A Renewed Call to Support the Arts

As ArtsWave approaches its 100th anniversary, the fund-raising organization asks Cincinnati once again: how much do we value our culture and our artists?
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PAPER ART BY JAMES TAYLOR

Inside a gray, time-weathered ledger kept in a conference room in ArtsWave’s Over-the-Rhine headquarters are hundreds of names of long-gone Cincinnatians, followed by a home address or business affiliation and a balance due. Clyde M. Abbott of Fourth Street is first on the alphabetized list: $100. E.W. Edwards, president of the Fifth-Third Union Trust Company, comes later: $50,000. As do B.H. Kroger ($50,000), William Cooper Procter ($50,000), and James N. Gamble ($25,000). Most of the donations are for far less, though, $5 or $10.

The bound relic was assembled after Anna Sinton Taft, daughter of iron industrialist David Sinton, and her husband Charles Phelps Taft, half-brother of President William Howard Taft, posed a challenge to their fellow Cincinnatians in 1927. It was the Roaring Twenties, and World War I was behind them. Cincinnati was the 16th largest city in the nation, 400,000 residents and growing.

Anna was the wealthiest woman in Ohio at the time, having inherited much of her father’s fortune. Charles had made a name for himself as owner of The Cincinnati Times-Star newspaper and later as a state representative. He also owned the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies baseball teams, although not simultaneously.

The Tafts were great fans of art and music and avid collectors of paintings, porcelain, and antiques. They were among the original founders of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Anna also played a part in launching the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Opera. Also the Cincinnati Zoo, but that’s for another story.

In 1927, the Tafts pledged to donate their downtown mansion (today the Taft Museum of Art) and extensive art collection to the people of Cincinnati along with an endowment of $1 million to care for it in perpetuity. They wanted the endowment to provide ongoing financial support to the symphony, opera, and art museum as well.

During the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 1936-37 season, then-Music Director Eugene Goossens stands at the front.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF CINCINNATI SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

“There is no reason if intelligent direction is given to the natural interest and ability of the people, why Cincinnati should not be recognized as one of the greatest centers of art and music in the United States and in the world,” reads the letter signed by the Tafts and transmitted with the deed for their property. They made the commitments under the condition that the people of Cincinnati prove their appreciation for the arts and raise an additional $2.5 million to grow the endowment.

“The money was raised quickly,” says Alecia Kintner, president and CEO of ArtsWave, the organization that grew out of the family challenge made nearly 100 years ago.

As ArtsWave approaches its centennial in 2027, it’s reminded of those beginnings, Kintner says, and transformations over the years in name, mission, and vision. ArtsWave still wants Cincinnati to be recognized as one of the greatest centers for art and music in the U.S. and the world, but the methods to reach that goal have changed.

The endowment created to help fund a handful of the city’s largest arts institutions is today a pillar of support for the arts throughout all of Greater Cincinnati, touching more than 150 artists and arts organizations across a 13-county region in Southwest Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Southeast Indiana.

Still a community-led fund-raising campaign, more than 25,000 individuals and businesses donated $11.8 million to last year’s ArtsWave campaign. The money provided Sustaining Impact grants to cover an average of 5 percent of an arts organization’s expense budget for three years running; catalyst grants to support individual arts projects and arts education programs; and a variety of other funding available to individual artists, musicians, and artistic groups to produce new works.

Jonathan Martin worked for symphonies in Atlanta; Charlotte; Cleveland; Dallas; and Spokane, Washington, before joining the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as president and chief operating officer in 2017. Nowhere has he encountered an organization like ArtsWave.

“Cincinnati has philanthropic support for the arts and music in its DNA,” says Martin, “and ArtsWave is a big part of that.” Not only is it the CSO’s second largest annual benefactor, he says, but it’s also “a sort of tentpole under which the entire arts community lives.”

Through the decades, ArtsWave has morphed into a one-stop shop for the region’s artistic community, providing guidance and professional development in everything from grant writing to budgeting to becoming a new nonprofit board member. The organization has more recently fine-tuned its mission to bolster an arts community that’s reflective of the region’s diversity in age, race, and ability.

“The Nutcracker” is presented annually by Cincinnati Ballet.

The impact of this expansion of mission and funding is highlighted in an economic study released by ArtsWave and the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in January, showing $1.6 billion in direct and indirect impact from local arts and culture businesses between 2019 and 2022. The study projects that impact to grow to $2.8 billion over the next four years.

“Familiarity is critical if we expect these incredible institutions that we’ve built together to have future audiences, participants, and artists,” Kintner says. “The last thing Cincinnatians would want is an empty Music Hall.”

ArtsWave turns 100 on May 21, 2027, and as that day approaches the organization reissues the challenge posed by the Tafts and asks: What are the arts worth to Cincinnati?


In December 2009, Jonathan Sears found himself stuck in Cincinnati. Here to participate in a pop-up art exhibition called Across the Board, he’d planned to stay for two weeks until “snowmaggedon” swamped Washington, D.C., where he was living, and he was stranded.

Sears had just finished a graduate degree in design at the University of Maryland, done a bit of teaching, and wasn’t sure what was next. With unexpected free time on his hands, he visited various art galleries around here. “D.C. is a museum town with all the art experiences you could dream of, but no one really sells art,” says Sears. “I started exploring here, and people were selling artwork. It was strange, like, Wow, people are actually buying work here.

Sears had already been hired to do a couple of design jobs and decided to stay. Today, he is executive director at PAR-Projects, an art and education nonprofit he founded in Northside in 2015.

Devoted to diversifying art and creating the physical space for it, PAR’s campus on Hoffner Street features a recording studio, animation studio, woodshop, and other spaces to create or present art. Rental fees are kept affordable, Sears says, and this past summer it created several opportunities for local artists during its summer stage series, featuring local and regional musicians and artists, and OUR-Block Party, a street festival held in September with more than 30 local artists, musicians, pop-up shops, local restaurants, and businesses.

PAR-Projects wouldn’t exist without ArtsWave, says Sears. “I call them our first and forever major supporter, someone we can actually count on.”

PAR is one of 48 regional arts organizations receiving a Sustaining Impact grant this year. The unrestricted annual operating funds can be spent however an organization sees fit. But even before PAR was chosen for the grants, ArtsWave was there, Sears says. He participated in its Boardway Bound training program for prospective board members, and ArtsWave helped the organization establish its own board of trustees and connected PAR with community partners such as architects and city leaders.

One time, PAR applied for a Catalyzing Impact grant and ArtsWave came back with the money requested, plus more. “They gave us some extra funds and connected us with a marketing team to flesh out our concept,” says Sears. “We didn’t think we needed that, but we definitely did.”

ArtWorks’ “Reality Threshold” mural by Sara Woolfalk.

The list of arts organizations receiving Sustaining Impact grants includes the original groups supported by the Tafts’ endowment and many others, large and small, from all over the region: Price Hill Will, Wyoming Fine Arts Center, Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park and Museum, and numerous choirs, theater groups, and dance troupes.

The Carnegie in Covington is Northern Kentucky’s largest multidisciplinary arts venue and has been a recipient of a Sustaining Impact grant for many years, says Kim Best, its former executive director. “ArtsWave acts as a megaphone for the arts,” Best says, and has helped The Carnegie tell its story through the years.

Operating out of a historic Carnegie Library since 1972, the dome-topped building on Scott Street houses one of the last remaining full-sized Carnegie auditoriums in the U.S. The Carnegie’s mission is to use the historic building as a place where emerging and established artists can create, perform, and exhibit art, while providing educational opportunities for the Covington community.

Along with its sustaining support, ArtsWave provides Carnegie employees with access to healthcare coverage through its ArtsWave Consortium Plan, Best says, and helped them hang on during the topsy-turvy pandemic years thanks to more than $100,000 in emergency relief. “That was definitely key in The Carnegie making it through,” she says. “We were able to keep our staff on payroll and continue programming in a very unorthodox way.”

The Carnegie offers performing and visual arts and art education, and it logs thousands of hours bringing art into Northern Kentucky classrooms. Emergency relief allowed the organization to keep developing virtual lessons as the schools moved to distance learning. The money also allowed The Carnegie to pivot to limited-capacity art exhibitions and the creation of an outdoor theater series at the Covington Amphitheater, which audiences really wanted, Best says.

She recently left The Carnegie to become community relations manager at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where, among other tasks, she books local musicians to play in the airport, welcoming Cincinnatians home and giving visitors a taste of what the area has to offer. “Having a vibrant art scene is so important,” says Best. “It’s something that sets Cincinnati and this region apart.”


As one might expect, it took some serious reimagining for the Tafts’ original plan to evolve into what ArtsWave is today. The organization’s first big shift occurred in 1949. Until then, the family endowment had been enough to support the four original arts institutions, including the Taft Museum of Art, which opened in 1932. But as post–World War II inflation crept in, the fund started running a deficit.

The organization decided to launch another giving campaign, branding it the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund. Volunteers started soliciting annual donations from Cincinnati’s business executives and wealthy arts lovers.

Then, as the story goes, a secretary at General Electric turned the operation on its head. The Fine Arts Fund had become a professional organization by the early 1970s, with the late Paul Sittenfeld as its first paid executive director. The annual letter soliciting donations from top-level executives arrived at GE, and a secretary read it and asked aloud, “What are we, chopped liver?” Mary McCullough-Hudson, who became executive director in 1994, says the woman wanted to donate to the campaign herself.

GE rolled out the first companywide giving campaign to its employees in the 1970s, which resulted in the Fine Arts Fund cracking $1 million for the first time. Good timing, says McCullough-Hudson, because other arts organizations had come knocking for support.

With workplace giving on the rise, the Fine Arts Fund expanded to support Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Contemporary Arts Center, and May Festival in 1977 and started offering project grants for the first time to smaller arts organizations. The campaign mimicked the United Way model, allowing employees to pledge a small part of their paycheck to the cause. The fund grew as companies like Procter & Gamble, Fifth Third Bank, and The Cincinnati Enquirer created workplace campaigns.

Then, in the early 2000s, corporate philanthropy moved toward impact-driven giving, says Kintner. The Fine Arts Fund’s big donors, including P&G, wanted to see data from the organization that tracked its spending outcomes. The Fine Arts Fund surveyed its donors, and one of the findings shocked them: Eighty percent of donors had never interacted with any of the large arts institutions they were supporting.

“Clyde’s” was performed in Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s new Rouse Theater.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKKI SCHAFFNER

The question then was Why are people giving?, Kintner says. The organization commissioned a study to dig deeper. “What emerged is that, regardless of whether the donors participated, they could see the arts created a more vibrant economy and a more connected community.”

It was time for the organization to take a hard look at itself again. Everything needed to change, including how and which arts organizations received funds. The original “big eight” organizations receiving aid were resistant, of course, says McCullough-Hudson, worried that they’d lose their funding. But leadership in those organizations also knew it was time for a change. She and her board pressed them, asking, Do you want to continue to get the same piece of a shrinking pie, or do you want to take a slightly smaller piece of hopefully a growing pie if we can increase our relevance to the community?

Lee Carter was chairman of the Fine Arts Fund board during this time of transition and a Life Trustee. He points out that the Tafts wrote in their letter that proper financial support should also be considered when “organizations are formed where other fields open up.”

“They were smart to say we don’t know what the future is going to bring,” says Carter, who was a successful businessman and named a Great Living Cincinnatian by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in 2010 for his decades of community service. “That is the beauty of the institute, we have changed with the times.”

Ultimately, in 2010, the Fine Arts Fund became ArtsWave. “Fundamentally, we went from asking ourselves, What do the arts need? to What does the community need through art?” Kintner says.


Lisa Sauer has seen the ripple effect the arts have on Cincinnati. Now retired, she was a senior vice president at Procter & Gamble when she joined the ArtsWave board. She served for the maximum of nine years and came to recognize how art connects the community and makes Cincinnati a better place to live.

“I had been giving to the campaign for years but had never seen the work of ArtsWave close up,” says Sauer. While serving on a grants committee, she got to see how award decisions were made. “It was a rigorous process, and I saw what they were really trying to achieve. I went from a passive supporter to being really passionate about the organization.”

Her husband, Jon Moeller, is CEO of P&G and has also served on ArtsWave’s board. His perspective is a bit different because of the 10 years he spent on the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Board of Trustees. He’s particularly proud of the work around the creation of a DEIA plan at the art museum, shifting its priorities in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. “It got us thinking very deliberately about how the museum could be a more impactful institution within the city,” he says. “How we could connect different groups of people within the city, so we weren’t some clubhouse on a hill but a vibrant part of our city, making it better for everyone.”

Speaking from the perspective of leading P&G, Moeller says the arts also play a crucial role in attracting and retaining top talent in Cincinnati. Events like BLINK, which is supported by ArtsWave, bring millions of visitors and millions of dollars in economic impact, he says. The eye-popping multi-day art and light festival returns in October.

“Grove” at BLINK 2022.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF AGAR

He and Sauer are co-chairs of the 2024 ArtsWave campaign, and they aren’t shy about asking every individual to support it. “People will say, Well, I love the Cincinnati Art Museum or I love the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and I want to put my money there, but it’s an and not an or,” Sauer says. “You can’t have a great city with one or two thriving arts organizations. You need a strong arts ecosystem that delivers on the promise of a more vibrant economy and connected community.”

In 2025, ArtsWave wraps up a 10-year plan known as the Blueprint for Collective Action, says Ray Gargano, vice president of community investment. The overall goals are to deepen the arts’ roots in our region, bridge cultural divides, enliven neighborhoods, and fuel creativity and learning.

ArtsWave awards grants based on the Blueprint’s goals, as well as what’s called the Lifting As We Learn plan, adopted in 2020 to codify its commitment to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and access across the Cincinnati arts scene. The organization has now instituted Circle grants to build capacity in regional arts organizations that are either Black-led or predominately serve Black Cincinnatians. There were eight winners in the 2023 cycle, including Bi-Okoto, a professional African dance and drum company that’s expanding educational programming at its cultural center in Pleasant Ridge, and the AfroSwag Hair and Fashion Show.

PAR-Projects received a Circle grant in the last cycle, too, for its new visiting artist and education program. To date, ArtsWave has commissioned work from 27 artists in the new Black and Brown Artist Program, a partnership with the city of Cincinnati.

Another new initiative, launched in 2023, is More Arts, More Kids, designed to provide every student in grades 1–6 with an annual arts field trip. The first outing occurred in October and involved bringing 2,500 third graders from Cincinnati Public Schools to the Taft Theater for the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati’s production of SpongeBob the Musical: Youth Edition. “As arts education declines in the school systems, this is about developing the next generation of artists, ticket-holders, and donors,” Gargano says. “That way our children will know what the arts are and where to find them.”

August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

Kintner doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that the annual campaign could use a boost. Fund-raising stalled at around $12 million before the pandemic, and people’s habits have changed since then, as have workplaces themselves. In the January economic impact report, the organization determined that to keep up with inflation, the campaign would need to be $20 million by 2027.

The CSO’s Martin says the orchestra has evolved alongside ArtsWave. “Once you look at yourself as a community service organization, that requires you to know how well you’re serving the entire community,” he says. “We use music to serve and enrich the community, much the way a college uses education or a hospital uses medicine. Our magic is music.”

And that’s meant bringing music to the community, too, says Martin. Two summers ago, CSO began the Brady Block Party series, performing in the West End, Price Hill, Bond Hill, Westwood, and Evanston. “We’re building the program with community leaders,” he says. “Even with just one or two concerts, you can feel a fellowship growing.”

Martin implores future donors to follow in the footsteps of the Cincinnatians who heeded the Tafts’ challenge back in 1927. “Arts organizations are like every other business. They need money to sustain them,” he says. “Without ArtsWave, we wouldn’t have a full-time orchestra and wouldn’t be able to attract the musical talent, the guest conductors, and the guest musicians. We’re in a music director search now, and we’re able to compete for talent with some of the world’s great orchestras because the company is strong and healthy.”

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