As a kid growing up in Nashville, Steve Loftin played the trumpet. He was pretty good, too "” even marched in the vaunted McGavock Raiders Marching Band.

("Twenty-four time Tennessee State Marching Champions," he points out.)

But by the time he graduated from high school, theater had seduced him away from the trumpet. It turned out to be a good career decision.

Today, the 52-year-old Loftin is president and executive director of the Cincinnati Arts Association, the parent organization for Cincinnati's Aronoff Center for the Arts and Music Hall.

Loftin oversees facilities that are home to four of the powerhouse arts organizations funded by the Fine Arts Fund: the Cincinnati Symphony, May Festival, Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Ballet.

It's a potential minefield of cultural and business powers. Big money, hallowed institutions, powerful unions, the area's rich and powerful. Loftin's day-to-day life is a masterful juggling act, trying to keep them all in perfect balance.

But to Loftin, running a theater isn't just about making the numbers work. It's about what's on stage when the curtain goes up.

"He's passionate about it," says Eric Vosmeier, managing artistic director of the Know Theatre and a former CAA employee. "I learned a great deal from the way he operates that business. He seems to do it with no ego whatsoever. I think that's why he's kept the job so long "” and why he's been so successful. He's not in it for the glory of running an arts organization. He's in it because he loves it."

Loftin is soft-spoken, even-handed and a good listener. He became the CAA's No. 2 man in 1993, one week after the first concrete was poured for the Aronoff's foundation. In October, 2000, he stepped into his present position.

Loftin's ascent was not a simple one. He may be an arts management heavyweight, but his real passion was stage lighting. He freelanced for Nashville music acts, toured with a couple of small theater productions, dabbled in video production, worked in summer stock and finally landed his "first serious, full-time theater job" at the Nashville Children's Theatre.

A couple of years later, he moved over to the soon-to-open Tennessee Performing Arts Center. By the time he left for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center a decade later, he had risen to assistant managing director.

That prepared him to run an organization that presents everything from ballet to stand-up comedy, from community theater to grand opera.

"Steve has an extremely broad range of experience with a variety of performing arts and entertainment," says Jack Rouse, president of the Music Hall Revitalization Corporation, which is spearheading a renovation of Music Hall. "He'll be invaluable as this project moves forward."

Loftin's job: to fill the Aronoff Center and Music Hall with such a wide variety of events that everyone in Greater Cincinnati will want to visit.

"There are lots of kinds of shows for lots of kinds of people," Loftin says. "And we're determined to offer opportunities for as many kinds of people as possible. We're not afraid to entertain them. But we're not afraid to challenge them, either."

Part of Loftin's strategy has been to support arts organizations throughout the region.

"As a small company, we do a pretty good job marketing ourselves on a shoestring budget," says Marvel Gentry Davis, producing artistic director of ballet tech cincinnati, which has presented performances in the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theatre for nine years. "But being able to perform at the Aronoff has given us a visibility and credibility we never could have achieved otherwise."

Loftin has also supported the CAA's sprawling educational programs, which involve more than 70,000 students every year.

"It's not just a matter of assisting schools with their arts-related programs," he says. "It's a matter of survival. If people aren't exposed to the arts when they are young, it's tremendously difficult to involve them later in their lives. So we do everything we can. We bring them to our theaters. We also have a roster of 30 or so artists that travel to schools and community centers. If they can't get here for arts, we'll take it to them."

Despite the economic climate, he's optimistic.

"You know, I run into young people who love going to our Broadway series. Their only barriers are time and money. Maybe they can't afford a whole series. Or they're busy with their families. But they are eager to come to the theater. And it's not just "¢Shrek' or "¢Spring Awakening' "” the things you'd expect younger audiences to be drawn to. They can't wait for "¢South Pacific,' too.

"Things go up and down. There are cycles and they are not necessarily predictable, he says. "Bad economies and hard times have never been able to kill creativity. And they won't now."