On Easter Sunday 2020, Allison Banzhaf was spending the holiday in a social pod that included friends who live in Anderson Township, where she grew up. It was sunny and warm for early Spring, but the pool didn’t tempt her. Sitting on a screened-in porch, she was focused on a race on TVG, a streaming broadcast and betting platform.
Using TVG’s phone app, she bet $4 on underdog horses in a superfecta. “I always bet on the longshots,” says Banzhaf. “The favored horses don’t pay out as much.” The horses she bet on finished in the top four in the race, as predicted. “You guys,” she said, staring at her phone. “I think I just won $3,500!”
The money would come in handy for an even bigger gamble she’d soon make: Moving Banz Studios, her gallery and art-consulting business, from a 1,300-square-foot gallery downtown to a 4,500-square-foot private residence on McFarland Street between Third and Fourth. Fittingly, the new spot was once a horse stable.
Banzhaf ignored the fact that the art market, like so many industries blindsided by the pandemic, had slowed to a crawl, with an uncertain future. Her mind was on the long game, knowing you have to spend money to make money. And the green shutters and rounded sidewalk awning of this 19th-century maisonette conveyed “old money.” It was historic, elegant, and “so cute in the middle of all these high-rises,” she says. The wood-paneled library made a swank impression on arriving guests; a spacious deck overlooking Paul Brown Stadium, which sits two blocks away, is an ideal spot for toasting a sale.
The rent is double that of her previous gallery. But as soon as Banzhaf toured the place, she knew it would be perfect—not just as plush environs to host openings but to rent out to others for events. Never mind that she’d never worked in location rentals before; she would figure it out, and it would add an income stream for a bigger, better Banz Studios. “What can I say?” she asks. “I was no more scared of taking this leap than I was when I opened my first gallery.” She laughs. “I like to gamble.”
Friends and colleagues say Banzhaf also likes to bite off more than she can chew—and then, somehow, she proceeds to masticate, swallow, and go back for seconds. “She does not see anything as being an obstacle,” says Megan Heekin Triantafillou, whose work can be found in the Banz Studios gallery. “She dreams big and has the follow-through.”
Banzhaf operates in a competitive, big-money field that’s invisible to most of us. In addition to selling paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs off the walls to customers, she also curates pieces—sometimes dozens at a time—for other people. A lot of it’s created on commission, so the client can specify sizes, colors, and framing. Most is original fine art and limited-edition prints. The clients include hospitals that know that art has a measurable power to help patients heal, businesses modernizing their look, and families wanting to fill the walls of their homes. Banzhaf’s coterie of artists is largely local, so she has fueled significant sales and exposure of work by Cincinnati creators.
Who better to represent artists than a fellow artist? Banzhaf is a maker herself, of signature round resin abstracts concocted in petri dishes, the plastic receptacles used by scientists. Her work hangs in medical facilities, law offices, and private homes.
Taken together, Banzhaf has a hand in shaping the look of Cincinnati as seen from offices to hospital rooms to building exteriors. Her company is expanding beyond the Queen City and is expected to top $1 million in sales of art, framing, and installing once the 2021 tallies are in. She’s in the process of buying the new downtown space. It’s almost as if COVID-19 never happened.
Hers is not the biggest art consultancy in town, but Banzhaf doggedly feeds the trend of corporations tapping local talent for original art and urging openness to slightly more daring art (i.e., shiny black sculptures of a geometric horse head instead of prints of a sand dune). The subject matter remains “safe” and “uncontroversial”—nothing, she says, that would offend anyone—but the work is a cut above the kind of vague landscapes, printed in the thousands, that she sold to hotel chains at the start of her career. Tiny but mighty, Banz Studios is a behind-the-scenes influencer in Cincinnati aesthetics.
“Younger generations are now the principals of companies,” says Banzhaf, relaxing with a glass of white wine in the new digs, surrounded by walls of art that is uplifting and, for the most part, abstract and colorful. In a bright yellow blouse, sparkling green earrings peeking out from her platinum-blonde bob, and a tomato-red pedicure visible in flat sandals, she resembles a young Amy Poehler. “They grew up with modern art, and I think culture in general has changed.”
Women from a professional organization of event planners arrive at Banz Studios for their first post-pandemic in-person gathering. Banzhaf has offered the space gratis, knowing that the guests, who work for blue chip firms, will take note of the chic ambiance and hire it out for paying confabs. (Booking requests soon followed from Procter & Gamble and Kroger.) Banzhaf continues her line of thought, smiling at the women donning nametags and squealing over the deck’s vista of four bridges over the Ohio River. “TV has a big influence. You see shows about rehabs, and in the scenery you watch the decor. It’s more contemporary. When you look at that all the time, it changes your taste. So you’re seeing less of the traditional art.”
Banz Studios is pushing that change by shaking up the atmosphere in which art itself is shown and sold. It’s a far cry from the white-box look of traditional galleries. It feels like a home, because that’s what it was for the decade prior to Banzhaf’s move. The space has an unusual layout and a storied, slice-of-Cincinnati pedigree. Occupying the top floor of a four-story building that extends clear through to West Third Street, it opens into a cushy, long lobby with built-in bookcases and a marble fireplace, displaying the tony taste of the couple who rehabbed it in the 1990s into their private residence from the former WKRC broadcast studios. (The 200- foot rooftop tower had to go.) A wide staircase in back opens up to the top floor atrium illuminated by a skylight. A 1950 map of the block shows a printing company here; maps from the late 1800s show it as a tenement next to a public schoolhouse.
“It drew me in,” says Holly Kaeser- Fogg, a residential client who spent about $10,000 on four works of art from Banz Studios last year. “Part of it is certainly the space, which is incredible. Part of it is Allison’s taste and artistic sense. Where she has placed the art is fluid. It wasn’t slapped on a wall, and it doesn’t feel like a museum. It has rhythm. It has a heartbeat. I wanted that movement and energy in the art I bought for my own home.”
A few weeks after the event-planner soiree, Banz Studios basks in the sun of an Indian summer afternoon. An artist arrives to deliver commissioned work. Photographer Tina Gutierrez unfurls dreamy images of Cincinnati Ballet dancers that cover a large conference table. Melissa Gelfin De-Poli, the principal dancer, wears a gauzy dress that looks lit from within against the dark background. She is literally floating; the photos were taken underwater. “I wear a snorkel, and my camera is in a water-tight box,” Gutierrez explains as she, Banzhaf, and Chelsea Tucker Moore, an art consulting partner for Banz Studios, don cotton gloves to handle the supersized prints. They’re among some 50 works by Cincinnati creators that Banz is curating for Artistry Cincy, an apartment complex set to open this spring on East Pete Rose Way downtown.
Artistry Cincy is a maverick node in the evolving landscape of corporate art. It’s the most art-centric property development in the city, commissioning $100,000 in locally made pieces via Banz Studios, and will operate an on-site gallery with quarterly installations, also curated by Banz. Madeline Moyer, associate brand manager for the developer, Milhaus, says the works on view in the common areas of Artistry will differ from what adorns lobbies of the company’s other properties. “Like at an actual gallery, each piece has a plaque, with the story behind it, and the artist’s name and the title of the piece,” she says. “When I choose a piece of art for a lounge at another property, I go by what looks good, what we can afford, and what fits the space. At Artistry, a lot of interior design was chosen around the art pieces. We are complementing those rather than vice versa, so when I have a vibrant blue-green piece, I’m making sure we’re selecting fabrics around that to make it the focal point.”
It’s a dream commission for Banz Studios, and a rare one. Most projects come with significant parameters, especially assignments from medical facilities, where, studies show, well-chosen art can improve patients’ health outcomes. Similarly, there are verboten kinds of content; images of butterflies are a no-no in neonatal units since the insect is known in some circles to represent a twin who died.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC), like Artistry, is the outlier in its field when it comes to the prominence of art on its walls and its approach to acquiring art that’s in sync with the rest of the property’s design and layout, not an add-on. Its new Critical Care building, which opened on the Avondale campus in October, looks more like a museum. Mother-and-calf giraffe sculptures stand in the lobby in teal, and there’s a preponderance of round artwork—some pieces kinetic, others embedded into the wall porthole-style—enlivening every patient room and hallway.
Banzhaf was commissioned by Kolar Design, which created the building’s interior design and curated the art, to fabricate some of her own art for it, because it fits the rather limited guidelines: Children’s and Kolar wanted things that could be made, ideally, with the participation of patients, staff, and community members; cleave to a “kaleidoscope” theme; and be made of, or covered with, materials that can be wiped down with a cleaning solution. In addition to contributing some of the art, Banz Studios also framed and installed all of the building’s works: more than 1,100 pieces. Seven hundred and fifty of them were round—a logistical behemoth of a job to encase.
Banzhaf’s relationship with CCHMC started out small a decade ago. “We started changing out artwork that was dated,” she says. “They do a lot of local kid-created art. The director of facilities told me that instead of what they had on the walls, let’s start framing some of that.” That seemingly small step in community and patient involvement has grown exponentially and is now codified for all art in the institution.
Abstract and landscape art remain Banz Studios’s bread and butter, but Banzhaf still tries to push clients to edgier fare such as Gutierrez’s work and away from, say, clichéd images of the Roebling Suspension Bridge and Fountain Square. One of her artists, Jon Paul Smith, weaves canvas strips together into tactile 5-foot-round pieces. Marc Sijan casts faces that look like tiny people emerging from inside a wall. Tim McFadden crafts wall sculptures in amorphous-shaped glass in customizable colors.
Instagram has increased the public’s exposure to fine art and edgy content, and the juicy-colored murals adorning buildings across Cincinnati have made the city known for illustrating its history with vibrant, oversized visuals. “Companies want to tell a story,” says Tucker Moore. “Even banks are changing things up so the experience of going there is less about sitting across a desk from someone and more about conversational areas. The artwork has more of a presence. Authenticity is the most important thing right now.”
If “authenticity” for a global or national brand sounds like marketing hooey, here’s a concrete example: Developers of the former Pogue’s department store downtown, now luxury rentals, turned to Banz Studios for something that would visually connect its 4th & Race Apartments to the space’s past retail glory. It was a one-off assignment, something Banz Studios does not typically do—another company had curated all of the art—but it was a foot in the door with an expanding national firm.
Tucker Moore researched until she turned up a century-old catalogue from Pogue’s. An illustrated woman in a flowing gown graces the cover, which Banz Studios reproduced. “We printed it on brushed metal to modernize the look of it,” says Banzhaf.
As businesses get back on their feet and new ones are born, there’s an increasing need for such local-inflected art. Cincinnati has, for instance, the nation’s highest percentage of office spaces being converted into residential rentals, according to the website RentCafe.com. All of these new ventures need pretty things on their walls.
How did a hometown party girl, known for being out on the town, become the person who helps guide the work of local artists to those walls? She was always artsy, even if she was, as Banzhaf says, “a horrible drawer.” She was a dancer throughout her school years, made ceramics with an artist aunt, and painted thrift-store furniture for fun.
A born-and-bred Cincinnatian who now lives in a Mt. Adams duplex apartment adjacent to her mother and stepfather, Banzhaf left town only for college in Colorado. “I went skiing for four years and got a degree in my spare time,” she jokes. Returning here in 2001, with no idea of what she wanted to do with her business degree, she got a job selling ads for CityBeat. Her social life—art openings, festivals, concerts, and parties—built a vast network. “She is always on the scene, always connecting with people,” says Triantafillou. “She is one of those people who will always show up.” Cold-calling businesses to sell newspaper ads was easy for someone so socially adept.
A neighbor hired Banzhaf for the art consulting business Artonomy. She was still in sales, which is what the art-consulting business boils down to, but she also learned the particulars of framing—an integral part of any art consultancy. “I knew a little about art, but framing is a big part of this business,” she says. “One day my only job was to cut glass. One day I was on the computerized mat cutter. Another day, dry-mounting prints to foam core.”
Opening and running Artonomy’s now-closed brick-and-mortar shop in Rookwood Commons, Banzhaf learned something about herself, too: She disliked staying in one place. She needed to be on the move. In 2007 she walked sans appointment into ADC Fine Arts, the city’s largest art consultancy. Banzhaf would spend a decade there, selling art and framing and working with some big clients, including CCHMC.
At the age of 38, Banzhaf struck out on her own in 2017, opening Banz Studios at 317 W. Fourth St. It was a raw space, but she got “that feeling” when she toured it. “It looked like a gallery in New York or London, and when I get that feeling—when I want something—I do not stop,” she says. Blood, sweat, and tears went into it. “I had to put in a new floor and paint the whole place. I learned how to use a table saw and a nail gun. A lot of construction needed to be done.” It was not long before she was itching to go even bigger.
As the exceptionally warm fall weather finally turns crisp and the CCHMC gig is wrapping up, Banzhaf goes on a first meeting with a financial company. She was referred, as usual, by a friend. The firm—which requested to remain anonymous—wants more traditional pieces for its two floors of new offices in a landmark downtown building. Even though the company did not know how much of its remote workforce would eventually return to the office, if any, it too is taking a gamble on spending money to embellish its new digs.
In a conference room with a stunning view of the Roebling Bridge, a company rep says, “Here, we’d like a piece showing the Roebling Bridge.” Banzhaf says nothing. (“Cincinnati loves Cincinnati,” she later quips.) Instead, she searches her phone for an image and says, “Take a look at this topographical map.” It’s downtown Cincinnati in round white plaster by David Falter, a more unique way of illustrating the city. The client is enthusiastic about it, asks the price ($5,000), and says she will recommend it to her higher-ups. Banzhaf continues searching her phone. “I have a 1958 back-and-white map of Cincinnati printed on a mirror.” The client brims with excitement. “Ooh, that sounds like something I would want in my home!” She requests Banzhaf send her images of all the pieces they discussed in their tour of the office: portraits, client images, framed moss, text of “value statements,” and, yes, some Roebling Bridge ideas.
“I’ll just bombard you with art,” Banzhaf says as she leaves the productive meeting. In the elevator back to the ground floor, she smiles as she checks messages on her phone. “Oh,” she says, “I won another $183 on a race!”