ArtWorks Mural Public Response – 2009

The summer 2009 mural in Over-the-Rhine by the civic organization ArtWorks prompted this Agit-Prop project. Situated at the corner of Central Parkway and Vine, a prominent entry point into Over-the-Rhine from downtown, the mural is the four-story likeness of Cincinnati resident and politician Jim Tarbell. As we learned from Kelly Jo Asbury, an artist and instructor at Chatfield College in Over-the-Rhine who participated in the initial planning of the ArtWorks mural, the decision-making process selecting Mr. Tarbell was not diversified or community-based (read her paper on the topic, A Call to Artists). Mr. Tarbell was one of four candidates considered for the mural. The others were legendary boxer Ezzard Charles, and icons Mr. Spoons and Peanut Jim (Shelton).

After resigning in protest from the project, Ms. Asbury exclaimed: “It only takes the slightest bit of observational skills to witness what’s going on in this community. Why does a storefront across from the condo complex post a banner which reads “We Shall Not Be Moved?” The streets speak openly of the effects of development that is exclusive, aggressive, and indignant…and mark clearly the division of the haves coming in to push away the have-nots. The new does not include the old and I felt it distinctly as I paid attention to what I was observing from one block to the next.”

Ms. Asbury continues: “These observations were happening in the midst of the selection process for the exciting four-story mural…The one group meeting I was a party to…contained only six people outside of our project team and the staff of ArtWorks. These six represented local businesses or development firms, perhaps one or two actually live in the area. Uh, six middle-class Caucasians are not representative of the community at large. The demographics are not served…a ‘community-based concept’ evolved while side-stepping the community.”

Students from Chatfield College, Northern Kentucky University, and the Center’s Residency Program embarked upon a community-based campaign to learn how community residents felt about the mural. They designed a flyer with a modified picture of the mural, adding a blank cartoon bubble. Community residents and passers-by were simply asked to consider what Mr. Tarbell’s likeness was saying, and to surmise what the mural means for the future of the neighborhood. Students were instructed not to encourage personal attacks on Mr. Tarbell. The responses were decisive. And while the spectrum from positive to negative was aptly represented, there was also a clear message that most African-Americans felt the mural represents their displacement from Over-the-Rhine. The voices tabulated by the students resulted in a culminating exhibition at InkTank on December 1, where community members and students spoke about the project. Cincinnati Beacon recorded the event. StreetVibes, the newspaper of the Cincinnati Coalition of the Homeless, was a co-sponsor of the project and published several community responses in its edition of December 1 – 14, 2009.