Cincinnati USA’s rich cultural offerings are key to its unique identity. From its 18th-century beginnings as a frontier settlement, music was a social and civilizing influence that made the wilderness feel like home. Today, Cincinnati offers one of the most robust cultural scenes in the Midwest, with all five major arts disciplines represented, including ballet, opera, art museum, symphony and theater. It is home to several orchestras, a large community of working artists and artisans, Cincinnati Opera (the nation’s second oldest opera company), Cincinnati Ballet and a variety of museums and theaters.
The area’s strong interest and commitment to cultural entertainment can be traced to several organizations that were founded in the late 1800s. Musically, the May Festival is a choral extravaganza that started in 1873 and continues to this day. Each year, guest soloists from around the world join the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus onstage at Music Hall for two weekends of choral masterpieces. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1893, performs with world-class artists from September through April.
That strong orchestral tradition has generated a number of other organizations as well, including the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra and Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. Two recent additions to the scene, the Constella Festival and concert:nova get classical music out of the concert hall and into smaller venues—think pub crawls—for a more intimate experience, mixing it up with visual artists and musicians of all types. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians also form the Cincinnati Pops, an ensemble that partners with country, pop and Broadway stars throughout the season. During June and July, Cincinnati Pops moves to Riverbend Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater along the Ohio River next to Coney Island.
In fact, outdoor entertainment abounds during the summer. Riverbend also hosts national pop, rock and country stars on tour, and JACK Cincinnati Casino’s year-round roster of touring artists moves to the outdoor stage in summer. Fountain Square, in the heart of downtown Cincinnati, has free events nearly every night, featuring a diverse variety of music from roots to reggae and fun aimed at every member of the family. Similarly, Washington Park, across from Music Hall, has free programming most nights throughout the summer from concerts to outdoor movies on a giant screen to cultural and food fests.
Like the region’s musical heritage, the area’s theater scene is built upon a 19th-century tradition when downtown Cincinnati had five large theaters that presented plays, concerts and operas by local and visiting troupes. Today, that legacy is thriving. The Tony Award–winning Playhouse in the Park has two venues that present an eclectic season of established and new works. Ensemble Theatre and Know Theatre are dedicated to providing audiences with provocative new works while Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s mission is grounded in its namesake, the works of William Shakespeare as well as the Classics.
Newsies, Broadway in Cincinnati
It’s not necessary to travel to the Big Apple to catch the latest Broadway blockbuster. Broadway in Cincinnati brings them to the Aronoff Center for the Arts. The Aronoff, designed by renowned architect Cesar Pelli, presents a wide range of performances throughout the year, from visiting dance companies to concerts by nationally known artists and is the home of the Cincinnati Boychoir. The local theater community takes an edgy turn each June at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. The 17-day event brings local, national and international playwrights and artists together to present new works that range from the wonderful to the wickedly weird.
Contemporary Arts Center
If your cultural fix lies more with the visual arts, you’ve come to the right place. The region has a multitude of museums devoted to art, history and a number of unusual collections. The Cincinnati Art Museum, the largest in the region with more than 67,000 objects, spans 6,000 years of art history. It’s also one of the nation’s oldest public museums, sitting atop Mt. Adams since 1886. The Taft Museum of Art is an historic house museum in the heart of downtown Cincinnati which has a number of European and American masterpieces and decorative arts. The house also features several large murals painted in the 1800s by early African- American master, Robert Duncanson.
A few blocks away, the Contemporary Arts Center, one of the country’s oldest organizations devoted to 20th and 21st century artists, can trace its roots to 1939. In 2003, it moved to its present home designed by renowned architect, Zaha Hadid. Just around the corner, a more unusual gallery space can be found in the chic 21c Museum Hotel, which features rotating exhibitions by nationally known living artists.
Rotunda inside Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal
Preserving and presenting the area’s history is the mission of several institutions. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened to international acclaim in 2004, marks the location where thousands of slaves crossed the Ohio River to Cincinnati making their way to freedom. The museum traces the history of slavery and abolition and addresses modern-day slavery throughout the world. Inspiring exhibits about freedom heroes throughout history challenge visitors to become freedom fighters for today’s oppressed. Cincinnati Museum Center, housed in one of the country’s most important Art Deco–style public buildings, Union Terminal, contains the Museum of Natural History & Science, the Duke Energy Children’s Museum and the Cincinnati History Museum. It’s also home to an OMNIMAX Theater, traveling exhibitions throughout the year and a huge model train display. (*Note: The Museum of Natural History & Science, the Cincinnati History Museum and the OMNIMAX Theater are temporarily closed for renovations. Please visit cincymuseum.org or call (513) 287-7000 for complete details regarding the closing of certain parts of the venue for renovation and construction.) In Covington, just south of the Ohio River, the Behringer-Crawford Museum is a repository of Northern Kentucky’s history and cultural legacy.
American Sign Museum
The local museum world isn’t all about art and history. Quirky Vent Haven in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, is the world’s only museum devoted to ventriloquism. In Cincinnati, the American Sign Museum is the country’s premiere institution dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of American signage, and the Fire Museum of Greater Cincinnati pays homage to 200 years of firefighting and the nation’s first professional fire department, founded here in 1853. Kids can operate the lights and siren on a real fire engine and slide down a fire pole.
Second Sunday on Main
Still, it’s not necessary to go to a museum to sample the area’s rich arts scene. A number of annual crafts fairs and regular neighborhood art walks, such as Final Friday in Pendleton and Over-the-Rhine, Second Sunday on Main in Over-the-Rhine and Northside’s Second Saturday, feature work of local artists and craftspeople of all stripes. The area’s cultural wealth and vibrant arts scene is unsurpassed in the region, making Cincinnati a 24/7 destination whatever your pleasure.
Written by Kathleen Doane.