A Conversation with Cleveland Artists
By Josh Usmani
Due to the 50/50 Show being postponed, I had to search out a last-minute replacement show to cover for last week’s article. My immediate thought was that it shouldn’t be a problem because Tremont’s Art Walk is always the 2nd Friday of every month.
However, upon further investigation I was reminded of a sad truth: Tremont’s Art Walk doesn’t have much art anymore.
It may not be public knowledge, but it’s certainly no secret within Cleveland’s art community. Anyone that ventures out for Tremont’s Art Walk anticipating artwork in traditional venues recognizes the lack thereof. I’ve talked privately with friends and fellow artists about it, but no one ever seems to talk about it publicly. While discussing this topic with fellow artist and curator (and frequent contributor to Tremont’s Art Walk), Natalia Dale, she suggested I approach my fellow artists and curators for public statements. After approaching many artists and gallery professionals for their thoughts on the current state of Tremont, the causes and the potential solutions, I was shocked by the enthusiastic response to the topic.
Granted, this isn’t a complete representation of Cleveland’s art community, but everyone who contributed to this article wants to see Tremont become a stronger art-based community. While the opinions presented are diverse, this constructive criticism is meant, overall, to benefit Tremont, and Cleveland as a whole. This article isn’t meant to bash Tremont or its inhabitants. On the contrary, the intention is to encourage a public dialogue that results in real solutions to make Tremont a stronger asset to Cleveland’s collective arts community.
Every time I go out to Tremont I see more people at bars and restaurants than galleries. Don’t get me wrong — Tremont is actually one of my favorite places to enjoy drinks on patios with friends. However, there aren’t many galleries in Tremont anymore and most of those are more boutique than exhibition space. Even the exciting addition of Kollective Gallery (which recently announced they will be relocating from Cleveland Hts to Tremont) is tempered by the fact that it’s an art gallery AND a tattoo shop. It’s great to have so many opportunities for artists to show their work, but these mashup venues rarely allow for the same scale in terms of either artwork or exhibition size as more formal spaces.
The final straw, for me personally, came at the 20 year anniversary of the Art Walk this February. I ventured out in the dead of winter filled with anticipation of a city-wide celebration complete with Lolly the Trolley rides to the various stops throughout the neighborhood.
When I arrived, I saw Lolly parked on the street and the lot I normally park at was blocked off and reserved for valet (with 5 cars in it and about 30 empty spaces). However, I quickly found a spot on the street and made my way down to the first gallery. As I walked from venue to venue I quickly realized that there was very little celebration and even less art.
Finally, I ran into local art legends Dana Depew and Douglas Max Utter on the sidewalk. They were standing outside of a building where I could tell the official celebration would be taking place. They informed me that a crew was filming inside and everyone would have to wait at least an hour to get in. In the meantime, we all walked to another gallery and eventually went our separate ways. On the way out, I walked past the building where the celebration was clearly underway.
As I went to enter, I was stopped by an armed security guard at a metal barrier who informed me that it was a private, sold out event and I didn’t have a ticket. In that moment, all of my frustration for Tremont came to a climax. All of my previous anticipation turned to disappointment. I knew, in that moment, that whatever they were celebrating was not what I was experiencing.
We begin this discussion with Dana Depew. If there is one artist and/or gallery owner who is synonymous with Tremont; it’s Depew. He once owned the legendary Asterisk Gallery in Tremont. Everyone who was around back then agrees that Depew and Asterisk were the biggest part of Tremont’s early success.
Dana Depew, artist and former owner of Asterisk Gallery in Tremont, says:
“I love that place. I wouldn’t be who I am without my time there. The bottom line is affordability. The model has existed forever; artists come in when rent is cheap until the place becomes nice and is no longer affordable. A big part of it was timing. You had a lot of great people involved and you can’t have that forever. Some of the people and galleries are still there, but there has definitely been a shift in concentration. With Asterisk, we had a lot of artwork that wasn’t for sale; namely video and performance work. It was unrealistic as a business model.
“The bottom line is the rent became too high, but you’re going to have that anywhere in Cleveland. Galleries just don’t generate a lot of income compared to restaurants or shops. However, there is hope with the work of people like Jean Brandt and Tim Herron, and galleries like Kollective moving into a space in town. Right now, in my opinion, there are very few available readymade storefronts that could be potentially transformed into exhibition spaces. The neighborhood might be maxed out in that regard. You have to be creative in trying to find exhibition space – options are temporary pop-up galleries in nontraditional venues, using vacant buildings and houses on a short term basis, etc. The Art Walk is every second Friday of each month, and this is a long established and highly respected tradition – take whatever you have and fill it up – the more venues regardless of content is very good – if you build it they will come.”
Douglas Max Utter, artist, art critic and recent recipient of Cleveland Arts Prize’s 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award, had this to say:
“I don’t know anything about the way Tremont’s Art Walk is organized, so it’s hard for me to make specific suggestions. That said, I have observed that, in general, art tends to gradually disappear from Cleveland’s ‘alternative neighborhoods,’ unlike food. Obviously art costs more than a sandwich (even in Cleveland) – though it lasts longer. But, like cuisine or anything else, it needs a reliable system (like a restaurant) to deliver it to consumers.
“For a permanent art presence, Tremont needs several serious galleries with established reputations and a customer base. This has happened in the Gordon Square Arts District, especially at the West 78th Street Studios complex; and something similar needs to happen in Tremont. Whether an Arts Walk as such is just a phase-event, useful to advertise artists and galleries at a certain point during the development of alternative commercial neighborhoods, is one question. Over time I think the logistics of that kind of thing get to be a bit overwhelming for the people who try to plan them. And as with Art Fairs of all kinds, serious art and serious prices tend to get edited out of the proceedings – which erodes the interest and impact of the whole project. Maybe an Art Walk could work best conceived as an inter-business event shared between younger, but relatively solid, galleries. You need structure for this kind of thing – but mainly you need art, and very few serious artists want to sell their work in the street.”
Tim Herron, artist and founder of the Pretentious Tremont Artists, chimes in:
“The Art Walk was more successful in the beginning because the rent was low and properties were cheaper so artists could afford to move into the area. Many of the potential artists have flocked to other areas because Tremont really has few places to show art. The many successful restaurants in the area got attached to the Art Walk but didn’t have an art exhibit to show. Now most of the stops on the Art Walk have little to do with art. The fee for being part of the Art Walk has stopped others from officially being part of it (an example would be the Literary Cafe that hosts the Pretentious Tremont Artists every Friday but are never on the Art Walk card because of the fee).”
Shawn Mishak, artist and curator, says:
“I began curating in Tremont in about 2001. To give you idea of the landscape of the time, this was at a time when I would not walk through Lincoln Park at night; there were people throwing dice and selling drugs and they would have eaten a geeky art guy like me alive… Now at this time there were artists and artisans living all around the neighborhood, the ones with real jobs on the side were buying up rental property to house the artists with no jobs, and there was a lot of community charity and plenty of low rent places to live in…
“At the center of all of this was Asterisk Gallery. The first time I went to the gallery, I was blown away by sculptures made of gun racks and Dr. Seuss trees made with paint, duck tape, and feathers. It was real artists making real art. It was street art in a way, things created during late nights at some run-down apartment out of trash found on legendary Thursday trash nights in Tremont. There was no chance anyone with any money was coming into Tremont to buy art, but we put on the shows and the art was affordable enough that if you had a couple hundred bucks you could buy something that would sell in New York for $5000…
“Once Asterisk went, which was at the center of the neighborhood, we all knew it was the end of an era and it wouldn’t be long before the pillagers came in to squeeze every last dime out of what was becoming a ‘quaint little neighborhood’… I understand though, things change, grow and become something else. But they are trying to make it some sort of Legacy Village, and it’s a big joke…It’s looking like Collinwood might be the next migration point, but things are a little tougher being so far from the city. We will see, but I have little hope that the art will be put back into the Tremont Art Walk anytime soon. One can dream though…”
Bob Peck aka LOST, local street and gallery artist, offers his opinion:
“I love a lot of the restaurants and businesses in Tremont. Hell, I had my wedding reception at Lava Lounge, but I’d feel downright weird going into there to just look at the art. You can’t walk into a restaurant or bar, especially on a busy Friday night and expect to really be able to take in the artwork on the walls as the regular crowds are there to eat, drink and be merry. I can see it now… ‘Excuse me, mind if I move that plate of calamari out of the way so I can lean in and get a good view of that piece?’”
Bryon Miller, photographer and co-owner of Miller-Schneider Gallery in Collinwood, offers his take:
“It basically boils down to economics and growth. Tremont has been in a state of growth for over 20 years. With more and more people moving there from other areas, it becomes harder for galleries to maintain a presence. What was important to the demographic of people living there, say, 10 years ago, isn’t necessarily important to the people living there now. That along with the lack of affordable space really puts a choke hold on the art scene.
“Progress can be good to some, but devastating to others. This is the perfect example of that. I lived in Tremont over 10 years ago, and the change it has gone through since that time is pretty drastic. You can label that as good or bad depending on where you stand. Mix this all together with a little bit of greed and you’ll begin to see a lack of art galleries and art in general. So what you get is an area with very few galleries and a lot of shops and restaurants, and rent too high for working artists to afford. Tremont still has some amazing spaces though, including Doubting Thomas and the Brandt Gallery. So I suggest people start supporting these spaces more and more. I suppose the irony of all of this is that without the galleries being there in the first place, there wouldn’t be a Tremont as we know it today.”
James Giar, artist and co-founder of Rust Belt Monster Collective and Drink-n-Draws at Lava Lounge in Tremont, says:
“I love Tremont. I really do. When I go there…the air feels different, it’s the vibe…the people. Up until a few years ago, I spent most of my time chained to my table and cranking out comic pages; commissions… The recent fad of restaurants and bars taking in artists and hanging their work in their establishments is, for me, a welcome site. The owners are helping support artists and the arts and they get to have some pretty amazing stuff on their walls. I feel those artists intimidated by the larger galleries are more likely to approach these smaller venues.
“The only problem with restaurants and bars standing in as galleries is it lacks artist interaction. That was my main reason for pushing for Drink and Draw Social Club. A few years ago I sat with artist Randy Crider outside a wine bar, talking art, our idea on where we wanted to be and what we could do to get there. In my opinion, the Cleveland art scene is divided into these factions, or camps. And initially I noticed that every gallery opening I went to there was a different crowd. Very seldom did I see the same people at other venues…. As in all societies, growth….change…only comes about when people become unified. I sometimes feel that what we don’t take into consideration is, we artists…whether you’re fine arts, pottery, photography, comic art…we all share the same common bond. It’s the desire….the need, to create.”
Dan Miller, artist and co-owner of Rotten Meat Gallery in Downtown Cleveland, gives his take:
“I think this just isn’t a magic bullet issue; I think there’s a lot to consider — most importantly people not buying art. Not to diminish people who come to openings and Art Walks to appreciate the exhibitions — that’s part and parcel of the art world. But when it comes to galleries, that’s where they make their money and if people aren’t buying art then the galleries are going to lose money hence the branching off into various revenue streams. I could probably go on at length about all the other various issues with what could be perceived as stagnation but I think lack of sales is a pretty real issue.”
Linda Ayala, artist and former co-owner of Wall-Eye Gallery in Gordon Square, says:
“I think Tremont has become what it is from what is sustainable and what isn’t. Restaurants and boutiques may do well, but galleries are a harder sell. We love our gallery openings and fill up the place on an opening night, but good food and a boutique that offers a wide variety of items in a variety of price points are more justifiable on the wallet than buying a piece of art for $500 or even $200.
“If we look at the galleries we have in our area, what makes 78th Street Studios, for example, occupied, yet galleries have thinned out in Tremont? What’s the issue? High rent? The business model? Is a gallery better off as a non-profit or for profit? If we look at gallery owners and potential gallery owners themselves, many owners work separate full-time jobs on top of running their gallery which is basically having two full-time jobs, but one job isn’t paying you. If you’re an artist on top of that, you search for time to create. It’s exhausting. Who’s willing to take on running a gallery? Running a gallery is a labor of love. You do it for the art! But you can’t pay the rent with a painting.”
Dave Desimone, artist, curator and former owner of Low Life Gallery, comments:
“The trouble with Tremont has nothing to do with the lack of art or greedy landlords. Long and short of it is people would rather shop for goods (vintage or new) than art. If art sold well in Tremont more legitimate galleries would exist. (Note: I define legit galleries as those that show an entirely new solo or group exhibition each month and do not operate like an art retail outlet.) I don’t blame the landlords or the merchants.
“If more patrons bought art there would be more galleries in Tremont. Brandt is tiny. Doubting Thomas is edgy but very uneven from month to month. Once Asterisk left it was kind of the end of Tremont as an art center. 78th Street holds that title now. There are a few other spots in the city doing good things as well. In my opinion Tremont has become the foodie neighborhood. Nothing wrong with it. I say embrace it and look for art elsewhere.”
John Saile, artist, curator and frequent contributor to Tremont’s Art Walk, says:
“Tremont appears to be under siege by those who would develop properties strictly for profit. Restaurants virtually guarantee a solid return, especially where rents are calculated on a base plus percentage of revenues. What community development fails to recognize is that viable art galleries are critically essential to the mix and contribute immeasurably to the overall commercial success of the community. The presence of art and art galleries elevates the living experience for families who seek to raise and educate their children within the community. Art is our original language — the very first medium of expression. Art (and the institutions and businesses that house art) are an intrinsic part of our lives and the communities in which our culture thrives.”
Joe Ayala, artist, Gallery Director at Cleveland West Art League (CWAL at 78th St Studios) and former co-owner of Wall-Eye Gallery in Gordon Square, explains:
“I believe the changes began with the exit of Dana Depew’s Asterisk Gallery and the shooting incident with Jeffrey Chiplis. That, along with the rise in the restaurant business, Detroit Shoreway and Collinwood, have made shifts in Tremont. Granted there are still good galleries with roots that bring in crowds such as Doubting Thomas and Brandt Gallery but the art scene has definitely changed.”
Dante Rodriguez, artists and former co-owner of Wall-Eye Gallery in Gordon Square, says:
“For me, it’s definitely sad to see the number of art galleries shrinking in Tremont over the years. Tremont used to be a hotspot to see cool and edgy contemporary art and, at times, controversial exhibitions in Cleveland. It’s great to see local artists having shows in bars, restaurants, and/or boutiques. I believe any exposure of your art is always a good thing, but these venues don’t offer the same level of respect and dignity that art galleries give artists and their work.
“Art galleries provide opportunities for us to be intellectually and visually stimulated and engaged with the artwork. When more space is dedicated to exhibiting art, this allows artists to be more experimental and take risks with their work. Once you take away that space, I believe that art will become more stagnant and commercial which leads me to think the art scene in Tremont will risk losing its vibrant culture if the last few art galleries there decide to close or leave.”
Jacqueline DelBrocco, artist and organizer of RAW Cleveland, serves up her opinion:
“There are so many under-appreciated artists in this town that are creating amazing things… but unless those artists get their creations out of their studio/homes/basements and into public places, they will never be recognized. I wonder if part of the problem is artists don’t realize how easy it is to get involved. I’ve come to learn it’s hard for most artists to think in terms of marketing, but it’s something we have to do (even though it’s the least fun part of being an artist.) The reason we have to do this isn’t just so we can sustain a living selling artwork, but I think we owe it to our community too.
“Do we want to put Cleveland on the map as an artistic, originative city amidst a creative Renaissance? I know I would love to see that happen! And I think we, as artists in Cleveland, need to make this happen ourselves because no one else actually has the power to do it but us. We have the talent, we have the artwork, we just need to get out there and knock on those local business owners’ doors. It’s usually free to display your work, plus you get great exposure. Why aren’t more of us making the effort?”
Rich Cihlar, artist and former owner of the Pop Shop Gallery in Lakewood (now Breakneck Gallery), says:
“I’ll admit I don’t often visit the Tremont Art Walks. From an outsider’s guess at what’s going on, I would guess a lack of organization or a lack of emphasis on the ‘art’ part of the word Art Walk. I know the idea of walk is now common knowledge in Tremont, but without the push for art people just want to get more people in their business. I know when Jeff and I tried doing 2-3 Art Walks in Lakewood, some of the businesses just didn’t get why art had to be displayed. And the reason is/was that it’s the ONLY common thread for the event… And from the artist stand point, you know this… a lot of us have a lot on our plate, or we get lazy, or are unprepared to get the work out.
“Artists are good at making work, but not all artists are good at talking to people or setting up the shows/exhibits. So there’s a disconnect. Businesses are not connected to the art world and don’t know where to find good artists, and artists sometimes are too shy or uncoordinated to seek out a business. So there’s a gap. And reusing the same artists gets boring, or hard on a business. You’re not always going to show the same person over and over. You also have to imagine from the owners’ stand point. They are super busy from running their businesses and they don’t always plan or really review the artists. They just take whoever is available to be part of the event. So you can’t blame any one person for the lack of organization.”
Chad “CHOD” Kimes, local artist and curator, chimes in:
“My first experience with the art scene in Cleveland was Tremont. As an outsider coming in at the time it seemed that Tremont was ‘THE’ art scene of Cleveland. It has been nice since to see art more spread around the city but the concept of a place where you could go to see a lot of different art as a monthly event was a cool thing. Since the heyday some of the big galleries have closed down and left Tremont a spot for boutique shops and bar/restaurants that feature rotating art.
“It would be nice for them to get back to having a monthly event that matters. A possibility for change would be to bring in some new blood from the normal rotation of artists. Not blackballing the normal artists, just bringing in some new ideas and approaches to what the crowd is used to seeing. Another possibility is to try to bring in the locals of Tremont. The Art Walks as they are right now tend to neglect the tastes of their neighbors. Bringing art for the people that are right in your backyard seems to be the most positive thing you could do. Building a sense of community seems smart to me. And of course I would like to see some straight up galleries open again. I know it is hard for people to keep them afloat sometimes or owners over time get burned out but you tend to get the best variety and fresh ideas at these establishments. Just my opinion.”
Tremont needs solutions. It needs problem solvers. It needs artists. But most of all, it needs a wake-up call. You can’t fix a problem without first realizing there is a problem. If there is one clear consensus amongst the diverse responses from Cleveland’s art community, it would be that everyone wants to see Tremont get stronger. There may be frustration at its current state, but it’s clear that everyone who responded did so passionately and with the best intentions of provoking positive change.
While opinions clearly differ on the cause(s), this unified enthusiasm from the arts community gives me a lot of hope moving forward. Cleveland’s art community is more cooperative than competitive, and we’re all better off for it. If you’d like to join in the discussion, please leave your comments below.
Unfortunately, many prominent voices were left out of this dialogue. For example, Jeff Chiplis, Jean Brandt and representatives from the Tremont West Development Corporation couldn’t be reached for comment. However, this is — hopefully — just the beginning of the conversation.
A special thank you to all the artists and gallery professionals who contributed their opinions!
[Photos by Patrick McGough]