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News . Feature Stories . Cleveland's hot art scene


June 08, 2018

Cleveland's hot art scene

It’s Friday night, and there’s so much art on the menu. See a group show at BAYarts, do some wine-and-cheesing at 78th Street Studios, and pop in at Praxis Fiber Workshop in Collinwood.

Cleveland Script Sign located behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in downtown Cleveland

Photo by Robert Muller/CIA

By Karen Sandstrom

Cleveland has always embraced great culture, and CIA is tightly woven into that story. But these days the city seems ever more vibrant. Are we getting more art savvy? When students graduate from CIA, can they stay here to enjoy the famously low cost of living and still launch rewarding careers?

Is the Cleveland art scene just plain hot?

Keen cultural observers say yes, with a caveat or two. And it’s likely to feel warmer still in the coming months. This year, Greater Cleveland will be home to FRONT INTERNATIONAL: Cleveland
 Triennial for Contemporary Art. Founded by collector and curator Fred Bidwell, FRONT and its partners—including the Cleveland Institute of Art—will host a roster of national and international artists for exhibitions, performances, residencies and discussions from July 14 through September 30. (Click to learn more about The Great Lakes Research exhibition at CIA.)

Tourists, curators, critics and gallerists are expected to come to see what it means when forward-looking artists engage with a so-called rust belt city like ours.

And while they discover Cleveland’s nationally acclaimed restaurant scene and maybe learn how we earned the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they’ll have a chance to see what home-grown artists here do, too. Running in parallel with FRONT July 7–29 will be the CAN Triennial, an exhibition and art fair highlighting Northeast Ohio artists.

CAN Triennial will take place at 78th Street Studios, onetime American Greetings creative headquarters now filled with galleries and studios in Cleveland’s Gordon Square neighborhood. It is organized by the Collective Arts Network, a visual-arts member organization (CIA joined at the start).

That’s a lot of activity for the 2 million residents of the Cleveland metro area, but a bustling art scene is becoming common. Experts point to the city’s spirit of collaboration as one of the reasons why.

“Lots of similar cities have inexpensive space and a low cost of living, but in Cleveland we have groups of galleries acting together to organize art walks, and community development corporations taking supporting roles,” says Michael Gill, executive director of CAN and the editor and publisher of the quarterly arts magazine, CAN 

CAN started in 2011 with 28 member organizations. “In our first year, it grew to 40,” Gill says. “Currently, there are about 95 organizations.”

Longtime curator William Busta says Cleveland “has a very vital and very successful visual art scene… It feels like an art town to me.”

Over three iterations beginning in 1989, the William Busta Gallery was a mainstay of the scene. Busta was known for a discerning eye; it was a point of pride for an artist to show work at his gallery.

Before that, Busta was director of the New Organization for the Visual Arts, a non-profit that presented exhibitions, festivals and workshops for artists. “There was a huge number of arts organizations that were started in the 1970s,” he says. Some have disappeared, but “some of them, like SPACES and MOCA, continue to this day and have grown and have become more substantial.”

In the 20th century, the big drivers of arts and culture here were funding organizations such as the Ohio Arts Council, the George Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation, Busta says. When Interstate 271 opened in 1964, it connected Kent State University to Cleveland.

“Suddenly, almost overnight, Kent became part of Cleveland’s art scene,” Busta says.

Cleveland, of course, has long had its world-famous art museum, and a legacy art and design college in CIA. Artists such as Viktor Schreckengost, Julian Stanczak and Ed Mieczkowski all enjoyed well-earned national recognition for their own work even as they trained new generations of artists and designers.

In the 21st century, the influence of establishment institutions are bolstered by new developments. Among them: The start of a cigarette excise tax for the arts in 2006, which has funneled money to large and small organizations as well as individual artists.

Thomas Schorgl retired recently after 20 years as head of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, a non-profit focused on the economic impact of the arts. He was a leader in the cigarette tax initiative.

“Cleveland, over 20 years, has become more and more what I would call a very artist-friendly community,” Schorgl says.

Here, artists can find public-private partnerships that support their endeavors. Schorgl and Gill both cite Gordon Square Arts District, Northeast Shores in Collinwood, and Slavic Village Development as community development corporations that know the economic upside of supporting the arts. They have provided incentives for artists’ projects and watched while their neighborhoods blossomed in response.

Even though the 2008 financial crisis hit Cleveland hard, opportunities for artists have been steadily blooming. In 2006, the then-10-year-old Zygote Press moved into a new location on East 30th Street and became an anchor institution in Asia Town. Zygote works as a shared shop, conducts workshops, and has provided instant community for like-minded artists.

In 2015, CIA ceramicist Valerie Grossman ’12 started BRICK Ceramics and Design in Collinwood. And fiber artist Jessica Pinsky opened Praxis Fiber Workshop as a place for fiber artists to work and use weaving and dyeing equipment from CIA after the College merged its fiber program.

“I moved back to Cleveland after 10 years of living in New York and Boston, and I know for certain that Praxis would not be possible in this way, in another city,” Pinsky says.

So what’s the caveat?

Arlene Watson is director of public programs and engagement for FRONT, and was previously director of development at MOCA Cleveland.

“We’re really set on that entry-level, accessible art for all,” Watson says. “Now we need to step into the segment that is art for the professional buyer, the gallerists and dealers, and the companies that buy art.”

She imagines that Cleveland can bring Midwestern charm to the experience of high-level contemporary art. “We have resources that others don’t, space being the number one thing. So we need to leverage all of those things and cultivate that next level of art and art-buying and esteem.”

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