The Clifton Cultural Arts Center finds a home

The new Clifton Cultural Arts Center is full of light. Even on the grayest day, the towering front wall of glass illuminates the white-on-white interior with a breathtaking glow.

The blank space is waiting to be adorned with whatever creative adventures the expected thousands of visitors and patrons conjure up.

CCAC’s new home at 3412 Clifton Ave. officially opens its doors on March 9. But they’ve been holding a few classes there since early February so they can ease into the space and see that the building actually works.

The three-story, 20,000-square-foot, brick and glass structure has a roof terrace that is expected to see heavy use in warm weather. Inside are spaces dedicated to visual arts, dance, theater and community gatherings.

Clifton Cultural Arts Center executive director Leslie Mooney at the new center
Clifton Cultural Arts Center Executive Director Leslie Mooney on the roof terrace of the new building
(Photo: Tina Gutierrez)

As important as the building itself, though, is the location. It faces Clifton Avenue, just a couple of hundred feet north of the Clifton-Ludlow intersection that is the epicenter of one of the city’s most progressive neighborhoods.

It is highly visible, towering over the parking lot of one of the busiest Skyline Chili locations in the area. Scoff if you will, but location is everything. And this is an A-list location.

This building – the vision of Emersion Design – is, in nearly every way, the CCAC that supporters have dreamt of since the organization was created 20 years ago.

But the journey to get to this point has not been an easy one. “Grueling” and “contentious” could be applied to the path, which has been littered with several headline-grabbing bumps along the way.

Beginnings

Back in 2004, the idea of an arts center in Clifton was a no-brainer. As every marketer knows, the 45220 ZIP code was and is a hub of arts-interested people. Yes, college students are abundant. But Clifton also is home to many, many medical professionals and academic staff from the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College.

At the outset, there were a few complications. One of the early debates was about the name. Should they include “Clifton” in the name? If they did, would it limit their audience?

“We liked the idea of the ‘Uptown Arts Center,’ ” founding board member Mark McKillip recalled. “But Dick Rosenthal already had that name – ‘Uptown Arts’ – so we decided to stick with ‘Clifton.’ ”

Besides, Cincinnati Public Schools had announced in 2002 that it was planning to shutter Clifton School, a Beaux Arts landmark built in 1906 and one of the anchors of the Clifton Avenue Historic District.

For McKillip, an architect, and many others, the idea that the building would be left to deteriorate was unthinkable.

“They said it wasn’t worth renovating,” McKillip said. “So we said that we would buy it.”

Unexpectedly, that ended up being a political hot potato, one of many Clifton Cultural Arts Center would face over the years.

“It turned out that under a new state law, they couldn’t sell the building to another entity until it had been offered to charter schools,” said Leslie Mooney, who came on board as executive director in 2013.

At the time, it didn’t seem like a significant problem. After all, CPS couldn’t envision a time when they would want to return to an aged building in need of millions of dollars of structural work. Since the district couldn’t sell it, they gave CCAC a 30-year lease at the price of just $1 a year.

CCAC took up residence in Clifton School in 2008. Everything was great.

The building was pricey to maintain. Utilities alone cost about $100,000 a year. But there was lots of open space. And plenty of parking. The location was easily accessible to people not just from Clifton, but from Avondale, Northside and Spring Grove Village, among other neighborhoods.

Displacement

But in March 2017, CPS announced its termination of CCAC’s lease. New policies and greater enrollment meant that the Fairview German Language School across the street could no longer handle the demand. At the same time, many Cliftonites were clamoring for the return of a neighborhood school. Fairview was – and is – a magnet school, drawing from all over the city. It is focused more on its academic mission than it is on being a neighborhood anchor.

“The rug was pulled out from underneath us,” Mooney said. The CCAC fought back, but the CPS lease was airtight. “For the most part, the community was on our side. After all, we took this historic building that no one else wanted, then raised money and put time and effort into it. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we saved it.”

As noble as their cause was, the contract was binding. They had a year to vacate.

Controversy 

Then, a representative of the Cincinnati Park Board contacted them. Would CCAC consider moving into a corner of Burnet Woods? What could be more Clifton-centric than that?

What they did not forsee was the public backlash to carving out a piece of a park that had already seen enormous chunks of its acreage gobbled up by the University of Cincinnati.

Suddenly, the CCAC was portrayed as a bad guy. A well-intentioned bad guy, but one that was oblivious to what people really wanted.

“The opposition was so vocal,” McKillip said. “I didn’t expect that. I don’t think anyone did.” Mooney wasn’t surprised that there would be people who didn’t agree with them. But she was shocked by the tone of the attacks against the Clinton Cultural Arts Center.

“I was surprised about how nasty it got. I still feel we would have been a great asset for Burnet Woods. Remember, I live in Clifton, too. I have four kids. And we go to Burnet Woods. I thought it was a good solution. But the nastiness of the false information was unfortunate. It was a sobering learning experience.”

By the time the park board denied their request, they had lost more than a year – a year that saw them having to vacate Clifton School. Activities were dispersed around the area, with the bulk of them shifted to Turner Hall – formerly The Dance Hall – in Corryville.

Once again, they found themselves searching for a home. They looked at more than 40 locations; from the Carson Masonic Lodge on Ludlow Avenue and an old church on Central Parkway to locations that were outside Clifton. At one point, the situation grew so dire that one of the options was to cease operations and close down altogether.

Clifton Cultural Arts Center, Leslie Mooney and Mark McKillip
Leslie Mooney, CCAC executive director, with founding board member Mark McKillip
(Photo: Tina Gutierrez)

Finally, a solution 

Enter Dewey’s Pizza, which had purchased the former Anderson, Baiter & Sahnd Funeral Home when the proposed development on the site was rejected by the Clifton Town Meeting, the neighborhood association.

At first, Dewey’s founder and Executive Chairman Andrew Dewitt wasn’t interested in CCAC’s proposal. It wasn’t practical, as they were hoping to squeeze a 30,000-square-foot building onto too small of a lot. But after months of negotiations and rejiggering the CCAC’s design, they came to an agreement involving not just Dewey’s and the CCAC, but also Skyline Chili and the Clifton United Methodist Church.

“It was fantastic,” said McKillip. “We managed to work out a three-way parking agreement. There is a connection from the new Dewey’s parking lot to the church’s parking. Then the church has the right to use Dewey’s lot on Sunday mornings and in the end, it added 22 parking spaces for us. It was all very complicated.”

But it was a most Clifton-esque solution. So was the entire resolution to the CCAC dilemma. Clifton is a community that prides itself on finding practical solutions to the most complex problems. Contentiousness is not unheard of. But Mooney was flabbergasted about the uncharacteristic “nastiness” aimed at them.

It has taken the better part of eight years, but the Clifton Cultural Arts Center finally has found a home to call its own.

“I think it has all been worth it,” Mooney said. “All of it. Even with the painful parts. I really was devastated when the park board chose not to move forward. But you spend some time licking your wounds. You take some time to mourn those losses and then you move on.

“It has been wonderful and fascinating and frustrating. We launched our capital campaign in May of 2020 – two months into a global pandemic. But we had this compelling project and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers determined to make it work. And once we finally landed on this site, we could tell this story: This is what it will look like. This is what we will do there. And now, it’s finally happening.”

CCAC’s Grand Opening for its new building at 3412 Clifton Ave. is 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. March 9. The free, open-house event will include: entertainment by Madcap Puppets, Jake Speed & The Freddies and others; self-guided tours of the center; demonstrations and classes in various visual and performing arts; an artist talk and opening reception for the inaugural exhibit “HAIRitage” by Erin Smith Glenn.

cliftonculturalarts.org


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