CULTURATI: Creating a Love Fest by Liz Maugans


[All artists and arts lovers are invited to join an open meeting for an effort currently called Quest for the Fest to talk about creating a new type of arts event in North East Ohio. It takes place on Sun 4/7 @ 1pm at Artful Cleveland in the Coventry PEACE Campus Building in Cleveland Heights. Registration not required — just come and bring your ideas!]

By Liz Maugans

I am an artist in search of love (and a fest) —a love fest of sorts.

Systems, bureaucracies and power structures have adversely changed the zeitgeist of the radical freedom, awe and wonder that artists from Northeast Ohio desire. In 2024, two city-wide visual arts events were cancelled, the CAN and FRONT Triennials, and the Cleveland State University People’s Art Show, an inclusive show for all, was halted. These were all led by nonprofits or educational institutions and funded largely by foundations and institutional partners.

The art world’s default has become predetermined, narrow, exclusive, predictable, competitive and disconnected. Reliance on foundations and government funding have further dictated to those of us who work in creative fields and rely upon grant money (e.g., professors, artists, musicians, etc), who spend months out of every year applying for new grants and/or servicing the grants they already have. In practice, this often means they have little time and energy left over to actually create their work and enjoy it. What a colossal waste of our society’s limited creative resources! This further isolates art and artists from each other and the greater community.

Equally troubling is the fantasy that artists rely on that bureaucrats and micromanagers doing everything right. For artists desperately seeking love again (and an art fest), I believe artists could fall in love with each other and do it “wrong” together but it will feel right.

Co-ops, hangouts, guilds, parades, crit groups, salons, happenings, pop-ups and collectives are social networks built by artists. They have been around since the beginning of time. These liberatory models all share artist-centered leadership laced with a beautiful brand of unity consciousness and trust.

The creative community has become dependent on the fabrication of rightness that bureaucrats have sold to artists and lost the joie de vivre the artists’ community once embodied. The Cultural Sector (as they call it now) in Cuyahoga County, through all their rules, parameters and policies, has made falling in love again and bringing people together all the more difficult. The wildness, open-mindedness, flow and spontaneity that the art community possessed by bringing together people for no other good reason has vanished.

Artists are lured through an obstacle course of encoded language, with needs and requirements that promise transformation. The NEO community has struggled to understand and support the arts and attracting new audiences was a problem even before the pandemic. The creation of a grassroots, fun, cool, zany, free, intergenerational non-competitive arts lovefest sounds pretty inspiring about now.

It seems like a perfect time to include as many people as possible. What if artists do it wrong and it comes out right?

Artists hate rejection, so why not include everyone? Artists want to have a good time so let’s party. Artists want love, so let’s invite everyone and make it free. Artists are visionary so let’s re-orient our solo approach and tap the essence of our shared creative efforts and build a fest.

Not all artists embrace change, and visualizing new reconfigurations and structural ways of flexing our creative muscles in our studios and exhibitions/projects can be scary. Falling in love unlocks the same fears. Artists naturally thrive in instability and risk. Creating an artist-led fest will have plenty of room for mistakes and course-corrections but isn’t that what happens most days when we create stuff anyway?

Through instability and failure, through levity and acceptance, artists are the true masters of understanding the complexities (and messiness) of these paradigms, relationships and the decisions within those art experiences. Artists are emergent thinkers, creative problem solvers, dreamers and designers. Artists have the magical powers to do a lot with very little and yield much.

The shifting trends in funding from the bureaucracies were factors cited for canceling some of the events. Bureaucracies use a Directive Leadership model which is depicted as a pyramid with power flowing from the top down. Participatory Leadership is a collective effort where the chorus of artists identify planning, implementation and decisions democratically. It might look like a circuit board where interconnected and related formations create a network. Participatory leadership will most certainly look and feel like disorganization, inefficiency, aimlessness, and maybe even the Hokey Pokey. This approach requires an act of faith that feels awesomely fun because it is encompassing, encouraging and filled with surprises. Producer Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, approaches his projects as play. Each collaborative project has four phases of play, 1. Seed 2. Experimentation 3. Craft 4. Editing/Final phase.

The fest is a blank canvas. Artists will ask more questions, instead of obsessing about solution-thinking and long-term planning, and this enriches the experience for everyone to play along. One reason why artists have been entrenched in bureaucracy’s rightness is because we let them. I see an exciting whirlpool of connectivity because artists are starved for it, especially young people.

Artists need to scrap their reliance of bureaucracy’s inability to speak our love language of art. The bureaucrat’s funny money speaks the language of lack and scarcity.

Artists needs some version of Universal Basic Energy that will free our fellow artists to create their own sense of value that can be spread widely and organically. This will develop new intersections in our relationships, collaborations, mentorships  and supporters and move beyond the capitalist paradigm of maker/buyer, which isn’t really working that great for us anyhow.

Finding love again through a community arts fest will test our limits. We are calling it Quest for the Fest until we all come up with a better name together. It is our shared opportunity to do something together differently with a network approach to ideation, planning and implementation. This ethos of power-sharing and untangling governance from fundraising, while prioritizing mutual learning and co-creation, is what is starting to set sail. Voices and opinions will all be heard and everyone is invited into this space of co-leadership. Those showing up will find themselves in this exciting liminal space of active discovery, messiness and tensions. But hey, isn’t that what happens to us every day?

Young creatives graduating high school and students pursuing the arts in area universities are key to the Quest for the Fest. I was a young dumb kid and liked hanging out with others who liked to mess around making art. The film Beautiful Losers comes to mind. The documentary follows a group of young artists from the 80s who learned their craft through practice, trial and error, goofing around, and good old-fashioned innovation. Their success was not the results of the brainstorms of marketing men, bureaucratic focus groups or any homogenized methods; they happened organically. The seedbed of this lovefest is creativity happening in community spaces that are second homes to young people.

An example of this energy is HumanHeART Studios. The mission of Human HeART is the intersection of creativity and community in the city of Cleveland. As an art collective and event space, their mission goes beyond the canvas, focusing on educational art events, markets, classes and workshops that resonate with the heartbeat of their diverse and underserved artist community. They consider themselves a living art museum and a second home to these young people.

As schools are experiencing sharp declines in student enrollment at universities, developing these connections and experiences creates a huge opportunity for young creatives to stay here. Thinking creatively is what is going to get this region through a lot of the challenges in the next 10-20 years and that’s exactly what Quest for the Fest can get right. If we engage young people in the teeming life of art pouring out onto the street and combine it with the tracks that older artists have laid, this is how beautiful networks are built.

Artists have been relying on factors, processes and productions controlled by bureaucrats which are rarely changing, cautious, rational events that have become NOT fun and divorced from eclecticism and uniqueness. The result doesn’t inspire newcomers to the arts and relies on the already converted art supporter to expect the same.

Artists are called to this vocation and we all have experienced the imposter syndrome. We all tire of jumping through hoops, particularly when we age and feel less connected to youthful idealism and energy. Artists have become short-circuited somewhere along the way. Artists have felt unseen and unappreciated and cut off from the ways we felt as younger versions of ourselves.

So why not do something together that reinvigorates and flourishes our spirit? We can tell folks that we were there! It seems that everywhere people in the arts have more “paperwork” nowadays. The bureaucrats are categorizing creatives, surveying us at every turn, and creating more time-sucking barriers that distance us from each other as we can sit in front of computer screens to fill out the required content. Art school culture has changed too, where there is less room for students to experiment and explore what is out there in this region. Schools are struggling and slashing the arts budgets, and streaming artist videos to students so they can save money.

Creating a lovefest could be a way of untangling our habit-forming reliance on bureaucrats so we can collectively figure out how to build a cool, fun, exciting experience. How do we include everyone’s voice in the process? How do we keep fueling our stamina and look to a growth mindset of collective relationships, skill-sharing, and celebrating cultural diversity and access in all its beauty to make this concept, whatever it is, realized? How will will be patient in this process? What happens if this works?

Lastly, I will leave you with a quote by Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

We have had one meeting so this is the perfect time for you to get involved. We extravagantly welcome you and others you may think of to join us.  The next meeting  is at Artful Cleveland in the Coventry PEACE Campus building in Cleveland Heights on Sunday April 7 @ 1pm. We will be asking guest writers involved in the Quest for the Fest to share their thoughts and experiences with about this journey of shared leadership. The next meeting will be reviewing and discussing the ideas captured from the first meeting and finding which ones resonate to the body of the whole.

Liz Maugans is a Cleveland-based artist, mom of three great kids, a social justice advocate, an educator, a gallerist, and curator. Maugans co-founded Zygote Press, the Collective Arts Network, the  Cleveland Artist Registry and the Artist Bridge Coalition. Currently, Maugans is the Chief Curator of the Dalad Collection and Director of Yards Projects at Worthington Yards. Maugans teaches Artist-in-Communities and Museums and Collections at Cleveland State University and is Chief of Community Engagement at Art Everyspace. Maugans sits on the Board of the Collective Arts Network and Refresh Collective. Her work is represented by Hedge Gallery at 78th Street Studios.

Cleveland Heights, OH 44106

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2 Responses to “CULTURATI: Creating a Love Fest by Liz Maugans”

  1. Thanks for this Liz.

    The implicit critiques of “How do we keep fueling our stamina and look to a growth mindset of collective relationships, skill-sharing, and celebrating cultural diversity and access in all its beauty to make this concept, whatever it is, realized?” will make distinctive demands should a collection of artists want to tackle this in the background of any future initiatives.

    Setting love aside, given that we have to self-organize our own (various) mindsets, how is the ability to take art seriously going to be embodied and enacted and then aggregated?

    “It is not works that come into contact, but people who, however, come into contact through the medium of works.” M. Bahktin

  2. Liz Maugans

    Simple answer. We figure it out together. Or we don’t. When things start, and people gather, a leap of faith is all that’s needed.

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