Brighton Arts District, Then and Now
Brighton Place is an industrial, urban, artistic, and historic neighborhood located slightly north of the West End. Its origin as a home to a large German immigrant population has morphed into what it is today: factories, retail spaces, galleries, a moped club, and even a slaughterhouse; lofts, apartments and studio spaces for local artists and musicians; a home to bands, artists, poets, pianists, fashion designers, art educators; and much more. Though some of its structures suffer visibly from neglectit may be difficult for an outsider to determine which buildings in the area are vacant and which inhabitedthose who call it home know a good portion of their neighbors by name, and are supportive of the area's galleries and businesses.
Brighton is quiet most of the time, punctuated by the occasional motorcyclist or lone resident walking a dog. However, on the first Saturday of each month, galleries all along the strip of Central Avenue and Hamilton inaugurate new shows. Encouraged by the quality of the art, the experimental bent, and the marked atmosphere of welcome, artsy folk of all kindart lovers, students, hipsters, and familiar faces of the Greater Cincinnati art scenefill the (formerly silent) streets. In short, Brighton is the location to be on First Saturdays.
The Brighton Arts Coalition, instigator of First Saturdays, was founded in 2006 by Andy Marko of Semantics Gallery and Mason Paul of Synthetica | m |. Their website states, "Our sole purpose is to create an environment that lends itself to local, emerging, and established artists from around the globe." The concept was to create a community between all Brighton spaces, and increase traffic for all the galleries, boutiques, clubs etc. This was clearly successful. The participating spaces include Semantics, U·turn, Synthetica | m |, The Brush Factory, The Mockbee, and other temporary spaces that have come and gone (such as the memorable Junior Gallery). Despite the difficulties each space has faced, the movement towards a supportive and enlightening atmosphereone that supports the local arts communitycontinues year after year.
The Legacy of Patricia A. Renick
As I remember the area in the mid 1980's, south of Central Parkway in the West End, Brighton was non-existent. My mother has told me stories that took place in the 1960s; She was a college student, and frequently took the bus from the University of Cincinnati to the Brighton area bus stop. At that time there were local businesses in the area: bridal shops, drugstores, a streetcar turnaround, and the first international bank in Cincinnati. But upon the construction of I-75, much of the area's businesses closed due to lack of access to Central and Hamilton Avenue. One person single-handedly led the way to the now known "Brighton Art District": Patricia A. Renick, the distinguished sculptor and educator who taught at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning for 31 years.
While seeking studio space in 1987, she purchased a building with two other women close to the foot of the Brighton Viaduct. As a sculptor, she preferred the first floor of the building. She broke through a wall, added double doors, a deck, and created an enclosed landscaped area. It was used as a sculpture garden and social space. Renick's MFA seminar students met there, and all classes had an end-of year potluck, which included artists from the community (not surprisingly, Renick won the International Sculpture Center's 2003 Outstanding Sculpture Educator Award). Renick promoted the area as compatible for visual artists. Not long after Renick moved to the area, Fred Lane began to seek interest in the area's real estate, and considered artists to be ideal renters: the artists would receive discounted rent in exchange for enhancing/renovating the structure they occupied. The first building Lane purchased in the Brighton area was the Ice Cream Building, which was later renovated into art studios. When I interviewed Lane, he spoke very fondly of Renick. "Patricia and I had the same vision. She loved art and saw great potential in the Brighton area."
Renick initiated a petition in 1988 to create an intersection along Central Parkway that would give two-way access to the Brighton area. As the city began a plan to restore the Brighton Viaduct, in 1996, engineers talked to Renick about a new exit from Central Parkway leading to Central and Harrison Avenue. A new park was the first plan, which became the "Pocket Park". This was designed to aid in the traffic from Central Parkway and the Brighton Viaduct to Brighton, creating a 'Gateway' to the west end, which included sculptures, lines of trees, and a broad walkway. Renick was commissioned to create 30-Module Sphere No. 1 (1988), based on a maquette from a juried show in Chicago. The sculpture now stands in the "Gateway Park". Young and Bertke, a steel fabrication plant on Patterson Avenue in Brighton, and The Otto M. Budig Family Foundation, funded the sculpture. Renick did not receive any commission or other reimbursement.
The 30-Module Sphere No. 1 was fabricated of stainless steel. The spherical form was created from an instinctive process of cutting, folding, and assembling cards, not from any mathematical calculation. The title was created as Renick counted the number of identically folded cards (modules). On the final piece one can see small circles of stainless steel at star-shaped intersections where the modules came together. The city asked her to add these to prevent children from placing their hands in the star-shapedfree of advertising, openings.
Not all of Renick's recommendations for Brighton Place intersection were followed. Against her recommendation, the city engineered only a single light on an existing pole to illuminate the sculpture at night. The underground conduits for ground-level lights were installed, but not the lights, because no one could decide who would be responsible for the electric bill. Several park benches, free of advertising, were never secured.
Patricia Renick died unexpectedly on May 7, 2007 from complications of bypass surgery. She was 75 years old. The sculpture, the landmark for Brighton, still stands, commanding the intersection of Central Parkway, Central Avenue, Brighton Place and Colerain Avenue.
A Communal Strip
My first visit to the Brighton Arts District was an evening in the Spring of 2001. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Cincinnati, heading to Semantics gallery, located at 1107 Harrison Avenue (the main road that runs parallel to Central Ave), to view a fellow student's exhibition. As an art student at the time, I was impressed by the frequency of shows by young artists who were coming out of the area colleges, prominently the University of Cincinnati and The Art Academy of Cincinnati. I recollect walking down a dimly lit sidewalk on Central Avenue, fascinated by the raw character of the place. Akin to most artists in their admiration of historic neighborhoods, I was immediately fond of Brighton's individuality.
Upon reaching the entrance of Semantics, I faced a crowd so dense with patrons, I had to maneuver my way to the back, where a band (comprised of fellow students) were playing a set. Many students and fellow artists/art teachers from local colleges were seated on the floor, or in random chairs, taking in the atmosphere, and enjoying the creative ambiance. That night, I was impressed by the warmth of the gallery. It didn't feel like a gallery at all, but rather a place for artists to come together, to discuss art, enjoy the artistic banter, and encounter the creativity of our city.
Another surprising characteristic of the neighborhood of Brighton is the sense of community. Even though the area is home to a biker bar, and surrounded by rough neighborhoods, the residents of the Brighton strip make you feel at home. I feel that Fred Lane (the owner of a large amount of property in the Brighton area) sets the tone, since he supports the art scene by donating many of his spaces to the area galleriesneeded to relocate.
Semantics: One of the Longest Surviving Cincinnati Cooperatives
Semantics Gallery first opened in a space on Walnut Street in downtown Cincinnati in December of 1992, as a cooperative, alternative exhibition space. In 1995, the gallery was flooded out and needed to relocate. In the meantime, the group had a few site-specific shows, until they found the space in Brighton in 1997. They are located now right off central parkway and just south of the Western Hills viaduct. This space is ideal for exhibitions, with two main rooms separated by a stairwell. Each month the gallery walls are covered with a fresh coat of white paint before each new show, while some remnants of past shows are left behind. Upon visiting the gallery on the First Saturday of May, Andy Marko, one of the long-time Semantics associates ( as well as an avid public speaker, and active artist in Cincinnati), told me the story behind a shelf, precariously placed ceiling high, located in the front gallery space. Apparently an artist had installed this shelf for a piece many years ago, and no one has attempted to remove it since. But, hopefully down the line, it will come in handy. In the meantime, it adds to the history and personality of the space. The gallery also has a spacious back area; in the spring and summer months it hosts musical acts and serves as a communal area for patrons and exhibiting artists.
When moving into the space, the building was in very poor condition, and required quite a bit of work. The first "official" event held at the current location was in August of 1998. David Dillon, a very familiar face in Brighton and in the arts have offeredscene in Cincinnati, has been involved with Semantics from the beginning. In our interview, I asked him what the neighborhood was like upon first moving into the space. "There were no other galleries in the neighborhood at the time," he responded. "There were a handful of artists/studios in the neighborhood though, and our no budget/no frills way of doing things seemed to fit right in."
They have always raised their own funds for events/exhibitions, and have offered support and freedom for the artists. I asked what his personal vision was for this space. Responding in characteristic fashion, he said, "My personal vision for the space was that my personal vision had nothing to do with it. It was always a space where people could have their first shows, or show something that wouldn't fit anywhere else. It should be an open venue."
David Dillon's love of the Brighton scene has inspired him through the years, as he sees it as a 'hidden gem' of the city where "there are few weekends you can't go out and see something great". Semantics has been involved in many organizations around Cincinnati such as Artworks, Autumedia, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Contemporary Art Center, Happen, Inc., Media Bridges, the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Visionaries and Voices, WAIF 88.3 FM, and many others.
Synthetica | m| Gallery
Moving chronologically, Synthetica | m| Gallery since January of 2006 occupies a space about twoultra-modern gallery in blocks away from Semantics. It is owned and operated by Mason Paul, the former founder of | m |, an ultra-modern gallery inSage and Covington Kentucky, and the Gallery Director of xoMa Gallery in Cincinnati, once located in the Ludlow Garage. Paul, accompanied by other active artists/ art lovers (such as Rebekka Sage andvideo, and performance work Jonathan Boys), has been involved with the space since its inception.
Synthetica | m| Gallery was first Synaesthesia, an edgy, alternative forum for 2-dimensional, 3-dimensional, video, and performance work. Along with exhibits, Synaesthesia or 'Syn Gallery' involved itself with film festivals, free concerts,Synthetica and an open atmosphere for expression. This made its home in the fringe dwellings of Brighton a perfect fit, pairing itself with Semantics and the former Junior gallery . The gallery took the name of 'Synthetica' by accident, coined by Collin Rowland in 2007, with Paul and Jonathan Boys in agreement. Boys now runs a sister gallery (also called Synthetica) on the West Cost in Portland, Oregon, where he continues to find new patrons and artists.
With Paul heading the space on his own in Brighton, it is now called, fittingly, Synthetica | m |. Still called today 'Syn Gallery' or 'Syn' for short, it has the former Covington | m |'s original lighting along with the signature chain art suspension from the ceiling. Synthetica | m| Gallery is gritty but modern, mirroring the personality of its director. Paul is very talented at the presentation of his exhibitions, such as his attention to the lighting. 3-Dimensional work is displayed on white pedestals, usually running through the center of the gallery. The space is inviting, non-threatening, and with a high-end gallery appeal without the pretentious nature. The work Paul tends to favor is contemporary, but with an edge; sophisticated, with great craftsmanship. One of Paul's favorite artists is Mark Gergen, a Cincinnati-based artist. "The exhibit programming of Synthetica | m | really speaks for itDonnermeyer, andself," says Paul. "We have the honor of exhibiting a range of iconic artists, from those that help shape the art world of today to the artist of the future. We do it in a manner that is not experienced elsewhere."
Exciting New Faces: U·turn and The Brush Factory
There are several new creative spaces in the neighborhood of Brighton, one of which is U·turn gallery at 2159 Central Avenue (in the space formerly occupied by Junior Gallery). U·turn is a collective alternative art space that began in August of 2009.
U·turn is a very wide open space, with little to no pedestals. The space at U·turn is challenging for 2-dimensional work, in that it must be able to engage the vastness of the structure. However, 3-dimensional and installation work is especially suitable. The shows that U·turn have had since their inception have been predominantly conceptual, more about the experience of the audience with the work. This is appropriate for the personality of the group collaborative of U·turn, in that the space is experimental in its concepts and presentation.
The Brush Factory, deriving its name from the old Brush Manufacturing Company building that it different art collaborativesoccupies, is lead by Rosie Kovacs, a recent graduate of the DAAP program at the University of Cincinnati in Fashion Design. Kovacs had lived in the Brighton neighborhood for a few years (above Semantics gallery) and hence has connections with the residents in the area. Kovacs finds Brighton a "very hands on community". She worked with Junior Gallery, which occupied the storefront of 2159 Central Avenue (now U·turn); it opened in the Summer of 2005 and closed two years later. Her experiences at Semantics and Junior gave her an inside look into running a space where artists can mingle and share ideas, and how these little operations contribute to the greater scheme.
The Brush Factory is a collaborative effort, all DAAP fashion graduates. Kovacs met Lynda Lucas of Vien Jewelry, which lead to GRASS last spring, an artisan fair that took place on Short Vine. I discussed Cincinnati with Kovacs, and she said, "Cincinnati as a whole is very behind. It is a simple town, with problems. But, name a city that doesn't have problems. It is financially feasible for people like myself; it's a matter of keeping people motivated to DO. I'm learning that most people just talk and it stops there. It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond. And at this point, if you do something, you're praised for it, regardless of the quality."
Kovacs moved into the brush factory building in August of 2009, and began the restoration of the space. Although cleaning was necessary, she was intent on keeping the historical integrity and character of the original factory, and even reused some of the old brush handles. This is visible in the rustic layout and woodwork of the space.
The Resurrection of the Mockbee
Once an old brewery storage building, The Mockbee is located at 2260 Central Parkway, across the street from the Brighton West End 'Pocket Park'. As an alternative space, the Mockbee offers unique and innovative programming Emily Caito, for example,relevant to diverse audiences. This space has been a home to many different art collaborativestwenty-foot and has housed work from that of the student to the seasoned professional. This historic building, with twenty-foot2000s vaulted ceilings and stone walls, offers three floors and 18,000 square feet of exhibition space for emerging and established artists of all disciplines. The aforementioned Fred Lane bought the Mockbee building in the early 2000s as part of his interest in the art community.
The first director was Emily Buddendeck, who ran the space for several years as the non-profit SSNOVA. SSNOVA was the host of diverse creative activities (such as theater, film, dance, fashion, performance art, partnerships with the CAC, DAAP, Art Academy, Cincinnati Film Society, S.O.S. Art, and more). After Buddendeck moved on, Chris Daniels and Carissa Barnard moved in, and the space became the 'Mockbee'. They ran the space for several years as well, and continued the legacy of thought-provoking exhibitions. The next few years, Lane rented out the space to the Cloven Hoof Theatre, the makers of Barnyard Burlesque, a tongue and cheek theatre production group.
The Mockbee building has continuously had tenants since Lane purchased the building. As one group departs, another sets up, anxious to use the space; it is full of character and endless possibilities for creative enterprises. The current inhabits of the Mockbee are (albeit temporarilyfilm, and fire ) Bunk News or Bunk Spot, a music and performance collaborative. Lane was approached by the collaborative and felt they were organized and thoughtful in their concepts, so he is allowing them to use the Mockbee space for their events. The group ranges from a few individuals to as many as fifteen, who collaborate on shows, mainly focusing on music and performance. The main reason for the lack of focus on visual art is the result of the challenges posed by the building. The age of the building, the construct of the walls, and the heavy humidity make displaying 2-dimensional work a challenge.
The first opening for Bunk was January of 2010. In April, the space hosted the after-party for the Brighton Art walk. It was a group show consisting of video, 2-D, and 3-D pieces. There were also musical acts, spoken word, film, and fire twirling. "We try to focus on bringing a wide aray of music through our space in a variety of genres so that social circles begin to overlap a bit more in Cincinnati. Our main focus for the music shows is bringing DIY touring bands through Cincinnati and showing them a good time. We are trying to make Cincinnati a worthwhile stop for the DIY network of bands traversing the country, either by giving them a good show or pointing them in the direction of other venues than can. We do put an emphasis on more fringe art and performances but are very open-minded in booking music," says Ben from Bunk.
Artist Studios A Sampling
Inexpensive rents, huge live-and-work spaces, the supportive and collaborative atmosphere, and close proximity to downtown and Clifton have attracted many artists and musicians to the Brighton area. This population of creative residents is the dream of many smaller communities seeking to reinvigorate their neighborhoods.
Emily Caito, for example,Central Avenue: shares one of Lane's apartment loft/studio spaces with two others. Caito moved into her current residence in August of 2009. She earned her degree from DAAP in 2006, and is a member of the art collective Arthole (a few months ago the group created the wheat paste banner now hanging on Central Avenue:The ceilings are tall in our apartment "Arthole will steal your Art Soul"). Caito works at Casting Arts and Technology (in Camp Washington). She is also an active artist, specializing in bronze casting. She enjoys the neighborhood of Brighton, and also takes advantage of the active Brighton arts scene by both attending openings and displaying work in various galleries in the neighborhood.
Mason Paul lives above his gallery on Central Avenue. I asked Paul if he liked living in Brighton. "I most certainly do," he responded. "It surprises me that more people do not live here. I would think that there would be a line... Although it does seem that whenever a space opens up or is re-done it does become occupied fairly quickly. Brighton has a great history and an evolving feel that is unique to most cities. I think many would agree that we have a fantastic collection of galleries that are diverse and compelling."
Three of the five members of U·turn collective live and keep studios as practicing artists in the Brighton neighborhood. Matt Morris, a resident artist and member of U·turn, says, "For all the creative energy at work in Brighton, it stays quiet most of the time, because we are all here to work. Like many art districts, one reason we live and work and mount exhibitions in Brighton is because it offers low-cost living, far cheaper than equivalent spaces in Over-the-Rhine proper or Northside. I have a studio above U·turn, at one end of our apartment. While I don't know exactly what the square footage is, it is an absurd amount of space for young artists at our age and income."
"The room is large, with northern-ish light from a bay of windows across the front of our building. The ceilings are tall in our apartmentwell-designed (about 15 feet tall). It is very conducive to designing and trying out installation pieces that will eventually be presented in gallery situations. For a couple hundred a month, we have a lot of living space and a studio in a well-designedstudio. There space (one of our landlords is a brilliant architect). I also think the personality of the neighborhood (very collage-like) comes into the studio. There are probably countless artists living in the neighborhood who have figured out some type of studio space. Paul Coors (who formerly ran Publico) has a printing studio in his large space in the Ice Cream Building down the street, for example. Bill and Lisa Howe also live in that building, and they run a press for poetry publications. "
While I was writing this article, I asked myself, "Why Brighton? What is it about the neighborhood that keeps it alive? Andy Marko thinks it's the extremely reasonable cost of living and working space, which is valid.
But, what makes Brighton stand out? There is something that differentiates this neighborhood enough to bring out a crowd on First Saturdays, and enough buzz to have artists continually relocating here and opening galleries. "The galleries in Brighton have the advantage of total creative license because they don't function as anyone's primary source of income and are therefore not restricted by market or commercefallible value systems for the aesthetic experience. Brighton is a lovely hamlet full of a special, urban kind of beauty that is rare," says Matt Morris.
But, is it the neighborhood, or the people involved that makeThere are programs to move artists into blighted neighborhoods the difference? Many artists coming out of college ask, "What's the best place for artists to live? There are programs to move artists into blighted neighborhoods, for varied reasons: to improve the property value, revitalize the community, and change the overall image. Paducah, Kentucky; Palenstine, Illinois; (our own) Covington, Kentucky; Cumberland, Maryland; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Johnstown, Pennsylvania are among communities that are involved in artist relocation programs.
These artist relocation programs are designed to draw talented and hard-working artists, to aid ineven funds for relocation 'cultural evolution'. These areas offer incentives for artists via grants for purchasing and building homes, forgivable mortgages, financial assistance, and even funds for relocationand press coverage. Small towns looking to create a haven for artists are now the example for best places for artists to live. Most artists cannot afford to live in New York or Los Angeles in order to forward their careers, hence opting for lower-cost living in smaller areas.
In the city of Cincinnati, there are hundreds of talented artists who live and work in small communities such as Brighton. The Brighton area has challenges, such as a reputation for crime, dilapidated and vacant buildings, and little foot traffic and press coveragebreaking-and-entering, and theft,. In a comparison of crime rates between Brighton and Over-the-Rhine, much fewer (to almost no) crimes such as breaking-and-entering, and theft,overly-imagined happen in Brighton proper. The areas that surround Brighton are where the issues arise, such as Fairview Avenue, McMicken and Warner (prominent crime spots). Though the neighborhood is by no means perfect, it is overly-imaginedhand-in-hand as problematic. The main strip of Central Avenue, especially with the help of the new biker bar, helps maintain a level of safety. The buildings are old, which goes hand-in-handpaid heavy with plumbing, heating and air-conditioning problems, and overall structural concerns. But this is no different than older homes in Northside or Clifton.
In Greater Cincinnati, it seems that the press has paid heavyalso th attention to Over-the-Rhine, Northside, and Covington, Kentucky as Art districts. These areas are affordable, and support the art communities in a similar way as Brighton. However, there is something raw and undiscovered about Central Avenue. A large part is the ever-changing and unpredictable nature of the area, but also the talent that resides there. It is a surprisingly impressive art scene that encourages frequent visits and investigation.
A special 'thank you' to Laura Chapman and Fred Lane for their assistance on the article, and their personal involvement in the Brighton Arts District.
- Galleries mentioned:
- Semantics Gallery, 1107 Harrison Avenue, Cincinnati, OH, 45214Sat:12:00 pm - 4:00 pm.
- Synthetica | m| Gallery. 2157 Central Avenue Cincinnati, OH, 45214 p:513.602.2574 by appointment only
- Uturn Art Space, 2159 Central Avenue Cincinnati, OH 45214 hours: Saturdays, 12-4 pm
- The Brush Factory, 2019 Central Avenue Cincinnati, OH 45214 p:(513) 381-5222 Hours : Thu-Sun 1pm-7pm
- Freeman Central Gallery - email: firstname.lastname@example.org p:859-552-5400
- The Mockbee, 2260 Central Parkway Cincinnati, OH 45214 hours: by appointment only
- For Jane Durrell's interview of Matt Morris about Brighton on the radio program Around Cincinnati, click here