Designing magic, delivering community
Growing up in Indianapolis, Marie Krulewitch-Browne dabbled in various facets of the performing arts – singing, choir, dance, acting. At Ohio Wesleyan University, she got involved in visual arts, graduating with a BFA in painting, BA in psychology and a minor in music.
But even early on, she knew she wasn’t interested in being “a one-woman show.”
“I always had this self-consciousness about me as the creator, me as the main performer, and really kind of stepped back from that emotionally,” said Krulewitch-Browne, who is now executive and artistic director of the nonprofit ish, which celebrates Jewish arts and cultural traditions. “I love collaboration. Being part of a group or collective was so much more interesting to me.”
She’d met her now husband, Tristan Browne, at Ohio Wesleyan. Following him to Cincinnati in 2011, she got her first job at ArtWorks. There, she was exposed to community engagement as a way to artmaking – and her path became clear.
“This idea of ‘social practice’ totally transformed how I think about my role,” the Pleasant Ridge resident said. She came to see herself as a social art practitioner, convener and advocate.
“I do that by convening groups of artists and people together to co-create something, whether that’s an experience or a piece of art or an event, in a variety of media,” she said. “This idea of bringing together people through art is so important to me. I absolutely love it and want to do it forever.”
Her latest effort in that realm is the BLINK Opening Night Parade, which ish is planning. Set for Oct. 13, the parade will kick off the multiday art, light and culture festival.
It’s work that’s not unfamiliar to her – while at ArtWorks, Krulewitch-Browne was involved with BLINK’s first-ever parade in 2017. (Pam Kravetz was the parade’s designer that year; Krulewitch-Browne and ArtWorks colleague Josh Stout worked to help bring her vision to life.) And it certainly fits with her love of bringing people together through art: Organizers say BLINK drew 1.3 million attendees in 2019, and Krulewitch-Browne estimates some 150,000 of them experienced the parade.
‘Community’ is in her blood
“The idea of being in community with others has really strongly shaped who I am,” Krulewitch-Browne said.
It started with her upbringing. Her father’s side of the family is Jewish, and she grew up “immersed in what it meant to be part of a Jewish community,” from service and giving back to coming together to share a meal or an experience.
“It’s hard to be a solo Jewish person,” she said. “So much is really the cultural aspect of engaging with others.”
At the same time, on her mother’s Italian Catholic side, “family is at the heart of everything,” she said.
“I had this really beautiful interfaith, multicultural mashup that really emphasized the importance of being in relationships with other people,” she said.
It wasn’t always simple (and it was definitely never quiet), but the environment offered love and support – and instilled the value of relationships and collaboration.
The latter is something she excels at in her work, according to ArtWorks founder and former CEO Tamara Harkavy, who hired Krulewitch-Browne.
“She is an incredible, creative collaborator and flourishes in a role where she can pull in many sides to a conversation,” Harkavy said. “She can listen and actually hear what people are saying and work to weave many various points of view or ideas into the ultimate execution of a project.”
Her energy and “can do” attitude are also assets to her work.
“Marie is really enthusiastic about everything,” said Colleen Houston, ArtWorks’ current CEO and artistic director, who worked with Krulewitch-Browne during her time there. “She’s very high energy and wants to be involved in everything. It’s exciting to have someone like Marie on your team who puts that much commitment into their work.”
That enthusiasm comes through when Krulewitch-Browne speaks about art, particularly community art.
“For me, art is not a side-item menu. It is an essential part of any quality life experience,” she said. “What I feel makes us so authentically human is this pull and desire and passion to create. … When we can do that together, it’s so powerful.
“I’m not a by-the-book, traditionally religious person by any means, but being together with people in the creation of some type of arts experience is probably some of the most spiritual times that I’ve had,” she said.
During her years at ArtWorks, she worked in multiple departments, from development to marketing to event planning to programming. Among her many roles was serving as director of ArtRX, an art therapy division; she was eventually promoted to senior director of programs.
“I always thought of Marie as a rising star at ArtWorks and a rising star in our arts community,” Houston said. (She nominated Krulewitch-Brown for the Forty Under 40 Awards two years ago. Krulewitch-Brown earned the award this year.)
“It became really clear that (Krulewitch-Brown) is really ambitious and really willing to take on any kind of opportunity that was a need in the organization,” Harkavy said.
BLINK is a case in point. Harkavy was on the leadership team planning the event in partnership with Brave Berlin, Agar, The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation and the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. When she told the ArtWorks team about it, Krulewitch-Browne “knew how much of a hit it was going to be.”
So she raised her hand to help and became ArtWorks’ BLINK program director for the first edition in 2017.
“It was such an incredible experience,” she said. “It was great to be able to sit around the table with other creatives who had accomplished so much, and I found that I was able to bring something to the table.”
BLINK and ish grew up together
Coincidentally, ish and BLINK share a similar origin timeframe.
As Krulewitch-Brown got involved with Cincinnati’s Jewish community and learned about its Jewish history, she wondered why there wasn’t a Jewish festival. Not one to shy away from a challenge, she submitted a grant proposal to create one in 2016. She got the grant and some additional funding to host the first ish festival in September 2017, just a month before the first BLINK.
Krulewitch-Brown describes the biennial ish festival as “a mix of Summerfair Cincinnati, City Flea, Asian Food Fest, the State Fair.” Its offerings include arts and crafts vendors; restaurants and chefs selling traditional Jewish and “ish” food; stage- and crowd-based performers, including dancers, vocalists and choral groups; an arts-based, walking Jewish history tour created in partnership with other organizations. (The mobile self-guided tour is still accessible at www.ishfestival.org/tour.html.)
After a successful 2019 ish festival (and the second BLINK), other organizations encouraged year-round programming through ish. So she established it as an independent nonprofit, though she was still running it during her spare time while working at ArtWorks. (ArtWorks supported her side work on ish “100 million percent,” Harkavy said.)
So for 2020, ish planned a roster of experiences to establish it as “more than just a festival.”
Of course, that March, everything shut down because of COVID-19. Krulewitch-Brown lost childcare for her two sons (now ages 8 and 3½; she’s also “mom” to two dogs, a cat, a guinea pig and two snakes) and went on leave from ArtWorks.
“It was really hard, but I had to be a mom first,” she said.
Also hard: celebrating Passover in lockdown, rather than as a shared, experiential dinner. Afterward, she realized it must have been sad for a lot of people – and kicked herself because ish hadn’t done something.
She realized ish “needed a lot more focus.” With the funding she had, she determined she could run ish part-time and do project work – specifically, serving as project manager for the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial. It launched with the 2021 ish festival and the rededication of the Chestnut Street Cemetery and will close with “Legacy: A Concert for Cincinnati” featuring Walk the Moon, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, with special guest Lawrence on Oct. 15 (BLINK weekend). In between were 50 to 75 different community programs, according to Harkavy, the bicentennial’s co-chair.
While Krulewitch-Brown worked on bicentennial planning, at ish, she set her sights on the 2020 High Holidays. Ish devised Holidays in a Box, a curated artisan gift box “that allowed you to explore Jewish holidays in a new way.”
“From there, something sparked,” she said. In December 2020, ish hosted a virtual event that included a chef interview and cookbook release, partnering with five different restaurants to offer meals inspired by the book’s recipes.
In spring 2021, ish became the new operator for the Cincinnati Jewish Teen Initiative. Of course, they approached the program through the lens of creativity and community.
Krulewitch-Browne is quick to emphasize that ish, which now has four full-time employees and a couple of part-timers, isn’t a religious organization. Instead, it works to elevate Jewish cultural identity, “to celebrate and create space for people who identify as being Jewish or people who are curious about Jewish culture,” as well as to break down stereotypes and “one-dimensional ways of looking at being Jewish. I’ve heard people say ‘I’m more ish than Jewish.’ We really emphasize the ish … It’s a ‘yes and.’ It’s a little of this, a little of that,” she said.
“Whether you’re Jewish (or) have Jewish heritage; whether you’re Jew curious; whether you just love to experience another culture and to try something new and have different arts and cultural experiences … We are so excited you’re here,” she said. “Come play and create with us.”
The very first BLINK kicked off with a parade near Findlay Market.
“It was so homemade; it was so organic; it was pure magic that first year,” Krulewitch-Browne said.
In 2019, the parade moved Downtown and became a more elaborate show with more participants and larger sculptures.
“It was more polished; there are pros and cons to that,” Krulewitch-Browne said of the 2019 parade. “It lost a little bit of the surprise and the magic. For 2022, we’re really hoping to merge the magic of 2017 with the incredible ‘wow’ factor that was 2019.”
When ish considered producing this year’s parade, they thought about how to make it “ish-y.” That meant highlighting cultural heritage and celebrating identities – hence this year’s parade theme: “Together: a constellation of shared cultures and unique identities; we illuminate joy through creative expression.”
How should you experience BLINK’s Opening Night Parade?
“First off, experience it,” Krulewitch-Browne said. “The BLINK parade is unlike any other parade Cincinnati has. It is truly an art parade. It will feel like a magical nighttime performance.”
She suggests planning ahead as to what time you’ll arrive, where you’ll park and where you’ll stand. The parade is appropriate for all ages, and attendees are welcome to bring chairs, water and snacks. (There will also be concessions for sale.)
Get into the spirit by wearing your own light – or even a costume. Krulewitch-Browne promises you won’t be the only one.
“We love to blur the lines between parade participant and spectator,” she said. “Take the opportunity to immerse yourself in this silly, fantastical experience. BLINK weekend should be an opportunity to play.”
What: BLINK Opening Night Parade
When: 7:30 p.m. (subject to change) Thursday, Oct.13
Where: Central Business District. Organizers will announce the exact route the week of the event. New this year, the parade will conclude with a finale performance and lighting (location TBA).
Online: The parade will be live streamed via media partner WCPO.
BLINK is billed as the nation’s largest light, art and projection mapping experience. Dozens of installations and murals will fill the downtown basin, from Over-the-Rhine to downtown and across the Roebling Bridge into Covington.
Oct. 13-16, 7-11 p.m.