CINCINNATI, Ohio — It's hard to walk more than a few blocks in Cincinnati without stumbling past an ArtWorks mural.
The nonprofit has painted hundreds of building-sized murals across downtown in its 25-year history. They've sprinkled a few throughout Cincinnati's neighborhoods and surrounding cities as well.
People love taking walking tours to check them out. Several are social media must-haves.
But the murals are a lot more than pretty images. They're community assets that inspire pride in residents and spur economic development and job creation.
“Public art builds civic pride and it adds beauty to our city, but it's an economic driver as well,” said Colleen Houston, CEO and artistic director for ArtWorks.
"It makes our city more vibrant so it attracts tourism, but it also brings residents out," she added. "When they have visitors they take them out on mural tours and they show off their city."
There's no better example of that than BLINK, a multi-day light and sound festival. The first BLINK in 2017 attracted a record-setting crowd so the event expanded in 2019 to include parts of Covington, Ky.
In April, an economic analysis estimated BLINK attracted more than 1.2 million people to the region in 2019. The report says the economic impact was $86.7 million.
The four-day festival also supported 1,015 jobs that earned a combined $28.3 million, the report showed.
ArtWorks can't take full credit for those stats and dollar figures. They worked with organizations like ArtsWave and the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
Yet, ArtWorks employs about 300 artists every year to work on its projects. Positions range from designers to teaching artists to youth apprentices.
One of those employees is Cedric Michael Cox, a local visual artist who has worked on several murals. He came up with the design for the "Sky's the Limit" piece underway at the historic Manse Hotel in Walnut Hills.
Cox said the design celebrates the "rich history of Walnut Hills and the impact of African-American culture on the community." He hopes the piece instills a sense of neighborhood pride.
"I would love for people to walk away feeling proud of living in Walnut Hills. I want them to be proud to call this neighborhood home; I want them to feel like this is a great place to be, a great place to raise a family," Cox said. "This is their mural, this is their neighborhood and they should take pride in that."
Sydney Fine, with ArtWorks, said they consider location when assigning apprentices to a project. They want teams to be a mix of locals and young people from other locations and backgrounds.
About half of the Manse Hotel team is from Walnut Hills or attends high school in the area.
The new Walnut Hills mural is one of 20 to 30 ArtWorks plans to complete this year. They'll add to the more than 200 completed in ArtWorks' history.
That commitment to public art recently earned Cincinnati the No. 2 spot on USA Today's '10Best' list of best cities in the country for street art. That was ahead of cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston and Detroit.
10Best mentioned three downtown murals: "The Golden Muse," "Ice Cream Daydream" and "Faces of Homelessness,” painted on the side of the Recovery Hotel on Vine Street.
There's a vibrantly colored illustration of some of the historic toys created by local toymaker, Kenner Toys. Homages to actress Rosemary Clooney and James Brown tower above main roadways in Over-the-Rhine.
There's even a literal hat-tip to local politician Jim Tarbell.
ArtWorks was not directly involved in the creation of Black Lives Matter mural outside Cincinnati City Hall. However, many of their artists and staff participated in its creation.
It's not all about the city center, though. ArtWorks has taken its mission to the broader Greater Cincinnati region.
In total, ArtWorks' has public art pieces in 45 city neighborhoods as well as six nearby cities in Ohio and Kentucky. Including murals, they've created 13,800 public and community art projects in those areas.
Other projects include things like sculptures and temporary installations.
Some of the newest murals are in Walnut Hills, the home of ArtWorks' new corporate headquarters. They moved there from downtown earlier this spring.
They're taking up three large storefronts in the Peebles Corner Historic District on Gilbert Avenue. The space includes offices, studio space and a gallery for showing off the work of young and emerging artists.
Proceeds from sales go back to the artists, Houston said.
"This is a homecoming. We have a long history (in Walnut Hills) ... and this is a neighborhood that we love," she added. "Walnut Hills is Cincinnati's second downtown. As we thought about where we wanted to be, this area made so much sense."
Houston called Walnut Hills a “proud and burgeoning art district.” The Cincinnati Art Museum, the new Cincinnati Ballet facility and various private galleries also call the corridor home.
ArtWorks' history in Walnut Hills dates back to 1998 when the apprentice program operated under tents in Eden Park. Apprentices completed the park’s Mirror Lake fresco that year.
Past projects in the neighborhood range from the mosaic at the Eden Park bus shelter to the "Dottin’ the Hill" and "C A M P G R O U N D" murals. Others include "#5: We Are Walnut Hills" and the "Fredrick Douglass Elementary School street mural."
This spring, ArtWorks apprentices completed several new projects in Walnut Hills. That includes a colorful mural of Adinkra symbols at the corner of Gilbert and Curtis Street.
The design came from Kathryne Gardette, president of the Walnut Hills Community Council. Gardette was an early ArtWorks supporter. She led apprentices in percussion performance for 10 years with her band, Drums for Peace.
“We believed we were going to make someone’s life happier that day because they were got to hear us and experience us,” Gardette said. “We would do drum and dance songs from different parts of the world. We were being as inclusive and diverse as we could.”
While ArtWorks has quite literally left its mark on Walnut Hills and Cincinnati, Houston promises more to come.
“We’re looking forward to being a great neighbor and partnering with the incredible talent from Walnut Hills, including several small businesses, nonprofits and artists we admire," she said. "We have some really amazing projects coming up, so be ready for those announcements."
You can learn more about ArtWorks at www.artworkscincinnati.org. Have a project idea? You can reach out to ArtWorks via their website.