Cincinnati Arts Leaders Reaffirm Freedom of Thought

ARTS leaders here sighed with relief when the obscenity trial concerning the Contemporary Arts Center ended last month. But the acquittal of the center and its director has not quieted their fears that Cincinnati's national image has been tarnished, they say. ``Are we now synonymous with ultra-conservative prosecution of the arts?'' asks Millard Rogers Jr., director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. ``Time will tell.''

Because local officials tried to shut down the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, which they said violated obscenity laws, and took their case to court, arts leaders are concerned that the rest of the country may view the Queen City as a cultural backwater suspicious of the arts, unreceptive to whatever is unconventional.

Cincinnati, however, ``is not a community that's been closed in and narrow-minded,'' asserts Kathleen Norris, managing director of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Judging by the theater's audiences, ``there's a lot of adventurousness out there,'' she says.

People involved in the arts here defend their city as a lively oasis of culture, reflective of Ohio's overall ranking in the country as a top supporter of the arts. While not as mighty as the cultural powerhouse that is Cleveland, nor as ambitious in cutting-edge art as yuppified Columbus, Cincinnati has a unique mix of offerings not typical for cities its size.

``It's small, yet it produces and supports a large number of world-class cultural institutions,'' says Mr. Rogers, interviewed at the palatial art museum, which rates among the top 20 in the country.

Besides the museum and the Contemporary Arts Center, headline attractions include the Playhouse in the Park, the city opera and ballet, and the 96-year-old Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which has been nationally recognized for its commitment to presenting new music. ``You'd almost have to go to Chicago, New York, or Boston to find that same cultural mix,'' says Rogers.

In contemporary art, Cincinnati has been ``an expected venue'' for both national and international artists, says Derrick Woodham, a sculptor and director of the School of Art at the University of Cincinnati. ``That's very unusual for a town this size.''

Cincinnati's heritage in the arts dates back to the mid-1800s when the city was one of the largest industrial centers in the United States. The tradition continues today, say arts leaders, largely because of generous support from the community.

The local Fine Arts Fund, a kind of ``United Way'' for the arts, distributes donations from businesses and individuals to various arts groups. Sixty-one funds exist in other cities, and last year Cincinnati ranked fifth in the US for overall giving and No. 1 in the amount of employee payroll-deduction giving, according to the American Council of the Arts, in Washington, D.C.

The arts community, however, is not free from current tensions relating to the Mapplethorpe exhibit. At the time of the indictment, not all arts groups immediately rallied behind the Contemporary Arts Center. When asked about this, Rogers of the Cincinnati Art Museum replied, ``That's been a sensitive issue.'' Board members at his museum, he said, expressed a wide range of viewpoints concerning the photography show.

Personally, he saw no reason for the arts center to be prosecuted, but he could never have stated publicly that that was the museum's position, he says. The board did, however, draft a resolution in support of First Amendment rights.

Just how the arts will fare in the wake of the obscenity trial is uncertain. ``There's been some speculation that the community has been torn apart and that there could be some spill-over effect,'' says Elizabeth K. Lanier, an attorney with the local law firm Frost and Jacobs. But she's optimistic that a proposed fine-arts center, to be built downtown by 1994, will proceed unhindered by the Mapplethorpe episode, ``because this is a very important downtown revitalization project.''

Ms. Lanier, who is also head of the Ohio Arts Facilities Commission, says Cincinnati is one of the most ``untheatered'' cities in the country.''

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