VOICES: Meet the two champions leading arts and culture charge in Hamilton

When we discuss art and culture in Southwest Ohio, inevitably, our conversation is about the creative abundance of Dayton and Cincinnati. I want to make a case for a hidden gem in Hamilton, Ohio.

For the past couple of years, I have spent a fair amount of time covering the fantastic work of Ian MacKenzie-Thurley and his amazing team at the Fitton Center and David Stark and his awesome crew at the Artspace Lofts and Strauss Gallery.

From the rotating exhibitions of regionally significant visual artists at the Fitton Center, I have seen some entertaining and challenging productions. Typically, a city of Hamilton’s size has one champion for showcasing and highlighting the arts. This community, however, has at least two social and cultural ring leaders leading the charge.

What stands out the most is their commitment to seeing Hamilton rise above preconceptions and that small-scale cities are no match for their larger counterparts like Dayton or Cincinnati.

Imagine the Fitton Center, which serves as a kind of visual and performing arts hub for the community — sort of like a Dayton Art Institute — meets the Schuster Center. A bustling and energized complex that achieves the almost impossible: a multi-generational and multi-ethnic arts complex that on any given night is bustling with energy. Ian Mackenzie-Thurley is the executive director who elevates and inspires audiences and patrons. We were very fortunate to have a sit-down interview with Ian for the television series the Art Show.

Down the street on the city’s main corridor is an artist’s residential complex and gallery space. The Artspace Hamilton Lofts is a community of working artists living in genuinely affordable accommodations along with a resident-assisted gallery space called the Strauss Gallery. The City of Hamilton has done an excellent job preserving the historic architectural legacy of the main street building complex while at the same time positioning it solidly as an adapted-use facility. Under David Stark’s committed leadership, I have had the tremendous privilege to showcase my own art and come to know this incredible community of art-makers.

While this is not a two-person show, Ian and David live in a community that desires the inspiration and joy that the arts can bring and where they can apply their leadership skills. Ian and David have leaned into their considerable charisma, intelligence and natural leadership. These two individuals could have taken their gifts and talents elsewhere and immersed themselves in the politics of bigger city living.

The charm and artistic gifts this city possesses are part of a wave of change occurring before our eyes. At the same time, it is essential to take in all that Dayton and Cincinnati have to offer culturally — a considerable bounty of artistic riches. Now and then, a road trip is necessary. I recommend visiting Hamilton and checking out these champions of culture and the organizations they lead and support.

You might even see me among the crowd having a great time and taking it all in.

Rodney Veal is the host of ThinkTV/CET Connect and a member of the Levitt Pavilion Dayton Board of Trustees.

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