Friday, February 6, 2009

Branding Local Art

After thinking more about a previous post regarding art in retail spaces, I began to focus more on how and why this practice has infiltrated Cincinnati’s local art scene. While I enjoy seeing the work of local artists displayed in coffee shops and the like, I cannot help but to suspect that decorating with local art has developed into more of a branding strategy than maintaining a loyalty to local art and artists.

I do not doubt the interest in a thriving local art scene by the owners of these businesses, but I do suspect the motivation is merely monetary. Almost no one argues against the notion that art and culture is good for the community. Though I expect that nearly every successful grant from the Fine Arts Fund in the past five years convincingly pointed to specific commercial rather than cultural benefits towards a developing neighborhood. Recently, this infectious practice has become much more pronounced in Over-the-Rhine.

In this week’s City Beat, leaders in the art community discussed the wealth of art in OTR as well as the challenge of maintaining sincere patronage from the area’s commercial developers. When asked about their relationship with the developers in Over-the-Rhine, both Jason Bruffy, Know Theatre's Artistic Director and D. Lynn Meyers, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati's Producing Artistic Director said the commercial developers have never visited either venue. Yet it is the mere presence of these art organizations that seem to make the area marketable. Like the paintings of local artists on the walls of a coffee shop the art organizations of OTR lend to these businesses and this neighborhood a label of authenticity, a culture, a flavor, a brand.

Why do Cincinnati art organizations insist on adopting a corporate business model to run their non-profit? This business model of Cincinnati, home to Proctor and Gamble is to brand, label, and commodify anything and everything to satisfy the bottom line. This is not to accuse P & G of being Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. P & G is a business. Instead, mine is a call to artists and art organizations to step up and demand recognition in their communities. Whining about the economy is the song of the corporate world not the non-profit sector. Everyone knows non-profits can and do thrive on a shoestring budget. I certainly understand the dilemma in which Bruffy, Kenny, and Meyers find themselves, but as the “soul” of OTR, they sound rather defeated. People do in fact honestly support the arts, but artists and art organizations cannot allow themselves to be branded.