Alecia Kintner leads Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, America’s #1 United Appeal Campaign for the Arts

By Betsy Ross, Contributing Writer

Photos and Video by Madison Schmidt

For Alecia Townsend Kintner, President and CEO of ArtsWave, THIS is the busiest time of the year. With ArtsWave’s announcement last week of a $12.6 million fundraising goal for the arts between now and April 27, she and her staff, along with Community Campaign Chair and local Fifth Third Bank Chief Tim Elsbrock and hundreds of volunteers, will be working nonstop to meet that goal.

But in reality, work on this campaign had been going on long before the announcement luncheon. 

“This is the public part, these 12 weeks from February through April, but Tim recruited his cabinet last summer,” she said. “Those 30 then recruit other helpers, then inside each company that does workplace giving, there are volunteers to step up there. We counted it up and there are about 1,100 active volunteers over the next 12 weeks of the campaign. But it starts with our leadership.” 

This is ArtsWave’s 68th campaign and the fifth for Kintner who you might say was destined for this job, even though she didn’t know it at the time. 

In the 1990s, she was in New York raising funds for Dance Theater Workshop, which also served as the lead organizer for the National Performing Network that distributed arts funding across the country. From there she took a job at the Greater Hartford Arts Council running their annual united arts campaign, similar to ArtsWave. 

“On my very first day on the job (in Hartford) I asked my boss, ‘How does this work? How do you get so many people to volunteer to do this?’ And he said, ‘Let’s call Mary McCullough-Hudson (former president and CEO at ArtsWave) in Cincinnati, because nobody does it like they do.’”

And so Kintner did, and through her years with the Greater Hartford Arts Council, McCullough-Hudson became a mentor, guiding Kintner through the process of community arts fundraising. “My board in Hartford would say to me, ‘Find out how they do it in Cincinnati—what’s the secret to their success.’ I would ask questions and study it from afar and see how we can make this look more like Cincinnati and the (then) Fine Arts Fund.” 

Then after 10 years in Hartford, Kintner and her husband stepped away—literally—from corporate life, quitting their jobs when their twins were born and selling their home in 2007 to move to an island in the Caribbean. 

“The day I announced that to the field, I got an email immediately from Mary saying, ‘Who does that? You can’t do that, that’s supposed to be me!’”

Island life lasted almost four years, and when the family returned to Hartford, Kintner thought that was it, the family was done moving. 

“But Mary started calling saying, ‘We’re thinking about our succession plan in Cincinnati, would you come?’ And I said, ‘No, we’re never moving again, I’ve never been to Cincinnati and it sounds wonderful, but no.’” 

Cincinnati’s persistence paid off eventually, and Kintner agreed to at least come to town to check it out. 

“I was immediately struck by the energy of downtown. Ultimately, it was an easy decision to come because the arts were everything I imagined them to be, and the job certainly was all I knew it would be. But it was a really big move and a big decision.” 

That decision makes Kintner part of Cincinnati’s heritage of giving to the arts that goes back to the 1800s, when Cincinnati’s civic leaders traveled to Europe and saw what arts and culture meant to the great capital cities there. “They came back and said, there’s no reason why Cincinnati shouldn’t have these same cultural riches and be the Paris of America,” said Kintner. 

From that vision came institutions like the May Festival, the oldest choral festival in the Western Hemisphere, Music Hall, the Symphony, Cincinnati Zoo, and the like. Then in 1927, the Taft family challenged the community to support the arts, pledging $1.5 million in matching funds if Cincinnati would contribute an equal amount. “It was done in months, and I think that was the first community arts challenge that we continue to this day. It’s really part of Cincinnati’s DNA.” 

ArtsWave invests in dozens of arts and cultural organizations, of all sizes, from the Cincinnati Symphony to Bi-Okoto African Drum & Dance Theater in Pleasant Ridge. 

“We’re able to invest literally millions, reliably, into Greater Cincinnati’s arts and cultural community, from organizations to schools, community groups and other nonprofits that are using the arts to achieve bigger goals. It’s significant enough to both sustain organizations and allow them to innovate.” 

Two years ago, ArtsWave introduced its Blueprint for Collective Action with five overarching goals: 

  • Put Cincinnati on the map 
  • Deepen roots in our region 
  • Bridge cultural divides 
  • Enliven neighborhoods
  • Fuel creativity and learning

"The Blueprint for Collective Action in the arts sector is a 10-year strategy that really is meant to clarify what we believe the arts do for the Greater Cincinnati region," said Kintner. "It’s the ROIthat we believe the arts offers to our business partners and what we can, together as a community, expect from the arts."

To help put Cincinnati on the map vis-à-vis the arts, ArtsWave is partnering with the Cincinnati USA Regional Tourism Network on a cultural tourism marketing campaign to reach the growing segment of cultural travelers, those traveling for a theater performance, an innovative culinary experience and perhaps a brewery visit and tasting.

“We’re getting to the people who might be likely to come check out Cincinnati for a cultural getaway weekend. Research shows there’s quite a large market for those seeking a whole experience, culinary, heritage and entertainment. We offer up a whole array of experiences and that’s what we know people are valuing when they travel.” 

With traditional sources of arts giving shifting, ArtsWave has been changing with the times—and has been encouraging its arts partners to do the same. 

“Opportunities to get on-demand entertainment means it’s so different now to try to compete and offer something in the sense of ‘traditional’ arts. So we’re working with arts organizations to figure out what that new relevance looks like. For example, our largest arts partner, the Cincinnati Symphony, has dug in wholeheartedly on how to reach new consumers with its MusicNOW Festival, listening parties and partnerships with the FreeStore Food Bank to have musicians perform as people are in line for food.”

With the upcoming 31st annual Macy’s Arts Sampler set for February 18 & 19, ArtsWave helps to show off 100+ arts events at 25 venues and 18 neighborhoods, all free, and all to give families around Greater Cincinnati a sample of what the arts has to offer.

It’s a reminder for Kintner, and all who are involved in the arts, just how much it means to the community.

“I think it’s really easy for those of us who live here to take it all for granted. Arts are having an impact across the community, and that doesn’t happen without investment, without strategy, without leadership. 

“We have to be relevant enough as a sector to our business and community partners that we keep the access, keep what is so strong in Cincinnati going for the next generation.”

To make a donation to ArtsWave, visit their website