Establishing Rules for the Future

Photography provided by the Art Academy of Cincinnati

This is the little school that could – and does.

For nearly a century and a half the Art Academy of Cincinnati (AAC) has consistently educated, nurtured and inspired great visual artists. Elizabeth Nourse, Thomas Satterwhite Nobel, Julian Stanczak, John Ruthven, Charlie Harper and Tom Wesselman all walked the halls of AAC. It might be one of the smallest four-year art colleges in the country, but its commitment to educational excellence is one that has met the test of time. 

People the world over recognize the names of the students and faculty, the artists who rise from AAC. The leadership team that steers the college is equally committed, accomplished and respected – but not so well known. That might change as AAC strives to be the most celebrated, relentless, rebellious, cutting-edge and radiant collection of artists and designers anywhere, at any time – the seers, the radicals, the innovators and the creative professionals who establish the rules for the future.

AAC continues to challenge itself, not only to stay relevant but also to stay in front of the crowd, to grow, and blaze trails. That’s what it did when it opened its doors as the McMicken School of Design in 1869. Subsequently it evolved into a department of the University of Cincinnati. In 1887, it became the “Art Academy of Cincinnati,” the museum school of the Cincinnati Art Museum. In 1998, it formally separated from the museum to become an independent, private college of art and design offering BFA degrees in studio arts and design, and the MAAE degree for art educators. In 2005, AAC packed up its 141 years of history in Mt. Adams and moved only 1.3 miles down the hill to Over-the-Rhine. It could just as well have been 13,000 miles. The daring relocation to OTR was long before the renovation of Washington Park, the arrival of the hip dining scene and the crowd-pleasing phenomenon of Lumenocity. As an urban campus pioneer, AAC played a pivotal role in the revitalization of the neighborhood as an arts district. A decade later, the wisdom of that decision is evident. 

Photo by Vera Thornbury, AAC

President John M. Sullivan has assembled a strong, innovative leadership team to work with him to steer AAC into the next level of success. “What makes the Art Academy of Cincinnati so powerfully vital, not just in Cincinnati, but in the worlds of contemporary art and design, is a commitment to provide a personalized education in the visual arts,” Sullivan says. “We make artists who delight in imaginative expression because we know that imagination makes the world. At the AAC we educate artists to invent forms, not merely inherit techniques, to lead rather than follow. Our professors and teachers are a dynamic community of master artists and educators who understand the importance of this distinction and that art is either alive, or it is not.” 

The faculty at the Art Academy of Cincinnati is a collective of diehard creatives. Art and design is their belief system. It’s not just their job; it’s who they are. It makes them feel alive and inspired – and perfect to usher in the next generation of artists.

Kim Krause, AAC’s academic dean, cites the poet Dean Young, who wrote, “[In art] we’re trying to make birds, not birdhouses.” Krause continues, “AAC’s focus is always on personal attention to the interests and needs of every individual student. We know them by name; we know what they make, how they make it, and why it matters to them. As a result we have the opportunity to push and help them develop as artists and designers far beyond the bounds of many MFA programs.” 

Every student has the security and freedom to explore artistic expression and cultivate a personal voice and vision. Likewise, AAC’s leaders are sustained by the warm embrace of alumni, corporate sponsors, foundations and donors who invest in the culture and quality of creative thinking. 

Tom Pack, AAC’s vice president of finance, points out that visitors to the AAC campus can see galleries, classrooms and studios with donor plaques identifying individuals, foundations and corporations who supported the 2003 capital campaign to purchase and renovate 1212 Jackson Street. “They are some of Greater Cincinnati’s most recognized philanthropic individuals and institutions,” he says gratefully. Since AAC’s move to OTR, many of them have continued to give regularly in response to the institution’s annual fund appeal.

Photo by Jimmy Baker, AACJoan Kaup is the newest member of this forward-thinking executive team as AAC’s vice president of institutional advancement, external relations and community education. “Teaching students to think critically and solve problems creatively is a skill that is vitally important to employers. Many students educated elsewhere stall in frustration when they encounter an obstacle. AAC students think their way around obstacles and achieve creative solutions,” says Kaup. “Before our students learn from mistakes and fail forward. They invent and reinvent themselves, dealing imaginatively and resourcefully with any situation life throws at them, any materials, any instructions, any project. In today’s economy, when employers are mining talent pools, AAC graduates are coveted creative thinkers.”

Just as AAC was a pioneer in the rebirth of its neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine, it has experienced a renaissance internally as well. Today AAC’s leadership team is excited about what this “little school” means to the students and communities they serve. Its desire to create something powerful – something that makes a difference – calls out from studios, classrooms and administrative offices. It was at the center of the school’s inception in 1869 and continues to be the driving force of its culture today. 

Art Academy of Cincinnati offers Bachelor of Fine Arts Degrees in Design, Drawing, Illustration, Painting, Photography, Printed Media and Sculpture; and an Associate of Science Degree in Graphic Design. It also offers a Master of Arts in Art Education, which is taught during summer semesters. Visit for more information.