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Andrew VanSickle, Clau Models and Pink Wigs, courtesy The Annex Gallery

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Making a Scene: “Return to the Velvet Rope” Takes Us Inside Club Clau, OTR’s Early-Aughts Hot Spot

Posted on September 30, 2021

Lesser known in the annals of Cincinnati history is that, fresh into the Y2K era, OTR was briefly home to a celebrity-circuit nightclub: Club Clau. The comings and goings were documented by the club’s art director with a cheap black-and-white camera, and a selection of images are now on display at The Annex Gallery.

It was 2003 and Over-the-Rhine was having a moment, thanks to the newly minted Club Clau nightclub. “We were open for nine weeks, and on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer was: ‘Club Clau Takes Hold of City,’ remembers art director Andrew VanSickle. “It was then that things started to accelerate rather quickly. That’s when everybody found us.”

When Justin Timberlake walked in one night after a local performance, VanSickle knew that they’d made a mark. Word spread, and the club went on to host an army of early-2000s celebrities: The Black-Eyed Peas, Steve-O, Paris Hilton, Tara Reid. More typical nights included visits from the city’s bold and beautiful, from politicians to models to entrepreneurs to club kids. Would-be patrons lined up on the sidewalk, hoping for a spot inside.

Club Clau was only open two nights a week, and then for only four hours each night. But eight extraordinary hours per week can do plenty to build a reputation. But just as fast as it had appeared, Club Clau was gone. After 18 months in the spotlight, including a place on Condé Nast Traveller’s “30 Best Bars” list, Club Clau shuttered on New Year’s Eve, 2004.

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(clockwise from top left) Andrew VanSickle, DJ Haze Spinning; Packed Crowd Saturday Night; Clau Models Midnight Arrival; Nick and Jessica, courtesy The Annex Gallery

As The Annex Gallery prepares to show Return to the Velvet Rope — a collection of VanSickle’s documentary photography of the club curated by artist Jens Rosenkrantz — FotoFocus talked to the pair for a quick peek behind the scenes:

FotoFocus: Paint us a picture: What was Club Clau like?

Andrew Van Sickle: It was very light—everything was white. The furniture was white, the drapes were white, the [servers] were wearing white. It was very Miami. 

There were many different levels of the club: You had the main floor, then you’d walk up to what we called “The White Room,” and that was the exclusive VIP. And then in the back you would have the Ruby Room, named after Jeff Ruby, which was a totally windowless private room decked out like an old gentlemen’s club.

And then, most popular, in the back in the former kitchen of this space, we made it into the rap and hip-hop room. And that was called The Kitchen. It was extremely popular. When Justin Timberlake came to the club, he made a beeline back to The Kitchen.

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(from left) Andew VanSickle, Justin Timberlake Enters in the Side Entrance; Biggie Watching Over The Kitchen; Andrea Canning, WCPO Reporting, courtesy The Annex Gallery

FF: How did Return to the Velvet Rope come together as an exhibition?

Jens Rosenkrantz: Andrew and I are Facebook friends, and about a year-and-a-half ago, he posted some images of the club. I thought it was fascinating, so I reached out and said ‘Hey, that would be an interesting exhibition as a moment in time that not everybody is aware of.’ And I thought the images really captured a sense of what it was like.

AVS: I was taking photos Saturday night with a $10 black-and-white camera. And then I’d be emailing them out to a list of 400 people on Sunday. We didn’t have social media. But we would use email to get the word out every week.

JR: The Annex Gallery has two large rooms for the photo exhibit. Andrew took 2,000 images, and we got that down to less than 100 images. The candid spontaneity of his shots really captures the mood of Club Clau. And in the other room, we’re recreating some of the sights and sounds, and bringing in a lot of the memorabilia from the club. And it gave me an excuse to go buy a mirror ball. 

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(from left) Andrew VanSickle, Jay the Promoter on Supra Saturdays; Costumed Craziness Outside; Stellina in the Booth, courtesy The Annex Gallery

Head to The Annex Gallery to scope out the scene — just don’t expect celebrity cameos this time around, at least not off the walls.

Return to the Velvet Rope, Sept 24 – Oct 30 at The Annex Gallery, open Weds – Sat, noon – 5 pm.

As the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped our world, FotoFocus had to pivot. First, by pledging part of its 2020 Biennial budget to financially support more than 100 Participating Venues and Partners in the region’s art community through FotoFocus Emergency Art Grants, and further, by enhancing other pathways to support lens-based art and engage the public in accordance with its mission. The Annex Gallery was one such venue.