Tamara Harkavy: ArtWorks' 'Accidental Director'

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“Do you see this? It says, ‘Breathe.’ That’s my mantra.” 

Tamara Harkavy leaned in to show me her necklace. Though I see her almost every day in my role as ArtWorks’ executive assistant and office manager, I’d never noticed it. The message is fitting. Nearly 24 years ago, Harkavy founded ArtWorks, the nonprofit responsible for over 12,000 projects that have turned the greater Cincinnati area into an art gallery. Not to mention the businesses which have become staples to our city who went through business development training through ArtWorks, like Brown Bear Bakery, Handzy, and S.R.O. Prints. She’s also a star player on the creative team organizing BLINK. It’s a hefty load.

I interrupted her normal programming – leading a staff of 20, plus 107 apprentices and 26 teaching artists – to meet for a drink at 3 Points Urban Brewery. An evening to breathe, unwind, and chat somewhere near ArtWorks’ most notable art pieces: the murals. There’s over 180, so it was difficult to choose. The art-loving brewery has supported ArtWorks through fundraisers and sits across from two murals. Another neighbor is the former School for Creative and Performing Arts (S.C.P.A.) building. The lawn at the school hosted the first ArtWorks summer in 1996. Harkavy has deep roots in this city and the portfolio to prove it.

Interview by Sandra Okot-Kotber. Photography by Angie Lipscomb.

Note that this interview contains some strong language.

Can you describe yourself in three words?

Yeah, but I can’t think of what they are. Visionary. A risk-taker… I think bold, honest, and visionary. I think about words like “X-ray vision” or “super lucky.” Fortunate. But that’s not me; that’s my circumstances. Super lucky. Super fortunate.

I also describe you as bold, as a straight shooter. I feel like the way you approach things is with a lot of passion and vigor. You just want to get shit done. Have you always been that way or is that something that you’ve developed and had to learn?

I’ve been fearless. Probably more fearless [when I was] younger. Fearless as in, like, “I don’t need your help.” Now, I’m more tempered in how I approach things ’cause I’ve stepped in it so many times, and there’s more at risk now. But, I have one of my mentors who I love and adore who is always telling me, “Trust your gut, trust your gut.” I’m always learning to trust my gut. That which we don’t always listen to. So the older I get, the more self-aware I’m trying to be.


Where’d you get your necklace from?

Santa Fe. When I went to New Mexico, when I ran away.

Can you elaborate? 

I wasn’t really running away. It was an opportunity that I’m so grateful for given to me by [ArtWorks staff] and the board. It was a great time for reflection. It was only eight weeks. It wasn’t that long of a time – January, February – and it was an opportunity to go somewhere where I didn’t know people and I could just be surrounded by this air and beauty. It’s the most amazing place. Someday, I will live there. 

I call myself the accidental director. Right over there [points to the old S.C.P.A. building], Year One, we put up a fence; we hired some kids; we partnered with some artists and some arts organizations; and we said, “We’re going to do this thing.” And it’s almost 25 years later. Don’t blink. The shit that’s happened between that and this is an amazing journey. I always say that I could not have done this in any other city, even if I grew up in that other city. It was a very Cincinnati opportunity.


How so?

My father. The connections of my father. I grew up in North Avondale. Quite honestly, I went to North Avondale Elementary School; I went to Walnut Hills High School; and left when I was 17. Sometimes, I just put my head down and go, and that’s why this self-awareness journey is so important. I didn’t know we had race issues in our city – except I lived through the riots – because I lived in such a beautiful mixed neighborhood. I just wasn’t aware. 

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

[Laughs.] I had no idea! 

You weren’t one of those kids who wanted to be a popstar or like, Neil Armstrong?

No. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to travel. I never saw myself being tethered to any place. I just wanted to go places and do things.

Was that something different from the kids you grew up with in that era?

When I called myself a kid, there was North Avondale; there were 40 of us. So many kids running the neighborhood. We ran in tribes, a gang of crazy kids. We played softball in the street. We would hang out at different people’s houses. I’m so fortunate for my dad and my mom, too. My parents were pretty amazing. It was just a really great childhood.

What did your dad do?

My dad was in real estate. I call him the poverty-stricken philanthropist. We had a nice childhood. He worked for himself; he didn’t work for P&G or G.E. or anything like that. He and my mom had these core values that were about giving back and taking care of other people. Our door was never shut. There was always some stranger at our table. It could’ve been Jerry Springer, but it was a stranger at our table. He really felt like it was important to invest in marginalized neighborhoods and people. Kind of a lovely way to learn about the world.

I fuck up every day at least once a day, maybe more, and I learn from it.

Why did you start ArtWorks?

Why’d I start ArtWorks? This is kind of a funny story, and there’s lots of whys, but the kind of structural why: I was a single mother, raising Ben, and came back here in 1992 and enrolled in graduate school in urban planning and economic development. 

Where’d you move from?

Virginia, beautiful state. Rural Virginia. I was the only Jew around. An interesting place.

How long were you there for?

Six or seven years between Baltimore and Virginia. I came back here. I always wanted to learn more about how cities work and really, historic preservation. I enrolled in graduate school at DAAP to get my master’s in planning. It’s a two-year program, so my first year was great, and then you had to get an internship. I was a single mother, you know; I needed to be with my kid. So I made up my own internship, which was a free summer camp at Ziegler Park for kids in the neighborhood. The neighborhood did not look like this then. This was in 1993. That’s one kind of crazy thing of why ArtWorks started. 

The other is that I got a job at D.C.I. Somewhere between Year Two and Three, D.C.I. needed to do some things differently and they didn’t have a lot of money, and I got let go. Right when that happened, I had gone on this trip to Chicago with the Youth Collaborative and Roxanne Qualls – who was the mayor and this really great writer – Laura Pulfer, and all my girlfriends from the National Council of Jewish Women, and we saw this thing called Gallery 37 and I came back and went, “Dr. Bryant, we can do this. I know how to do this. I can do this; we’ve got to do this.” So that’s how ArtWorks started. Right there at that playground. 

Where do you go for inspiration or how do you stay motivated?

[Laughs.] Santa Fe. 

You know what, Sandra, I will give you guys a lot of credit. Our team at ArtWorks… Maybe you can tell me what that magic is. I think because it’s mostly women. I don’t know. But I think it’s a testament to my team, to the many people who have been on my team.  

Our office being women-dominated – was that intentional?

No; in fact, I think that’s super interesting. We had one dude who worked for us who was “threatened” by all the women that worked there and kinda leaned heavy on us to hire more men. I was like, “Okay, I understand how you feel.” My wish is that we could figure out what the magical formula is to make us sustainable and then elevate all of us. It’s very hard to do what we do. I think women, naturally, are better leaders – I do. Sometimes with empathy, sometimes with blinders on, sometimes with both. That would be me: blinders and both. Sometimes you forget about that. You put your head down and you go. 


ArtWorks has been in O.T.R. for 10 years. I always remember when I was in Longfellow and you walked in. Every person coming into the bar was saying, “Hey Tamara!” “Oh, Tamara!” Almost everyone knew you in that bar. To me, that kind of reflected your impact on the neighborhood and on the people in the community. What does O.T.R. mean to you?

That reflects back on my dad. One: He was the moral conscience of the city, especially the Jewish community. I left Cincinnati when I was 17. I couldn’t get out of here fast enough. I came back when I was 30-something, so I was gone for a long time. As a teenager, I would come down here even though it wasn’t safe. Neither, apparently, was North Avondale, but bullshit. It wasn’t safe. I was just, “Look at how beautiful it looks.” Even in its dilapidation, it was beautiful to me. Then, I came back, went to graduate school, and I was down here a lot. I volunteered at the O.T.R. Chamber, and it was run by Marge Hammelrath at the time. It happens to be… This is crazy; it’s on Main Street now, but it used to be where Longfellow is. There’s just something about it down here that I just love. 

I did my thesis on gentrification and displacement in this neighborhood for Roxanne Qualls, who was a council member, then mayor during the middle of all my thesis stuff. My thesis turned out to be a statistical analysis of gentrification. At its highest density, it was like 40 or 50,000 people living down here, which would be bad if that happened again. At its lowest, lowest, lowest, I think, it was like 9,000 people were living here when I came back and started working here. 

The sad thing is, we’re a part of the solution and we’re part of the problem at ArtWorks. Me, you, all of us. You can’t afford to live down here anymore. But it’s safer. We’ve preserved this gorgeous architectural heritage. We’ve created an economic boom for the community, for the city. Up until a few years ago, I really don’t think we were really displacing people because there were so many vacant places. Now, we are. It’s an urban age again. 

How do you face criticism? Have you ever experienced it?

Crucifixion. Yes and yes and yes. How do I face it? I like to believe that I act like I don’t care and that I have tough, thick skin – because, you know, I’m pretty ballsy and I’m pretty bold. It’s tough because I think sometimes the unintended consequence of speaking out and being honest is really critical feedback that can be nasty. I don’t like criticism if it is not constructive; if it’s meant to be mean. 

There was a moment in time – we had a poetry tent. Saul Williams came one year and jessica Care moore… She did great stuff with our kids, and then our kids got up on the stage in Eden Park. So this young lady got up and during a performance – it was free and there were lots of little kids and young kids and our apprentices – and started this whole performance repeatedly using the word “motherfucker” and some other words. It was kind of nasty towards ArtWorks, as well. A few weeks later, we had our closing ceremonies. We used to give away a scholarship picked at random, and she was chosen for a scholarship.

Do you get a thicker skin, or do you just get more reflective and introspective?

She once again got up and said really disparaging things about ArtWorks. Inappropriate language and some other things. We said to her, “Freedom of speech is one thing and I’m not censoring you, but there’s consequences to your actions.” We took the scholarship away and gave it to somebody else. Her father persecuted me in the The Enquirer, in CityBeat. There are some articles that are still around the office and some imagery around it. It was a beautiful way to learn a very hard lesson. I still think we should allow those things to go out there and we suffer the consequences or you enjoy the consequences. That was one of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned. 

So somebody did this thing where they had me tied to a stake with fire coming up…


It was a piece of art somewhere in the office. It just says, “Burn, bitch, burn.” Do you get a thicker skin, or do you just get more reflective and introspective? And wiser? I fuck up every day at least once a day, maybe more, and I learn from it. Maybe… Sometimes I don’t. Also, here’s the most important thing in the world about me: You can tell me anything in the world; just don’t lie to me. Tell me anything, but don’t lie to me. That’s the one thing. Tell me the truth; I’ll tell you the truth. 

If you never started ArtWorks, what do you think you’d be doing?

I might have gone to law school. I don’t know. I’m the accidental director, but it was really meant to be. 

What do you do in your downtime to unwind, relax, and recuperate?

I love to read. I love, love, love, to read. I love to cook; I like hanging out with my dogs and my husband and family.

You’re super active in the community through quite a few organizations, including the Art Academy and The Mercantile. Why is that important to you?

That’s so funny because I think I’m going to be relieved of my 3C.D.C. obligation soon, which is great. Some of my community engagements are good for ArtWorks and good for the artists. Mercantile is a passion because it’s a library and it’s this really amazing place. I feel really guilty because I haven’t been able to lean into that as much as I want to. It’s my first year on the board. 

The Ohio Citizens for the Arts is a great opportunity to advocate for artists in Ohio. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is super cool, and I’ve got to get my ass to D.C. so I can see it and represent Ohio. I love it. I’m lucky.


Who’s the most influential woman in your life?

There’s not just one. There’s so many. I really can’t name them, because I could say my mother, Sara Vance [Waddell], Melanie Richardson, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Michelle Obama. No, they’re idols. They’ve not influenced me, but I’m really impressed with them – women who have formed me. My best friend, Deborah; Idit Issacsohn, who’s the most badass woman I know. Women are strong. But there’s never just one. Can you name just one? My mother, my grandmother, you know, the generations. There’s never just one.

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