childhood home of his wife Robin. He loves Cincinnati in a way transplants sometimes do more often than generational natives. He likes the food, the architecture, the art, the culture and the people. He knows there is still work to be done, and he likes that this a place where a person can make a difference. Sinclaire does.
Much of Sinclaire’s recent work has centered around Music Hall, the landmark built in 1878 and in desperate need of expensive renovation. Make that an extraordinarily expensive renovation, with a price tag nearing $130 million.
“Mu is the ultimate community connector. He has the unique ability to bring people together to help with community challenges and issues,” said Scott Provancher, president of Lewis & Clark Co. Provancher’s company works with nonprofits and philanthropists to manage major fundraising projects. Music Hall qualifies, and Sinclaire was a perfect advocate. “Mu was a quiet force behind the ‘Save Our Icons’ initiative for the renovation of Music Hall,” Provancher said. “Mu chaired the Cultural Facilities Task Force after Bob McDonald went to Washington, and helped raise $60 million for the project.”
Sinclaire was born and raised in New Jersey. He went to prep school and Princeton and now runs a financial shop. But if you think that paints a full picture, know that Sinclaire also spent his summers as a kid working a Montana dude ranch, that he went to Jerry Garcia’s wedding, and that in 1977, he and Robin moved to an 1,110-acre piece of land in Kentucky that was and remains rolling hills of not much. Sinclaire calls it “an educational center with the mission of exploring alternative energy, organic agriculture and husbandry, and crafts.”
Sinclaire does concede that it sounds a lot like a commune filled with late-’70s hippies. “There was,” he acknowledges, “a lot of long hair and long beards.”
Sinclaire certainly honed his sense of community there, and he and Robin brought it with them when they left the farm and moved to Cincinnati. They held on to it when he started the company and when they eventually bought Robin’s childhood home in East Walnut Hills.
The Sinclaires hold regular Sunday night potluck dinners that forge connections. “It is incredible the way they open the doors of their house for so many people,” Harkavy said. “That becomes part of the way they support people and make communities.”
The Sinclaires raised their three daughters in that home, and Mu refers to them frequently when he speaks of Cincinnati. “This is a great place to raise a family.”
But Sinclaire is not naive. He likes to help this city, at least in part, because he knows it can still use help. “As great as it is, I still think Cincinnati is a little bit fragile,” Sinclaire said. He worries about the airport and what this will mean for long-term business growth. More broadly, he worries about opportunities. “We need to get our hands around equality. Not everybody has the same chance right now.”
Sinclaire is doing that, but not mentioning it very much. It was happenstance that I knew the young man leaving Sinclaire’s office building in early February. This man runs an organization that helps non-traditional entrepreneurs get the counsel they need in underserved communities.
“What gives me the most pleasure is seeing the next generation coming up,” Sinclaire said. “I think it is very dynamic for this city to be an entrepreneurial town. I like being able to think people now on the margins will be able to make a difference in this city.”
Sinclaire likes to invest where he can to make a difference. And where he has an interest. He put his money in Rhinegeist Brewery in Over-the-Rhine. He invested in the Boca Restaurant Group because he believed in chef and restaurateur David Falk. This belief helped bring Cincinnati the restaurants Boca, Nada and Sotto. It also led to a lot of jobs, national exposure and countless terrific dinners.
“Considering how risky investing in restaurants can be,” Provancher said, “one could argue that his support of the local restaurant scene is another great donation to our city.”
Sinclaire will continue to help the city by creating community, cutting checks and getting other people to realize they want to help as well. Sinclaire knows you just have to find them. When he needs to do that, he thinks back to his days as a teenager on the ranch in Montana.
“I got up every morning at 4, and I had to wrangle the horses because I was the low man on the totem pole,” Sinclaire said. It did not take him long to realize that some horses were leaders others would follow. Sinclaire just needed to find that one horse, put a bell on her, and the other horses would get in line behind her. Sinclaire remembers one horse in particular.
“If you could find Susie, and put a bell around her, the hard part was done,” Sinclaire said. “In this town, there are bell mares, if you can find them, and if you can put a bell around them, you can find all sorts of people. They will follow, and they will help.”
And when the bell mares follow Mu, big things can happen. They can restore landmarks and keep the music playing.
“Mu Sinclaire can move mountains, he has risen to the occasion time and again,” said Patricia K. Beggs, general director and CEO of Cincinnati Opera. “He’s truly a renaissance man. I am fortunate to have him as a colleague, and honored to call him a friend.