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Cleveland Ohio has become a hub of activity for visual artists. It’s a hotbed of creativity. How did we get here?

* Is Cleveland a model for similar scale cities?

* Are there specific strategies that act as catalysts?

* Is it bottom up or top down?

Allow me to speculate. First, contextual history is important. Cleveland emerged as an industrial powerhouse at the height of the industrial era. The successful Capitalist giants of the time saw fit to endow the community with a tremendous museum and orchestra, and other cultural accoutrements.

They were ambitious as well as egotistical, and wanted the best. Consequently, the Cleveland Orchestra became one of the finest in the world, with the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) one of the top museums in the US. It didn’t take long for teaching institutions to complement the ambition: the Cleveland Institute of Art, (CIA) Cleveland Institute of Music, Case Western Reserve University, and a host of other fine educational institutions emerged.

Cleveland Skyline

Cleveland in the House

Other aspects of the city evolved, but staying focused on visual art, Cleveland built a standard of artistic excellence. The decades have greatly impacted the city; like similar cities, demographic shifts, business climate, political climate, have prompted a migration into the suburbs, hollowing out the core.

The downside is vacant warehouses. The upside is vacant warehouses. Artists are always interested in large, cheap space. Cleveland has that in abundance, though with demand continuing to rise, get your space now…It took way too long for the city to change zoning laws so live/work spaces could be occupied by creatives (artists were using them to live illegally for decades), but once it did, the spaces filled with artists.

Cleveland Hall

For most of the 20th century, CMA sponsored and hosted a juried exhibition called the May Show, full of the best local/regional art and artists. This demonstrated a commitment to the living creative community, and sensitized an audience to the local art scene. The show was discontinued, as museum juried shows diminished in favor among major museum institutions, which opened opportunities for galleries both commercial and not-for-profit.

Cleveland has a vibrant non-profit sector, (sometimes to the detriment of for-profit enterprises), but since overhead is low, they are able to sustain themselves. The quality of artwork is very high. Not only CIA graduates, but regional institutions also have rich art programs, both degreed and community classes, which keep the bar high.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, (MOCA Cleveland) with its sparkling new building, The Transformer Station, a new CMA branch devoted to contemporary art (mostly photo-based work), many university galleries, and the commercial galleries provide an excellent variety of exhibition venues for local, regional, national and international art. There isn’t a weekend where some major art event can’t be experienced.

moca 2 small

What is the takeaway for other municipalities? One can’t go back a century to establish institutions, but one can create policies to enhance art opportunities. Zoning for live/work and mixed use is an obvious one. Creating a climate of excellence is another; peer pressure is a wonderful mechanism to elevate the bar, both individually and institutionally. This means strong, demanding education.

Having a generous foundation/non-profit sector is certainly an asset. So is an entrepreneurial business climate. Start-ups thrive in the same conditions that art thrives in: they are both creative risk-takers, and require the elbowroom to experiment, in an environment of less restrictive policies.

A tax policy that balances a business-friendly attitude with serving the broader community is a tricky but necessary balance. If there is no thriving business, the economy can’t generate people to buy art.

And finally a culture that values art has to be nurtured. I remember in my vigorous youth assessing cities during my travels: if they had specialized sporting-goods stores, it reflected a rich, adventurous physical life. If they had bookstores, universities, it reflected a rich intellectual life.If they had music and art venues in abundance, it reflected a rich cultural life.

These values have to be overtly encouraged. Ordinances have to be compatible with the intended outcome. It needs to be easy to start a business. Many times it’s not a matter of spending more tax $, but loosening restrictive regulations. Most governing bodies tend to want to do more, instead of assessing what they could do less of, or obstacles they could remove/modify to empower their population (like zoning laws). Cleveland hasn’t done everything right; no city has or does. And at times it felt like despite governance, we will thrive. And we do. I feel very fortunate.

As an artist, I’ve traveled regularly to the major art center cities for events, art fairs, and museum shows. Many art enthusiasts do the same. On occasion, it gives one an inferiority complex, that whatever regional city we’re from isn’t as important culturally as the big players. But that’s not true. Most of the art at these major events started somewhere else. It’s time to appreciate the work generated in the area you live in. What you find may surprise you… 

First published: 2015-07-01

By George Kozmon

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