Opinion: Beauty is in the Street

Theo Erasmus
Theo Erasmus

I love cities and have lived in many of them – from the pungent chaos of Cairo to shiny Melbourne to indefatigable New York, and now, at last, Cincinnati.

And I tend to decipher them, pore over their inner workings and rummage around for their soul – the animating force that breathes life into brick and mortar, that holds the city’s stories.

Mostly, I believe that this animating force involves both art and community. (Yes, commerce is part of community, but only if it takes the idea of community seriously and contributes to it positively.)

Cincinnati has a fascinating history and many fine institutions. But what animates it? What does it whisper? What does it shout? Where are the edges? Where are the fierce energies bubbling from?

Which brings me to the idea of art and communities and neighborhoods. I ask myself: Who gets to decide the story and shape of community? Who decides how people live? Engineers? Developers? Politicians? Communities? Artists?

Not every community has river views, artisanal bakeries and gourmet burger bars, but as Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, says, “Every community has artists. It’s the one asset already present in every community.”

Artists are often the conscience of the community, a reflection of that community, and their presence holds out the possibility of magic and singularity. They hold the possibility of a place not driven by profit, but by the people who live there.

This idea, of course, challenges many of the orthodoxies of developer-led thinking, which often defines community by plans that are set and certain. And that often leads to a bland sameness in the execution.

Then there’s “gentrification.” It is surely better than strip malls and chicken franchises, but often includes a story of exclusion, in which the artists who pave the way for an influx of new residents into a poor neighborhood eventually are excluded (along with the poor people) by sky-high property prices and cups of coffee sold as luxury items.

The value of a community should not be measured in property values, but in community values. We should ask: Is there beauty? Is there joy? Is there support? Is there connection?

Wave Pool Art Center in Camp Washington believes in pairing communities’ knowledge of their needs with artists’ sense of possibility. It is committed to being community-driven and artist-led.

Artists are often the conscience of the community, a reflection of that community, and their presence holds out the possibility of magic and singularity. They hold the possibility of a place not driven by profit, but by the people who live there. Theo Erasmus

That is, to me, the crux: “the sense of possibility.” Without it, we’re doomed to keep creating what is safe, predictable and pre-tested – and we’ll experience an inexorable withering of meaning and beauty.

Cal Cullen, executive director of Wave Pool, which aims to use experimental art to connect communities, believes in a philosophy that emphasizes “listen to your neighbor. And do what needs to be done.” And she thinks it’s important for a neighborhood to be built by the people it serves.

Cullen has achieved remarkable, inspiring things in Camp Washington. The long dormant district is more vibrant, dynamic and imaginative than it’s been before she and her family took up residence in the old firehouse on Colerain.

Another artist who has had a real impact is artist Mark DeJong, whose family has owned property there since the 1980s.

DeJong has an artist’s understanding of the beauty of the architecture, as well as the possibilities of community and art.

A striking example is DeJong’s Swing House, a gutted three-story house in Camp Washington that has a swing hung from the ceiling. It shows that buildings can be art and be meaningful, and that an artist’s intervention can make all the difference.

Swing House

One of the profound things about this project is, as DeJong said: “It’s an unreasonable financial move.” It’s beautiful and meaningful, not because it will make money, but because these attributes are valuable in themselves.

There is a generosity and humanity about the Swing House that used to be a feature of neighborhoods – which is why Cincinnati has such a wealth of extraordinary buildings.

In fact, DeJong and I agree that architecture is one of the best things about Cincinnati. It’s an astounding legacy, and every day I see more to inspire me. But it doesn’t feature in the tourist guides in any significant way.

When it comes to art and community, inevitable questions arise from the hard-nosed and number-bound about quantifying the value, knowing the process, controlling the outcome.

Mary Clare Rietz, a Cincinnati artist and community organizer, is a “socially engaged artist,” which she defines as producing a space of encounter. She’s particularly interested in framing experiences for people to connect – with themselves, each other, issues they care about, their places.

She wants to create spaces for communities to get together and hear each other’s stories, then use the shared stories to help organize their plan of action.

This could mean identifying one to two artists per neighborhood, and integrating them into squads for that area. These squads set up “creative kiosks” in high-traffic areas in neighborhoods, and prompt the community with questions, making the response visual or performative.

This “art” is then taken to a creative congress where collaborative analysis of the visual display of responses and ideas guides participants in deciding what to act on.

The community is engaged where it is; They tell their stories, then art interprets these as visual and performative elements – and in essence communities can be shaped through art engaging with them.

Communities become a reflection of their stories. There are few things more beautiful than that.

Theo Erasmus is founder at brand strategy consultancy Timbuctoo, a collective think tank committed to the art of business and the business of art. He has worked in human rights activism, advertising, the original dot-com boom, innovation and as founder of three companies, along with forays into journalism, from the South African crime beat to NY culture. He’s an adviser/supporter at Wave Pool Art Gallery, a trustee at the Contemporary Art Center, a committee member for This Time Tomorrow Performance Festival and resident of The House of Beautiful Business.

This essay is the second in a series we plan to present in coming months, further exploring the intersection of business, community and the arts.

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