Cincy arts groups jet to New York City to bring love and money back home

Motives: Courting donors, business, connections

Editor's Note: WCPO arts and entertainment reporter Matt Peiken is on the ground in New York City and will be tweeting as he follows arts and business leaders working to market the Queen City to the Big Apple. You can follow his tweets here.

CINCINNATI—If you want to experience the best in Cincinnati arts and culture over the next week, you’ll have to go to New York City.

The Cincinnati Ballet has seven performances of mixed repertoire at the Joyce Theater. The Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, bolstered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, is performing at Carnegie Hall. Playhouse in the Park has booked a small studio for an intimate, staged reading of work in progress. A composer working with Cincinnati Opera is airing an evening of recent work, including the music Cincinnati Opera will premiere in 2015.

Alumni from the College Conservatory of Music’s jazz program have planned an evening through Jazz at Lincoln Center. The gold medalist from the World Piano Competition, which CCM hosts, is in recital at Zankel Hall. CCM artist-in-residence, the Ariel Quartet, is performing at the 92nd Street Y.

Not to be marooned, Cincinnati’s visual arts leaders have jumped onto the New York wave. The Taft Museum is lending work to the Metropolitan Museum, and a curator with the Cincinnati Art Museum is moderating a panel discussion on 21st century street photography. Even a handful of Cincinnati’s top chefs are sharpening their knives, collaborating to cook an evening’s meal at the James Beard House. In the world of professional cooking, the James Beard Foundation awards are widely considered the Oscars of food.

Collectively, they’re calling the week, which runs May 6-12, “Cincy in NY.” The stakes are large enough to draw Cincinnati’s mayor and ex-Bengals linebacker-turned-entrepreneur Dhani Jones to New York, along with dozens of Cincinnati business executives, arts donors and board members and a coterie from the city’s chamber of commerce and tourism bureau. 

RELATED: Read Dan Monk's article on what the contingent of business leaders, politicians and chambers of commerce officials have planned in New York.

Why the full-court press in New York?

The answer differs with each person and organization involved: Courting impactful, boastable press with a national and international reach, cultivating the giant institutional donors of tomorrow, enticing companies and the brain power that works for them to consider locating in Cincinnati, recruiting top artistic talent interested in joining arts groups with national reputations and ambitions.

All of it is an expensive, uncertain proposition—that a week-long bite into the Big Apple can create ripple effects of momentum that will reverberate for years back home and, in the process, alter and elevate the value the general public places on the arts in Cincinnati.

“We have world-renowned symphony and opera, but we haven’t done a really good job of telling our story,” Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said. “These things historically go in waves, but we’re riding a wave right now. We’ve done great work in race relations and gay rights issues, renovating Over-the-Rhine and the Banks, so the time to get on top of this and sell the arts here has never been better.”

“Cincy in NY” happened by coincidence and design. Directors and board members with the Cincinnati Ballet had talked for several years about a New York run to close its current, 50th season. Dates booked at the Joyce Theater were pushed back a week to line up with the symphony and May Festival Chorus, who were locked into a May 9 performance as part of the Carnegie’s Spring for Music Festival.

That inspired other Cincinnati arts groups to coordinate their own appearances in New York. At the same time, key supporters and board members with the orchestra and ballet urged civic and business connections to take advantage of the unprecedented presence.

Cincinnati’s largest arts organizations have deep connections to New York City—some more active than others. The Cincinnati Symphony is making its 48th New York appearance, this occasion along with the May Festival Chorus at the Carnegie. There’s more at stake for the Cincinnati Ballet, which hasn’t performed in New York since its 1975 debut in Central Park.

“I feel we’re a national secret and ready to be seen, ready to be out there, and it’s time we got to the Joyce,” said Victoria Morgan, artistic director and chief executive for the Cincinnati Ballet.

The company hired a publicist in New York to court articles and reviews from the city’s influential dance press. Favorable reviews of the Joyce program—never a sure thing in New York—are important for impressing donors, panels that award grant funding and talented dancers who might not otherwise have Cincinnati in their career sites.

Presenting Cincinnati Ballet as part of its subscription season, the Joyce provided some financial support, and company board members raised more than enough to cover the rest of the $220,000 budget for this week in New York and rehearsals leading up to it.

“If you’re not doing audacious, amazing things, donors aren’t very interested,” Morgan said. “And it’s also huge for our dancers. They can say to their peers they’ve performed there. They’re proud of the rep, proud of what they look like, and I think others in our national and international dance community will get the news, the energy and the buzz. This is part of the courtship of waking people up in our community about the caliber and quality of what we’re able to do and what we mean to our art form —not just in Cincinnati but on a national level.”

The orchestra is still riding the currents of attention that came from New York and elsewhere with Louis Langree’s debut last fall as music director. Attracting classical music journalists such as Alex Ross of The New Yorker and James Oestreich of The New York Times is a quantifiable measure of success for the coming trip, said Trey Devey, president of the orchestra and May Festival board.

“Philanthropy follows vision and it supports success, and we want to be measured on that level,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure of going to New York and being reviewed by Alex and Jim and those individuals who are consistently reviewing the world’s greatest orchestras. Those reviews are a scorecard for how we’re measuring up to our goal of being world class.”

For the College Conservatory of Music, which already attracts talented young musicians from the East Coast to study in Cincinnati, its presence in New York this coming week is as much a reunion as it is a showcase.

A 17-piece CCM jazz ensemble band is performing two sets with Grammy-nominated guitarist Fareed Haque at Jazz at Lincoln Center, followed by a late-night jam session with CCM alumni. The performances with Haque wrap up a residency that began with CCM students rearranging, recording and performing Haque’s music earlier this month at the Cincinnati campus.

Fundraising, always a consideration when universities make this kind of outreach, is a priority of this trip, said Scott Belck, CCM’s director of jazz studies.

“I’m an alum and this is about being able to connect to other alums,” he said. “But we also want the undergrads knowing this is the kind of experience they can have when they come here. This is a reward for our students.”

“Cincy in NY” week is a far more modest occasion for Cincinnati Opera and for Playhouse in the Park. Indeed, the Cincinnati elements of each take second billing, if there’s billing at all.

New York composer Ricky Lee Gordon, as part of a program featuring a variety of his works, is performing a segment of “Morning Star,” destined for a premiere by the Cincinnati Opera during the 2015-16 season. Gordon is performing on piano, with vocal accompaniment, peppered with conversation with Cincinnati Opera artistic director Evans Mirageas.

“The institutions of Cincinnati going to New York are showcasing how we embrace the new,” Mirageas said. “The Mellon Foundation has said we’re the talk of the business in the way we’re creating new work. We may be late to the party, but we’re doing it right, and Mohammed has to go to the mountain to tell people about it.”

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a private New York City-based group that provides grants in several areas, including the arts. 

Playhouse in the Park holds a few “play development” readings in New York every year—many of the playwrights and performers the company works with reside there—but never for an audience. To be part of “Cincy in NY” week, Playhouse has booked a studio on 8th Avenue and opened seats for about 50 people for its staged reading of “Fool,” by Cincinnati native Theresa Rebeck.

“This reading is our only chance to workshop this, and we actually would rather not have press," said Blake Robison, artistic director of Playhouse. “But this a collective statement on the part of all the organizations going there. If you shine the spotlight on one city at this very intense level, maybe there can be a lingering impact.”

Behind the scenes, longtime financial supporters of Cincinnati’s large arts organizations were instrumental in both shaping the ambition for a New York splash and raising the money to make it happen.

David Herriman has served on the boards of the Cincinnati Ballet, Playhouse, Contemporary Arts Center and the organization now called ArtsWave, among other entities. He went so far as to hire—with his own money—and oversee a New York public relations firm in his quest to cast national and international spotlights on Cincinnati’s arts and culture.

His larger motive is a common yet elusive one to all the major arts institutions: Attracting and inspiring the “foundational” donors to pick up for Buddig, Nippert, Corbett—names familiar to anyone who’s looked on the outside of a museum or performance hall in Cincinnati.

“ArtsWave just raised $12 million—great, but (Louise) Nippert gave $85 million to the symphony, the Corbetts spent $50 million (on the arts), and Otto Buddig alone kept the ballet alive,” Herriman said. “Now it’s time to do it again, but where are we going to find the money? There’s a lot of money in Cincinnati, but it’s first- and second-generation money, and we need a society to help people understand and do philanthropy.”

To Herriman’s thinking, even the most sophisticated, major patrons take the arts for granted. Media attention from the nation’s cultural capital, he said, could build the kind of appreciation that fosters the next generation of large donors.

Herriman has purchased one year of work from the New York publicist, and that investment has already yielded a New York Times review of Langree’s symphony debut and a "Love Letter" from check David Falk in the Huffington Post. By next fall, Herriman said, it will take ArtsWave and the major institutions here to pool resources to retain a PR representative in New York City. Greater public funding of the arts is also key, he said.

“The citizens of Greater Cincinnati have to become very proud that this is a cultural capital of the Midwest. But how do you go about telling them this? My thinking is you get the national experts—the media—to come and tell them,” Herriman said. “We’re not going to come out of ‘Cincy in New York’ and have the situation turned around, but you have to start somewhere.”


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May 6 — Cincinnati Ballet at the Joyce Theater, 7:30 p.m.; CCM Jazz Alumni at Jazz at Lincoln Center, 7:30 p.m.

May 7 — "Music and Words with Ricky Lee Gordon" and Cincinnati Opera's Evenas Mirageas at the National Opera Center, 7 p.m.; Cincinnati Ballet at the Joyce Theater, 7:30 p.m.

May 8 — Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/May Festival yacht party, New York Yacht Club, 6-8 p.m.; Cincinnati Ballet at the Joyce Theater, 8 p.m.

May 9 — Playhouse in the Park staged reading of "Fool" at Pearl Studios, 2 p.m.; Cincinnati Ballet at the Joyce Theater, 8 p.m.; Cincinnati party for young professionals at Arlene's Grocery, 9-11 p.m. 

May 10 — Cincinnati Ballet at the Joyce Theater, 2 and 8 p.m.; "Queen City chefs take a bite out of the Big Apple" at James Beard House, 7 p.m.

May 11 —  World Piano Competition winner Alexander Yakolev at Carnegie/Zankel Hall, 2 p.m.; Cincinnati Ballet at the Joyce Theater, 2 p.m.

May 12 — Ariel Quartet at the 92nd Street Y, 7:30 p.m.

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