The new year rings in major milestone anniversaries for Cincinnati’s historic arts institutions: 125 years of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, 80 years of the Contemporary Arts Center, 100 years of the Cincinnati Opera, just to name a few. But what’s even more notable than the longevity of Cincinnati’s art scene is the fact that many of these institutions were founded by women. As the country nears the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, the remembrance of suffrage and the women behind these Cincinnati arts institutions meet at an important juncture.
“Arts leaders looked ahead at 2019 and 2020 as being a milestone anniversary year for their institutions,” says Alecia Kintner, ArtsWave CEO and president. “Further conversation made us realize that so many of these organizations were actually founded by women, and that’s a great tie to the national celebration of women’s suffrage.”
ArtsWave responded to the coinciding anniversaries with the Power of Her initiative. Kicking off this past June and spanning 18 months, the collaborative campaign has snowballed, picking up hundreds of performances, artistic exhibitions, and educational events from organizations around the city.
Women currently hold top leadership positions at the Cincinnati Ballet, ArtWorks, ArtsWave, the Taft Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, and The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, among many others.
The expansive list of participants includes the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Women Breaking Boundaries exhibition, a women’s suffrage exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center, women-centric productions by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and dozens more.
Power of Her has even inspired an ArtsWave-led book titled Imagineers, Impresarios, Inventors: Cincinnati’s Arts and the POWER OF HER, which compiles profiles of women who helped shape Cincinnati’s arts. ArtWorks, which celebrates its 25th year in 2020, will also design a traveling voter registration initiative to motivate young voters leading up to the 2020 presidential election. “It’s entirely consistent with Cincinnati’s tradition for collaboration and could really only happen in Cincinnati because of the longevity of our arts intuitions,” says Kintner. “All those organizations are still in existence today, and thriving, so the women who founded them 100-plus years ago obviously had a great vision.”
Power of Her was designed to honor not only the city’s pioneering female arts founders, but also the women who are actively running the city’s arts scene today. Women currently hold top leadership positions at the Cincinnati Ballet, ArtWorks, ArtsWave, the Taft Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, and The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati, among many others. It was one of those women, Patty Beggs, CEO of Cincinnati Opera, who first proposed Power of Her. “It means a lot to me, as a woman of course, and also as someone who’s been in the business for a long time, and as someone who’s seen the amazing work that the women who came before us have done,” Beggs says. “We’re standing on their shoulders.”
Beggs became one of the country’s few female opera CEOs in 1997 and will retire from her 36-year-long career this year. “It’s changing now,” Beggs says, “but at the time that I was among the few in the business, there were never more than four or five [companies run by women] out of the 260 companies in the country.”
Although the adoption of the 19th Amendment ushered in the right to vote for many women, it did not guarantee it for all. Until the Voting Rights Act was passed nearly half a century later, African-American women were denied access to ballots through fraud and intimidation by voting officials. “The 19th Amendment limitations are an important historical nuance,” says Kim Kern, CEO of The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. “We had our world-premiere touring production, Suffragettes: With Liberty and Voting for All, commissioned by women, intentionally, to celebrate the success of women gaining the right to vote—but to tell the story in a historically accurate context.”
“Through art, we can present ideas and issues in ways that inform and touch people.”
Celebrating its centennial in 2019, The Children’s Theatre is one of many organizations paying tribute to trailblazing African-American women throughout Power of Her, with productions that tell the stories of the likes of Coretta Scott King and Harriet Tubman.
Recognized as the country’s largest female-led suffrage-celebrating arts initiative, the leaders of Power of Her are hoping to accomplish something more than memorializing. “This isn’t just a story about 100 years ago. It’s a story about what’s happening today,” says Kintner. “There are so many challenges to women’s rights in our political climate—challenges to equity in pay for men and women, [and] the ‘Me Too’ movement impacts every industry, including the arts.”
“Through art, we can present ideas and issues in ways that inform and touch people,” Beggs says. “If we do things well, we might even change some hearts and minds.”