How to Remake a City
Creative Class: Michelle and Leo D’Cruz, Reverb Art + Design
Ages: 34, 35
Company: Reverb Art + Design. “To symbolize our belief in the power of individual action having lasting, outward impact,” says Michelle.
Jobs: Principal and creative director; principal and chief communications officer
The goal: Merge contemporary art and design with politics and the community. “We certainly have mainstream design and communications clients,” says Leo. “But we also have a strong gallery focus where we draw in young, up-and-coming artists—often women and people of color—from around the country.”
The gig: Michelle’s the creative lead, and a practicing studio artist. Leo’s the wordsmith, and coordinates what’s happening in the studio and gallery based on what’s happening in the world outside.
On staying relevant: “There’s so much going on in the world that isn’t right. Creatives have always been among the most well-positioned social critics. Almost by nature we don’t accept the status quo,” says Leo. “So, if you’re a creative, you had better figure out something to say about the world. Otherwise, what are you even doing?”
Their advice: “You can’t do it all, and that is OK. Recognize your strengths and learn to accept—and request—help when you need it,” says Michelle. “Find mentors, cultivate community, have a perspective. Nobody does anything but through the helping hands of others. The trick is to enter into a conversation that’s already happening, and to do so with grace,” adds Leo. Also: “Take time off. Building downtime into our work is essential for staving off creative burnout,” he says.
Leo and Michelle D’Cruz moved to Cincinnati in 2009 to escape the cutthroat lifestyle of Washington, D.C. They wanted to start a family and focus on their marriage, and Cincinnati offered a more conducive environment. Michelle’s career as a graphic designer and Leo’s as a political strategist both translated to their new city just fine, though for two children of immigrants accustomed to East Coast society, it was a significant culture shock. “But at the same time I really loved the city,” says Leo, sitting next to his wife in Lydia’s on Ludlow coffee shop. “I could see a lot of changes.”
After a short spell in California, where Leo finished up his Ph.D., the couple settled back in Northside and began hashing out how to blend their social interests with their professional passions. “How can we take art and design and make it mesh with the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality we both value?” says Leo. “We have to have the hard conversations. They exist. There should be a place for that to happen.”
In 2015, they started Reverb Art + Design on Court Street downtown, a joint design firm and contemporary art gallery. They only work with clients they support and believe in—Price Hill Will, Cincinnati Nature Center, the Cincinnati Compass initiative—and focus on exhibiting female artists and artists of color with a progressive voice. “Creativity thrives from conflict,” says Michelle. “There’s a lot of conflict in our community—people are struggling with it. Art is this phenomenal thing where you can talk about issues that you can’t say face-to-face.”
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