Art Works Blog

Postcard from Columbus and Cleveland (Part Two)

Julie Henahan, executive director of the Ohio Arts Council, moderates the panel “A Way Forward: Arts and Economic Development” with Rocco, Chairman & CEO of Limited Brands Leslie H. Wexner, Columbus mayor Michael B. Coleman, and President & CEO of The Columbus Foundation Douglas F. Kridler. Photo by Kevin Fitzsimons, The Ohio State University

Last Friday, you read about my “C” city trip, which continued with stops in Columbus and Cleveland. After our time in Cincinnati, we drove to Columbus where we had a very full visit. Our host there was Charlotte Kessler, who is a member of the National Council on the Arts. She was a wonderful host throughout our time in the city. We first went to the Greater Columbus Arts Council where we met with Milt Baughman, president of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and their partners for Columbus Public Art 2012. This temporary public art project is supported through an Our Town grant. I’d been on with a radio show with Milt Baughman a few days before when I was in Charleston. He was a great host and introducer to the arts scene there.

We also met with Alex Fischer, who’s the CEO of the Columbus Partnership. We set up a meeting there with Adam Brouillette who runs Wonderland Columbus, which is a pretty neat deal. Adam is a working artist, an entrepreneur, and a businessman. We talked about the intersection of arts and the “real world,” and artists as entrepreneurs.

In the afternoon, we had a panel discussion at the Wexner Center for the Arts, which is located on the campus of Ohio State University. It was very well-attended: close to 1,000 people came in the middle of the rain. Mayor Michael Coleman was on the panel, as was Doug Kridler, who runs the Columbus Foundation---they gave away $100 million dollars last year. The final panelist was Les Wexner, whom I finally got to meet after hearing about him for all these years. He is a tremendous patron of the arts, and really cares and has been really supportive and passionate about the arts. Of course, we were in the Wexner Center, which is his house, so to speak. The Wexner Center is great, and in my view, it’s almost a physical connection between Ohio State University and the community. It’s at the entrance, in a sense, to Ohio State, and it’s a way that the university can extend beyond campus life. The Wexner Center has been careful to make sure they’re very much a part of the community there. My favorite part of my job is when I’m on panels like this. We had a really good back-and-forth, and there was very sharp questioning from the audience. And the audience was really well-informed.

Then we went onto Cleveland that night, and had an even fuller day in Cleveland. Our hosts there were Deena Epstein, who’s the senior program officer at the George Gund Foundation---she knows everything about the arts in Cleveland; Karen Gahl-Mills, who’s the executive director of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture; and Tom Schorgl, who is the president for the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. We could not have had better hosts for exposing ourselves to the arts in Cleveland than those characters.

We started the day at the Cleveland Public Theatre, where we met with the organization’s director, Raymond Bobgan. He is very committed to his community, and is also committed to doing venturesome work at the theater. The theater itself is located in the Gordon Square Arts District. The Gordon Square Arts District is almost a textbook illustration of what we’re talking about at the NEA with creative placemaking. We toured the whole Gordon Square Arts District and the surrounding neighborhood. We saw how the theater and other art developments there have transformed what was a very tough neighborhood into a neighborhood where now people want to live, where they want to move to. It’s creative placemaking at its best.

We also saw the Near West Theatre, which is directly in the wheelhouse of neighborhood revitalization. They use the transforming power of the arts to work with inner-city youth. The theater and the other arts groups, the galleries---everything that’s part of Gordon Square---is working to the same effect. I think everybody’s on board.

We had a panel at the Cleveland Public Theatre with David Abbott, who is the executive director of the George Gund Foundation, and Ed Fitzgerald, the Cuyahoga County executive. I said a few words, and then we had a kind of roundtable discussion about what’s going on there. One of the participants in the roundtable was Eric Coble, a playwright who talked about why he’s committed to the Cleveland Public Theatre, why he lives in Cleveland, and how being a part of this community---of this theater---is conducive to the work that he does. We had a great collection of artists there, including Valerie Mayens, who’s a fashion designer, and Dianne McIntyre, who is a choreographer. It was a really good roundtable about artists and how they feel they are being nurtured in that community.

All of these artists are Creative Workforce Fellows, who receive $20,000 grants from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture so that they have a cushion to be able to do their work. It’s competitive---you have to win one---and seems like a really great program.

What’s neat about Cuyahoga Arts & Culture is that they were established to distribute revenue from a tobacco tax. I haven’t seen this anywhere else in the country. This is dedicated funding for the arts, through a tax that was voted on by taxpayers and passed. So there’s a tobacco tax that goes directly to arts funding---I don’t know of another situation like it, where there’s a totally dedicated tax for culture.

Next we went to Playhouse Square, which is really the high end of creative placemaking. Art Falco is the executive director of Playhouse Square, and he really is an arts tycoon in the center of downtown Cleveland. He’s using the arts and development to really bring back the city’s downtown area. He keeps funding new buildings, and Playhouse Square has found ways to enhance its endowment and operating income through some commercial enterprises. Art, I think, is in a way a model for arts entrepreneurship across the country.

We took a tour of the Ohio Theatre and the Palace Theatre, as well as the Allen Theatre, which will be a new resident theater for the Cleveland PlayHouse, which recently moved to the area from another district. I got to meet Kevin Moore, who’s the managing director of the Cleveland PlayHouse. We also saw the State Theatre, which is stunning. Again, this is creative placemaking on a grander scale.

We then went over to ideastream, where we met their top people, Kit Jensen and Jerry Wereham. They are on the cutting edge of high-tech as it relates to the arts. They have public television and radio stations that they house there, as well as performance spaces. It’s kind of a hotbed of arts activity and technology. What they did was they renovated a former department store and made it into an idea center and art programming space. It was a great example of creative re-use. It was very instructive to see what they’re doing at ideastream.

We then left for the City Club, where I had maybe one of my very best luncheon sessions. The City Club has brought in illustrious speakers over the years, from presidents on down. I guess I was part of the “on down.” We had a lunch, I gave some remarks about creative placemaking, Our Town, and ArtPlace, and then we had a Q&A afterwards that was again very stimulating. People in the arts are very committed there.

Next we went on to the Beachland Ballroom in the Collinwood neighborhood. Now, if Playhouse Square was kind of the apotheosis of creative placemaking, and the Cleveland Public Theatre is, on a neighborhood level, revitalizing a troubled neighborhood, Collinwood is an aspiring transformation story that still has to take effect. They want to use the arts to transform their neighborhood, but there are severe challenges there. The Beachland Ballroom for example, which is run by Cindy Barber, is living hand to mouth. It’s a former Croatian social club that’s been converted into a music club, and has a tremendous reputation across the city, and is known across the country. They produce some great local music there, but right now, they’re struggling. We met with the city councilman whose district that is, Michael Polensek, who gave us an overview and introduction into what is happening there. It was instructive to see an arts district at a much more incipient stage. But it has the bones of a great arts district. There’s beautiful housing stock there, and it’s a cohesive neighborhood. Essentially, I was at arts districts in all different stages of their development while I was in Cleveland, which was really neat to see.

We walked around what’s called the Waterloo Arts District, which has Arts Collinwood at one end and the Beachland Ballroom at the other. Arts-related businesses are springing up there, and I think there is some great potential for real development. 

After that, we went off to the Rainey Institute, which is an after-school arts program, and a very exciting one at that. We were hosted there by Lee Lazar, who’s the executive director of the Institute, and is completely passionate about the kids, and completely passionate about arts education. The Rainey Institute has been in existence for over 100 years. It moved from their old location to this brand-spanking new, very welcoming building, which is full of light and art and aesthetics, new building, which they’re very proud of. We had a tour by a 15-year-old student, Jameelah Rahman, who was completely winning and engaging. You could just feel her visceral excitement about being where she was. She brought us to the theater spaces, and the art spaces, and the work spaces. It’s really great to see how kids love to come there after school, and love to engage in the arts. This was an example about how art is a real force for social cohesion in a community, and how it brings people together.

From there, we went to the Cleveland Institute of Art, which is now run by a guy I’ve known for many years, Grafton Nunes. Grafton was teaching art at Columbia University when I was in New York City, and he’s had a number of interesting jobs over his career.

The Cleveland Institute of Art is in a district where there are a lot of important hospitals and research institutes. But it’s also a significant arts district. The Cleveland Institute of Art itself is in an old Model T factory, which they put skylights in. But you can see the long, long length of the factory. Grafton was saying that what artists need is time and space to be able to do their work, so the Institute has spaces where artists create. So they provide their students with that time and space so they can do their best work and develop their own aspirations as artists. It was great to be there, we had a reception afterward where I got to meet a lot of the people there who engaged in the arts in Cleveland.

From there we went off to Willoughby. We met Linda Wise, who runs the Lake Fine Arts Association, which is a wonderful, multi-disciplinary arts facility. Again, it is very integrated into the community, and essential to the community. They’ve had a number of capital projects there that have been successful, and it’s another great example of how arts and communities intersect and nurture each other. She gave us a tour of the whole facility---upstairs and down, the theater, front and back---and it was great to be exposed to that. It was a great way to end what had really been a very community-oriented, enlightening visit to Ohio.

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