From Cincinnati to San Francisco and back again
A narrow strip of land between an interstate and a railyard, Cincinnati’s Camp Washington neighborhood was once a thriving industrial district. The past few decades have seen a dramatic decline, with businesses and residents alike abandoning the area. From a peak of 11,800 inhabitants in 1930, the population fell to 1,430 by 2003.
In recent years artists have begun moving in. Cal and Skip Cullen, a married couple who met at the University of Cincinnati, opened art center Wave Pool in 2014, shortly after relocating from California. “The situation [in San Francisco] is not the best for artists right now, and so we thought we should move back to Cincinnati—that there was a need here for more alternative contemporary art spaces and more support for the arts here,” Cal told me.
The couple’s experiences in the Bay Area heavily influenced their thinking about the role culture could play in Camp Washington. While working day jobs in the arts (Cal in SFMOMA’s education department, Skip at the Art Institute of California), they volunteered at a store in the Mission District called Adobe Books. Its founder, Andrew McKinley, “has this really open attitude where anyone can come in and propose a project, and he’ll be like, ‘Sure, you can play your music here, or you can hang your art,’” Cal told me. “They call [Adobe] ‘the living room of the Mission’ for that very reason. It became this icon for community.”
But like many businesses in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, Adobe was threatened with a dramatic rent increase in 2013. McKinley considered shutting down, but the Cullens and their fellow volunteers stepped in to save the store, raising $60,000 and arranging for a move to a more sustainable location nearby.
When considering how to get involved in Cincinnati’s art scene, the Cullens decided to follow McKinley’s lead by foregrounding community. Wave Pool’s residency program invites artists from around the world to plan and execute projects involving the local area, then helps connect them with relevant organizations in other fields. “We’ve been able to make a lot of partnerships in our neighborhood and bridge a lot of the gaps that normally exist between a gallery space and the rest of the community,” Cal told me. Their first visiting artist, Erin Johnson, worked with the River City Correctional Center and Camp Washington Urban Farm to explore the connections between soil, slavery, and the history of the criminal justice system.
Cal believes that Cincinnati is particularly receptive to organizations like hers at this point in history, when the area’s affordable real estate and historic architecture are attracting more people from cultural meccas like San Francisco and New York. “Marc DeJong, an artist just a few blocks away from us, was able to get a house from the city for essentially nothing,” she said. “It’s a three-story row house. He’s turning the whole thing into a giant swing that can go from one end of the building to another. Those sorts of things you’re just not able to do without massive amounts of money in another city. There's a lot of excitement here for what's possible.”
But fast-changing neighborhoods just a few miles away offer cautionary tales about gentrification. Over-the-Rhine, a district adjacent to the downtown core known for its Italianate architecture and troubled history, was once home to a number of galleries; today, visitors are more likely to find expensive boutiques, restaurants, and craft breweries.
The Cullens hope that by positioning themselves somewhere between a DIY space and a professional museum they’ll be able to harness the energy and resources necessary to thrive in Camp Washington over the long term. To date, they've secured funding from organizations such as the Ohio Arts Council and FUEL Cincinnati, in addition to community partners like the Camp Washington Business Association.
In the meantime, Cal is excited to continue playing a role in the area's changing art scene. In less than two years, “we’ve been able to make so many things happen that in San Francisco or any other large city that already has a very evolved contemporary arts scene it would have been much more difficult to do,” she said. “The artists here and the larger community have just really embraced what we’re doing. It’s been amazing.”
Top image: Wave Pool event featuring work by artists Lacey Haslam and Marc Governanti.