Cincinnati breathes art and proudly shouts into the light that it cares about the aesthetics of its Art Deco-era urban jungle. You can’t throw a rock without hitting three murals, and you can’t wander more than a few blocks without seeing an innovative public art installation, many unlike you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s inspiring, and it’s what has quickly moved the Cincinnati art scene up the ranks in our book, landing it among America’s top art destinations, a story we’ve been dying to share in full with fellow travelers and art lovers alike.
Ever since we started taking note of the places that are driving the nationwide public art movement, Cincinnati has been on our radar, but after a pair of visits there this year, we were surprised to find there’s so much more than just murals in this colorful town. There’s the Contemporary Art Center with its dedication to exposing the public to some of the most compelling artistic dreams. There’s a short-term rental with a three-story swing as its centerpiece that has made it into mainstream consumer commercials. There’s the largest collection of signage in perhaps the world that sits in the American Sign Museum. And, yes, there are murals galore, but also a college-town vibe that permeates the atmospherics of the place.
It took two four-day visits to even pull this snapshot of what’s happening on the ground into focus, and we’re just getting started on exploring the region between Northern Kentucky and the Queen City.
A few prime entities are the motivating force behind the Cincinnati art scene, and we hope you’ll check out some of our favorites on your next trip to this vibrant Ohio metropolis.
The digital art festival: BLINK
Our fall trip took us back to Ohio during BLINK, a light-based art festival that spans 30 blocks and two states in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. This free interactive event first launched in 2017 and was such a hit that more than 1 million people came out for it in the course of four days. As a result, the teams behind it—the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, AGAR, Brave Berlin, ArtWorks, the Haile Foundation and ArtsWave—decided to do it again, only with a caveat: It would be held every other year as it’s such an undertaking to organize and shut down the streets throughout downtown Cincy, and also, unsurprisingly, quite costly.
It’s hard to put BLINK into words if you haven’t experienced it, as it’s pure magic, it’s ingenuity and it’s mind-boggling what stems from people’s imaginations when they’re allowed to exercise creativity and spray what’s floating around in their brains onto a cityscape via a computer-controlled laser. Imagine this: Every evening for four straight nights, the city is illuminated with installations that light up the horizon for miles, plus plenty of fun surprises around every corner. This year’s fest kicked off with one big light parade, the BLINK Future City Spectacular Parade, comprising school, church, nonprofit and civic groups that marched down Vine Street toward the water, and it was reported that 2.5 million people came out this year for the opening night.
Over the course of four nights, SVV and I traveled through all five of the BLINK zones, absorbing the beauty and taking in every last piece we could find. BLINK isn’t all just digital art, though. Sixteen artists traveled to Cincy from all over to paint brand-new murals before and during the festival, many of which were illuminated with digital mapping projections at night, something completely new to us that is simply indescribable. There are also free concerts from major acts at stages scattered throughout the area.
The bad news: BLINK doesn’t return for two years. The good news: You have two years to clear your calendar and make it to Cincinnati for the 2021 festival!
The art advocacy group: Artworks Cincinnati
From the first time we stepped foot in the Queen City, we were in awe of the color surrounding us. Tall murals, small murals, murals hidden on the tip-tops of buildings that you can only spy if you yourself are elevated, murals tucked away down side alleys—there are murals everywhere in Cincinnati. And as we’ve learned, a city doesn’t develop such a robust mural program without the leadership of a few key visionaries.
The visionaries leading the pack in Cincinnati are the ArtWorks founder Tamara Harkavy and her team. First launched in 1996 under the doctrine “ArtWorks believes in human potential and fights for the betterment of our local communities through the power of the arts,” this nonprofit drew inspiration from Chicago’s public art program empowering youth and adapted to needs on the ground in Cincy, with particular focus on employing disadvantaged young people in the arts. To date, ArtWorks has hired more than 3,300 youth and 2,900 professional artists who have completed 12,000+ public and private art projects.
The ArtWorks process is admirable: Notable artists design murals, and then a team of teaching artists and youth apprentices execute the actual design. Many of these youth, who are paid a living wage for their work, have never before painted. They’re not only learning a skill and making money, but taking pride in the fact that they’ve helped transform the aesthetic of a major city.
It’s just been in the past decade that much of ArtWorks’ focus turned from performance arts like poetry slams and drumming circles to more visual—2007 is when the shift happened—and the impact is immeasurable. Sure, murals transform the aesthetic environment of a place, but they also have been proven to radically alter a neighborhood: from economic vibrancy to public safety. That’s exactly what’s happened to Over the Rhine in the past two decades thanks to ArtWorks and other community organizations such as 3CDC.
Plus, they’re just plain fun to track down and photograph. Who doesn’t love a good Sunday morning mural tour? It gets you out and exploring on your own two feet, has health benefits, and boosts your mood and mental state—take it from a pair of mural-chasing pros! For those who want to learn more about the history behind the installations, ArtWorks does offer guided mural tours, and the organization also sells a very comprehensive, 192-page hardback coffee table book of murals around town and on its website.
The free art experience: Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center
The first museum building designed by a woman in the United States—which took until 2003, by the way—the late Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati is not just architecturally innovative but sensual in its minimalist concrete; it’s also conveniently located in the heart of downtown. Hadid was known for curvaceous lines and dramatic, mind-bending shapes on her large, signature buildings, and while this one is cubic in nature, the interior has the clear mark of her style and is filled with modern art.
While much of the spaces are dedicated to exhibiting art, because so many youth use the free classes and hang out spaces scattered around the levels, some of the edgier materials have their own floor. For example, through January 12, 2020, the pieces feature a study of Robert Colescott (1925-2009), a prolific artist that examined diversity and racial stereotypes in vivid detail. Best of all, the Contemporary Arts Center is free, making it accessible to everyone. This arts center is funded by its generous members and donors whose contributions allow world-class art to be available to all.
The hotel pioneer: 21c Museum Hotel
We’ve shouted our love for the 21c brand from the rooftop; after all, this small collection of boutique art hotels that dot mid-sized cities in the South and Midwest are the only museums in the country that are open 24/7 and also free to the public. The 21c Cincinnati, however, may just be our favorite one yet. Many 21cs are old warehouses and automotive plants that are transformed into hotels, but in this case, the architects behind the Cincy property took a century-old hotel, the Metropole, and reimagined it into the contemporary art gallery it is today.
The 156 rooms themselves are just as sleek as the public spaces—and occasionally even come with a penguin butler. Each boasts a piece of original artwork, and there are unexpected twists throughout them (like individual white subway tiles in the bathrooms that are adorned with body parts, such as an errant ear above the toilet or a nose in the shower).
The best thing about 21c is, in my opinion, that the art in the galleries and public spaces is always changing. The curators are tasked with placing current, living artists so in a way these hotels are snapshots of the zeitgeist, and mirror back the times in which we’re living. Owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown have a personal art collection of works that spans more than 3,000 pieces, and they’re rotated throughout the various properties year after year. We’ve seen several exhibits at various 21c hotels over the years, but I positively loved “Dress Up, Speak Up: Regalia and Resistance,” which is at the Cincy hotel through July 2020 and examines personal and cultural identity through dress. It also highlights the works of such renown artists as Jeffrey Gibson, Nick Cave, Athi-Patra Ruga and many others.
The relics of a bygone era: American Sign Museum
In truth, when I first heard about the American Sign Museum, I was totally thinking sign language, so imagine my surprise to show up and find that it’s the most extensive collection of neon and metal signs in perhaps the world. It’s more than just advertising, though: It’s a journey through the 100 years of American culture and preservation via signage of all styles, era and medium.
This museum was first opened in 1999, then reopened as the American Sign Museum six years later in an art gallery, but it quickly outgrew the space. In 2012, it found its permanent home: 20,000 square feet that can house those massive McDonald’s and Rock City signs. The museum also offers weekday tours where visitors can observe Neonworks, Cincinnati’s only full-time neon shop, make signs via neon tube bending. Even if you don’t make it in time for a tour, there are glass windows where you can peek in and watch these skilled craftsmen at work.
The American Sign Museum may very well be the most Instagrammable spot in Cincinnati, and you should definitely pay a visit to this cool museum on your way up to Camp Washington for chili and beer at Rhinegeist.
The immersible art of an entrepreneur: Swing House
If you don’t stay in the 21c Museum Hotel and are more of the Airbnb type, then Swing House is for you. The brainchild of artistic visionary Mark DeJong, the building is part of a collection of deconstructed art pieces that he’s created, well, because he can.
Not staying at the Swing House? No problem. Mark opens his home to the public via a free open house the second Saturday of every month.
Fun fact: Mark is currently renovating a few other houses on the block, and he punched out circles in the walls of the one next door to create the art for the Swing House.
The artsy brewmasters: 3 Points Urban Brewery
We’ll have a full beer guide coming soon, but you can’t discuss Cincinnati’s art scene without talking about 3 Points Urban Brewery. Owned by a trio of local entrepreneurs, one of whom is a partner in and co-creator of BLINK, this Pendleton Arts District brewery has three founding pillars: art, experience and, of course, beer. Each beer is illustrated by a local artist and creative design takes center stage for the brewmasters. The brewery itself doubles as an art gallery, but also a co-working space, with entrepreneurs encouraged to use the free WiFi and have Three Points be their office when needed, as we did while visiting Cincy.
The art neighborhoods: Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton Arts
Adjacent neighborhoods Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton Arts District and the streets surrounding Findlay Market are responsible for a majority of the city’s most visible murals. If you only have an afternoon, that’s where you want to go to wander around by foot and find art hidden in every nook and cranny. A bit more of an outlier, the alley beside Bunk News Art Collective is worth a stroll, as you never know what fun new art might pop up there next.
We’ve spent two long weekends in Ohio this year, but it would take many additional visits to fully dive into the Cincinnati art scene—for example, we still haven’t made it to Cincinnati Art Museum or Krohn Conservatory—visits we are certainly planning for the future. For those of you who know Cincy well, where would you point us next?
This post is in partnership with Source Cincinnati. All opinions are our own.