ArtWorks News

ArtWorks at 25: The Spark That Started It All

2021 marks ArtWorks’ 25 years of transformational impact. To celebrate, we will be sharing stories from ArtWorks alumni, who are part of an incredible legacy of transforming people and places through investments in creativity.

Then Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls (right) with Chad Wick

You could say ArtWorks was born at Harvard.

More specifically, the idea that would turn into ArtWorks was sparked at Harvard University’s Institute for New Mayors, a week-long seminar. All came together in 1993 in the mind of Cincinnati’s then newly elected mayor, Roxanne Qualls.

“They talked about a number of creative and innovative initiatives that mayors around the country were doing, and that’s when I first learned about Mayor Daley’s initiative with Gallery 37,” Qualls recently said in an interview with ArtWorks.

Gallery 37, now known as After School Matters, was started by Chicago’s First Lady Maggie Daley. It used the arts as a way to create jobs for teens. Young people, ages 14-21, would apply for positions and become Youth Apprentices under the direction of Teaching Artists. She knew Cincinnati’s youth could use a similar program.

“Just as there is now, there was an ongoing problem then with youth employment, and there is a desire to have productive work,” Qualls said. “And what could be more productive than, if you are a young person who has talent in the arts, to be offered opportunity to earn a wage, to learn employment skills and to create public art that really enhances the quality of life in your neighborhood?”

So Qualls, despite her many other obligations, decided to work on making her idea a reality. She reached out and got the support of two visionary leaders from the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative—Dr. John Bryant and John Pepper.

“John Bryant was essential because he was the one, on a day-to-day basis, that pushed the ball forward,” Qualls said. “We saw this program as using the arts as a way to teach employment skills to teens. It wasn’t just about teaching arts and crafts during the summer.”

Qualls also spearheaded a visit to Chicago in 1995 with local leaders to watch Gallery 37 in action. This group included Tamara Harkavy, the dynamic innovator who would soon become ArtWorks’ founding director.

The ideas that came from that trip were boundless.

“As a big supporter of the arts, I saw this was an opportunity to create public art in many spaces throughout the city,” Qualls said.

ArtWorks’ early days in tents in Ziegler Park.


With the City of Cincinnati and CYC’s support, ArtWorks launched with 100 Youth Apprentices working in tents at Ziegler Park during the summer of 1996. Apprentices were making $5 an hour—75 cents more than the minimum wage at the time.

Many others quickly committed to supporting ArtWorks’ first year.

“It gave an opportunity for teachers, supporters, philanthropists and others to unite and do something that had real impact in the lives of young people,” Qualls said.

Artists, along with corporate and institutional partners gave their support, including Procter & Gamble, Duke Energy Foundation (formerly the Cinergy Foundation), The Cincinnati Chapter of the LINKS, Inc., National Council of Jewish Women, Art Academy of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center and many other local foundations and businesses.

The apprentice profile from that first year cut across racial, economic and social boundaries, mirroring the population of the city. Sixty percent were young people of color.

“This program teaches us responsibility, dedication, individuality and mannerisms,” said Amber Hamilton, a then 15-year-old from Woodward High School, soon after completing the program. “I have learned a lot about myself and others. I have also learned to express myself creatively and use more imagery in my writing. I recommend this program to every young aspiring artist.”

ArtWorks first started as a program of the Cincinnati Youth Colloborative.

Hamilton was part of the photo essay project. Other projects included urban design, performance and multimedia. Apprentices created benches, books, clocks, tiles and more—many of which were sold to support ArtWorks’ future programing. They performed in venues around the city, documented stories from residents and published three volumes of poetry.

These young people amazed Qualls right away with their commitment to being on time and doing impactful work. “It’s very impressive when you think about the level of dedication, and it just prepares you for whatever you choose to do in the future. People rise to the expectations they are given.”

ArtWorks would evolve over the years. It became its own independent organization in 2000, and it launched its award-winning mural program in 2007. The organization now has nearly 4,000 Youth Apprentice alumni.

“The mural idea was just brilliant,” Qualls said of the mural program championed by then Cincinnati mayor, Mark Mallory. “It is a linchpin in this city in helping people understand the relationship between the arts and the quality of life. It shows how the arts are not just for a few people, but for everyone in the community.”

Her favorite murals are Amanda Checco’s Ice Cream Daydream and Scott Donaldson’s Campy Washington.

Qualls thanks all the young artists of ArtWorks. “You’re making a real difference in the lives of people. Thank you for building support for the arts and for showing how art can be transformative.”

We thank Roxanne Qualls for her faith in our City’s youth.

Are you an alum who participated in ArtWorks in the early days? We’d love to hear from you! Reach out to us at 513.333.0388 or at

About ArtWorks

ArtWorks is an award-winning Greater Cincinnati nonprofit that transforms people and places through investments in creativity. The organization collaborates with community organizations and residents, businesses, governments, foundations and nonprofits to build creative works of art that bolster the region’s global reputation as an arts destination. ArtWorks employs professional artists who inspire and mentor diverse teams of youth, ages 14-21, helping them build 21st century career-readiness skills. These teams have completed more than 12,500 public and private art projects in its 25 years, including more than 200 permanent outdoor murals.