The Art Academy’s Past and Future

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Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

As the Art Academy of Cincinnati celebrates its 150th birthday in 2019, focus rightly shines on famous faculty and alums like Frank Duveneck, John Ruthven, Charley and Edie Harper, and Julian Stanczak and the AAC’s halcyon days in Eden Park. We discuss the anniversary with Interim President Mark Grote, who thinks now is the right time to place “big bets” to support the next generation of artists.

What sort of student is attracted to the Art Academy?
We talk a lot about what it is that we do well here. We compare ourselves to the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program, which I’m very familiar with—all three of my children are DAAP grads. There are a lot of great artists who can’t get into DAAP, where admission is very competitive. We also attract kids who aren’t into the social scene as much in high school and aren’t relishing going to a big university like UC. They want to be more than a number, and they know there’s going to be personalized attention here.

There’s probably not another art school in the U.S. that gives every junior and senior studio space, and we give them the best space on the upper floors with the best views in Over-the-Rhine. We find that, when recruiting potential students, if we can get them to come here and tour the building, they get excited about coming here.

How does a specialized art school fit into the current model of higher education?
We’re not a big school and don’t want to be a big school, though we want to be bigger than we are now. We have about 200 students now and want to get closer to 300. That’s about our capacity in terms of personalized attention, which is our brand.

This is a school where you may graduate with a degree in graphic design, for instance, but you’ve experimented with photography, painting, video, and a lot of other things, and you leave here not just as a graphic designer but also as a creative thinker and problem solver. That’s our secret sauce. I don’t think there’s another school in the region that does it as well as we do.

A larger program like DAAP is perhaps more focused on preparing its students for the professional world. Two of my kids were industrial design majors there, and you focus on your program there from day one and get your co-ops and work experience. And they create incredible industrial designers. We need to get better at preparing our students for life after college, and we will.

Your building at 12th and Jackson streets was one of the first major redevelopment projects in Over-the-Rhine, but doesn’t feel well integrated into the neighborhood. Are you interested in improving that integration?
We moved to OTR in 2005, which in hindsight was a brilliant move to get in on the ground floor of redevelopment here. But it almost sunk the school. We didn’t balance the budget until 2012. So they got gun-shy about spending more money on the building.

I feel like we’re at an important inflection point now with our 150th anniversary. With the way higher education is changing so dramatically so quickly, we can’t continue to just get by. We have to start placing some big bets for the future, and those bets have to fundamentally change everything we do if we want to be around for another 150 years.

We’re preparing to start a capital campaign to raise about $5 million to rework the ground-floor space. We’d like to move the building’s main entrance to the 12th and Jackson corner, giving us better visibility, and possibly bring in a restaurant operator to serve not only our students but the entire community. We’re also talking with development partners to build a dorm structure on our parking lot to add student housing and potentially retail and other amenities.

What else will the fund-raising campaign support?
When we reimagine the building’s ground floor, we’re going to add technology labs to support new programs in filmmaking, animation, and entrepreneurship, as well as provide additional creative outlets for all students. I also feel strongly that we need to improve the experience for faculty and staff. We need to pay them more, give them better benefits, and make this a more optimistic place for them to work.

Ultimately, we can’t just sit back and chase our competition at DAAP or other regional art schools. We need to figure out how we move forward with new approaches and take a leadership position in art education. Our size works to our advantage because we can move quickly and institute change easier than large universities.

You’re not an artist or an educator, so how did you end up leading the Art Academy at this critical time?
I’m a local Cincinnati guy and grew up on the west side in the Grote bakery family. My first ancestors who came to Cincinnati lived in Over-the-Rhine. I retired after spending 30 years in research and development at Procter & Gamble and was looking to get more involved in the city and connected with the Art Academy. I’m not an artist, but as I mentioned I have three children who are in the arts, all DAAP graduates, so this was a way for me to live in their world a little bit.

I started consulting with the Art Academy in 2011, and it was clear to me that they didn’t have long to live unless they changed things pretty dramatically. They were running $1 million deficits annually at that point. I provided a blueprint for change, then helped the interim president implement much of it. We sold our second OTR building next door to 3CDC, downsized the faculty, and outsourced our IT needs. Within a couple of years the budget was balanced and enrollment picked back up.

I was involved in hiring John Sullivan, who came on as president in 2012. I joined the board at that point and served as chair for two years. When Sullivan left in June 2018, they asked if I’d step in as interim president, so I dropped off the board and came to work here. I’m happy to do it, because I really love this place.

What is your role as interim president?
After P&G, I consulted with nonprofits around strategic planning. When I came here last June, the first thing I did was build a new leadership team. There’s wholesale change on pretty much every level here. All 10 of us meet every week to work on the strategic plan, which has four priority areas: people, both students and faculty/staff; education, including the new program areas; community, where we’re placing a bet on social practice, which is art for the sake of social justice; and financial accountability, specifically the capital campaign.

I’m also planning to help hire the next full-time president of the Art Academy, which we hope will happen this June. I’ll help train that person on our strategic plan, and I’m happy to serve in this role until they don’t need me any longer.

For information about events celebrating the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s 150th anniversary: artacademy.edu/news-events/events

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