As New York artists search for the next affordable, urban frontier in Bushwick and Queens, a renaissance of sorts is taking place in the most unlikely of cities: Cleveland, Ohio. Perhaps the city’s motto should be Cleveland: It’s Not What You Think, for that phrase was used by more than one local during my recent tour of the city’s art scene.
My visit began at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where I was giving a talk on creative process and career strategy to a Business and Professional Practice class taught by photographer Barry Underwood. The school’s facilities are housed, in part, in a refurbished Ford Model T factory building, and the classrooms are filled with space, light, and cutting-edge equipment. Thanks to the Gund Foundation a new 91,000-square-foot addition to the factory building is also under construction and will consolidate the CIA’s facilities on Euclid Avenue.
While it’s not possible to learn everything about an institution in a single day, I was impressed with CIA: the staff, the administration, the facilities, the galleries, the diversity of programming being offered. The Institute has one of the only biomedical art programs in the country, a creative field that blends science, art, and technology.
The work of CIA staff member Michael Wallace caught my eye as I toured the Institute. Wallace’s commemorative plate series, Guess Who’s Coming to Lunch (More Important People We Can’t Afford to Know), is a clever rift on the problematic connection between money, power and politics.
Local studio spaces are plentiful and cheap in Cleveland, as are restaurants and cafes serving fresh, local food. $150 a month will buy you a large, private studio in the city, a price unheard of in cities like Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Philadelphia. Cleveland’s Little Italy is bustling with affordable studio space, top-notch bakeries, and a diverse mix of residents. The city has a surprising small-town feel. As Underwood and artist Sarah Kabot gave me a tour of the city, we ran into students, friends, and fellow CIA professors nearly every place we visited.
The city is also home to the Cleveland Clinic, which has an extensive arts program. During my visit, Barry Underwood’s Cuyahoga, a series of photographs that explore Cleveland and its environs, were on view. The series was a special commission and is now part of the Clinic’s permanent collection. The Clinic integrates art throughout their facilities, not only in Cleveland, but around the world. Their mission is not only to offer a healing environment to patients, but also to research the relationship between the arts and medicine. The Clinic’s Arts and Medicine Institute is leading the way in this integrative field.
In this video from Art 21, photographer Catherine Opie talks about her permanent installation Somewhere in the Middle at Hillcrest Hospital, a branch of Cleveland Clinic, in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. The series of 22 photos was taken on the shores of Lake Erie near Opie’s hometown of Sandusky, Ohio, and was created specifically for the hospital setting. Opie hopes that the photographs provide a space for doctors, patients, vistors and hospital employees to experience an ethereal moment during what may be a difficult time in their lives.
(Can’t see the video in your email? Click here to watch on the Gwarlingo website.)
It is possible to experience the best of Cleveland culture entirely on foot. (A 2011 study by Walk Score ranked Cleveland the 17th most walkable of fifty large U.S. cities.) According to Ann Craddock Albano, the director of The Sculpture Center in Cleveland, the 550-acre area that encompasses the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Cleveland Cinematheque, Cleveland Institute of Music, and numerous university and medical facilities is the most concentrated neighborhood of world-class cultural institutions in the country. (The area is called University Circle, or “the Circle” by locals).
The latest jewel in the Circle’s crown is Farshid Moussavi’s new building for the Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA is Moussavi’s first museum design, and also the first American project by the Iranian architect, whose firm, Farshid Moussavi Architecture, is based in London.
A few blocks away from MOCA, at Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management building, silver planes slice through red brick like paper in a windstorm. While Frank Gehry opted for flamboyance, Moussavi wisely chose a simpler, less ostentatious design for MOCA—one that is unique and engages the surrounding neighborhood. Clean, modern elegance is the result, and best of all, sources tell me that the 27.2 million dollar building is paid for.
The 1,354 black, mirror-finish Rimex steel panels, which cover the six-sided building, reflect the city’s surroundings and change throughout the day, depending on light, season, and weather.
Once inside the museum, MOCA’s dynamic stairwell steals the show. The views from the upper floors are as interesting as the art on display and are worth experiencing first-hand.
And don’t overlook the yellow stairwell, a labyrinth passage glowing with luminous yellow lights that occasionally doubles as an exhibition space.
MOCA, which was founded by by Marjorie Talalay, Agnes Gund, and Nina Castelli Sundell as The New Gallery in 1968, is a non-collecting institution. While the 34,000 square-foot-structure may strike some visitors as small and limited in exhibition space, the new building is 44% larger than their former home in an old Sears store on Carnegie Avenue. Unfortunately, the amount of exhibit space is virtually the same as the old structure (if you count the atrium and second floor lobby in the new building). Because the museum has no permanent collection to display, store, and maintain, all of their precious exhibit space can be devoted to new shows by contemporary artists. On the plus side, MOCA now has offices, classrooms, and event spaces, an important addition to the institution. Having a large museum devoted solely to contemporary art right in the heart of Cleveland’s art district is a coup, and will undoubtedly add to the city’s growing cultural reputation.
One of the highlights of my Cleveland visit was the Kate Gilmore show, Body of Work, currently on view at MOCA. In her video work, Gilmore struggles to free herself from constrained or hostile environments, but her efforts are only made worse by her attire—high heels and short skirts. Her 2011 piece Buster, in which Gilmore kicks and destroys more than 100 pots of colorful paint, is a humorous dig at the “male artist heroes” of Abstract Expressionism. Gilmore’s videos are well installed at MOCA and benefit from being seen together. The curators made a wise decision to shun headphones in favor of playing all of the videos out-loud, simultaneously. The sound of Gilmore smashing through walls, shattering pots of paint, and battering a bucket of plaster only increases the sense of physical effort, which is so essential to her work. Gilmore leaves a lasting impression, and her art is a brilliant exploration of feminine identity and labor.
You can watch an excerpt from Gilmore’s Between a Hard Place below. (Can’t see the video in your email? Click here to watch on the Gwarlingo website.)
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Paradise Institute at MOCA is also not to be missed. This multi-sensory cinematic experience was honored with the Golden Lion Award at the 49th Venice Biennale. Viewers enter a dark, enclosed plywood pavilion, which mimics a balcony space at an old movie house. Wearing headphones, visitors hear two narratives unfolding at once, the film’s dialogue (accompanied by video on the small movie screen), combined with the ambient sounds of the imaginary theater. The masterful sound editing had me peering over my shoulder on more than one occasion, convinced that someone was whispering in my ear or popping popcorn nearby.
Agnes Gund has left a positive mark on Cleveland, and an attentive visitor will find her name everywhere, including down the road at the Cleveland Museum of Art. CMA also has a new building project that is not to be missed. Its spectacular Rafael Viñoly-designed renovation began in 2005 and is only now nearing completion. The $350 million project is the largest cultural project in Ohio’s history. The expansion, which has been overseen by former directors Katharine Lee Reid and Timonthy Rub (now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), and the current director David Franklin, brings the museum’s total floor space to 592,000 square feet (an increase of approximately 65%). 1
The museum recently made history by installing a 40-foot wide, wall-sized touchscreen that displays all 3,000 objects on view in the museum. Touch an image, and the screen will tell you more about the piece, suggest similar objects in the collection, and give you the location of the artwork. Visitors can also create their own tours on the touchscreen and transfer the tour to an iPad. (If you don’t have your own tablet, iPads can be rented at the museum for $5 a day). The New York Times reports that the museum is working on an android and iPhone version of the system.
The radical innovation at CMA is not the addition of technology in a museum setting, but the careful subtraction of it. Local Projects in New York and Blue Cadet in Philadelphia are two cutting-edge businesses pushing the boundaries of interactive touchscreen technology, and both organizations clearly understand that less is more. As Josh Goldblum at Blue Cadet told me a few months ago, we can expect technology to become more and more invisible, and less obnoxious in the near future. The secret is to make technology as unobtrusive as possible, so that it doesn’t distract from the experience of encountering art one on one. As Jake Barton, president of Local Projects told the Times, “We surprised the museum, because we’re the technology firm and we proposed eliminating three-fourths of the technology.” Expect other major museums around the world to be imitating CMA’s design in the coming months.
While the touchscreen is impressive, it isn’t just the thoughtful use of technology that makes the Cleveland Museum stand out. It is also Viñoly’s spectacular glass canopy, the light and open space, the quality of the museum’s collection, its range of educational programs, and small amenities like the museum restaurant and bar that make the museum a vibrant, community space. The Cleveland Museum of Art also has the added advantage of being free, a rarity today.
Another high point of my tour was the Beat Zoderer opening at the Cleveland Institute of Art, my last art stop of the day before a late dinner. I was unfamiliar with the Swiss-born artist’s work, and was lucky to be in Cleveland for the artist’s first solo show in the U.S. The Institute commissioned Zoderer to create an installation for it’s 2300-square-foot gallery (located in the Gund building, of course).
The brightly colored aluminum strips that comprise flying carpet are both playful and compelling. flying carpet is improvised, in part, and like the best jazz it makes clever use of both variation and repetition. Zoderer allows the bright paint on the aluminum plates to flake and scratch, which gives the work a patina of sorts and eliminates any sense of preciousness.
You can watch Beat Zoderer constructing his installation flying carpet in this video: (Can’t see the video in your email? Click here to watch on the Gwarlingo website.)
Zoderer’s mounted wall pieces, also made of aluminum strips, were too static and flat for my taste, but flying carpet and the collage series specimen 1-49 (2013) show the artist at his best. Zoderer uses office supplies, paint chips, and other everyday detritus to great effect. I particularly liked the collage series shanghai labels no. 1-20 (2013) made of blue and white labels. As the series demonstrates, Zoderer is skilled at producing variations on a theme within strict limitations.
Also on view at CIA, is work by Bill Smith, plus video pieces by Jenny Perlin and Steve Roden. The video work will take some time and attention to appreciate fully, but it is worth checking out should you find yourself near the Reinberger Galleries before May 4th, 2013.
There is no doubt that Cleveland is rich in cultural resources, educational opportunities, and cheap studio space. And why exactly does this matter?
It matters because former industrial boomtowns like Cleveland are at the very center of our country’s transformation from a manufacturing economy to a creative one (and by “creative,” I mean everything from innovations in technology to bio tech to design and horticulture.)
Because artists are risk-takers, politically engaged, and often urban pioneers, we frequently find ourselves at the leading edge of social transformation. (Just look at the ways artists transformed New York neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, SoHo and Williamsburg, before they were priced out of the area). It is art that helps us make sense of where we’ve been and where we’re headed.
The art world should care about Cleveland not because of touchscreens, cheap rent, and contemporary architecture, though these offerings are significant. The art world should care because the evolution of the Rust Belt is a quintessential American problem. Take a look at some of the color photographs by American artists in the late 30s and early 40s, and you will see the seed of our current economic and environmental troubles—our increasing consumption of natural resources, the ongoing conflict between conservation and development, our reliance on cheap labor and on war to jump-start a sputtering economy.
The question that faces us now is: Where do we go from here?
It is artists in cities like Cleveland and Detroit who are in the best position to re-imagine our industrial landscapes and turn them into something new and unique, something we cannot even fathom at present. And such changes won’t occur in a vacuum. There must be community engagement, as well as dialogue and cross-pollination between disciplines, racial groups, and economic classes. This is why programs like the Cleveland Clinic’s Arts and Medicine Institute, the Cleveland Institute of Art’s biomedical art program, and Kent State’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative are so essential. Arts education and cultural accessibility are also critical. As one artist said to me during my visit, I don’t only want to make art, I also want to give back.
New York is not the only city that matters when it comes to culture (a fact that is obvious to almost everyone except many New Yorkers). Only 170 miles north of Cleveland in the city of Detroit, artists are also making their mark on a changing, struggling city. As most artists in these urban centers understand, fetishizing industrial ruins may be popular, but it’s not the solution. It’s time to move beyond “ruin porn” and focus on reinvention. And a city like Cleveland is just the place to do it.
An Update on the Gwarlingo Membership Drive
Thanks to all of the readers who have contributed to the Gwarlingo Membership Drive. 115+ Gwarlingo readers have contributed so far and $11,500 of the $15,000 goal has been raised. If you haven’t donated yet, you can check out my video and all of the member rewards, including some limited-edition artwork, here on the Gwarlingo site.
If you’re a fan of the work of photographer Barry Underwood, this is your opportunity to own a limited-edition Underwood print, while also helping support Gwarlingo. This limited-edition, archival print, MacDowell Theatre, will be sent to only 8 donors who make a contribution of $500 or more. Gwarlingo is ad-free and your contribution also comes with an interactive member profile. You can make your donation here.
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