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The Plain Dealer | Steve Litt | August 04, 2016
CLEVELAND, Ohio ? A new local nonprofit exhibition company announced on Thursday the formation of a free, global triennial exhibition of contemporary art in Cleveland designed to plant the city on the world's cultural map, attract visitors and boost the city's economy.
Entitled "FRONT International: Cleveland Exhibition for Contemporary Art," the $4.2 million show will debut from July through September 2018 at a dozen venues across the city and the region including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Spaces, the Transformer Station and the Sculpture Center.
Outdoor locations will also be part of the mix, and regional organizations such as the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin and the Akron Art Museum will also participate.
The goal is to blend cutting-edge work by more than 50 local, national and international artists and to establish Cleveland as a cultural capital endowed with visual arts institutions that get less attention than they deserve.
Arts collector and cultural entrepreneur Fred Bidwell, who will head the exhibit project as its unpaid CEO and executive director, said in an interview on Wednesday that FRONT is intended to brand the event and Cleveland as forward-leaning.
What's next after RNC?
FRONT exhibition establishedWhat: FRONT will be a citywide triennial art show based in Cleveland.
When: July 7 to Sept. 30, 2018.
Who: The project is headed by Fred Bidwell, acting as unpaid CEO.
Where: Participating institutions include the Akron Art Museum; the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College; the Cleveland Institute of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; LAND Studio; the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage; the Sculpture Center; Spaces; the Transformer Station; and Zygote Press.
The event is also intended to show how Cleveland can follow up after having hosted the Republican National Convention.
But he described the exhibition as a locally generated enterprise, not as an outside event recruited to the city.
"This is not a convention you buy," he said. "This is an event you create and build in the city, and it builds equity over time. We cannot live on a diet of political conventions ad infinitum. We cannot afford that. It's not sustainable. We need events we own, we create and build upon."
William Griswold, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, said Wednesday that the project "is incredibly exciting."
"The ambition is for this to be a festival of international stature," he said. "It promises to put contemporary art in Cleveland on a world stage."
An American City
The theme of the first FRONT exhibition will be "An American City," using Cleveland as an example of global economic, social and physical processes that are remaking cities around the world.
Artists will be selected for the project by Jens Hoffmann, deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York, and by Chicago artist Michelle Grabner, who co-curated the 2014 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Hoffmann and Grabner, working as co-artistic directors, will collaborate with an as-yet-to-be-named Cleveland curator, whose two-year position will be funded by a grant from the Gund Foundation, and who will be housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The Cleveland Foundation will devote its Creative Fusion program to the project in the fall of 2017, funding residencies by six international artists who will create projects or installations. The foundation's lead gift is also supporting the appointments of Hoffmann and Grabner.
Cleveland artists selected for the project "will be presented in the same way as the artists who might be household names in the international art world," not relegated to secondary visibility, Bidwell said.
Bidwell said the administrations of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and of County Executive Armond Budish are supportive, and are considering as-yet unspecified financial contributions.
Goals for impact
The exhibition has a goal of generating $35 million in direct economic impact in 2018 by attracting 50,000 visitors, 30 percent of whom are expected to come from out of town. Out-of-towners are expected to spend $1,176 per visit, and local visitors are expected to spend $500.
Bidwell said the projections are based on rigorous research by a study advisory board headed by Cleveland lawyer Helen Forbes-Fields, who has also been named chairman of the exhibition's board of trustees.
Forbes-Fields and Bidwell are both trustees of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The advisory group researched dozens of art fairs and festivals around the world. Their conclusion, Bidwell said, was that they didn't want to follow the example of chic, short-running, commercially driven art market fairs such as the Frieze New York art fair, Expo Chicago, Art Basel Miami and the Armory Show, also in New York.
"I'm not putting these down, because they've been wonderful at creating a market, but they are trade fairs," Bidwell said. "They are held in convention centers. Galleries come and set up booths, and their objective is to sell art. That's the economic model."
The goal for FRONT is to emulate rigorously curated, long-running citywide events such asDocumenta in Kassel, Germany, which attracts a million visitors every five years.
"The European model is driven by ideas," Bidwell said. "It's linked thematically, thoughtfully curated, hopefully most of the time, and it brings people together around ideas and issues and conversations that contemporary art can create in many different ways."
Bidwell said the advisory group concluded that the United States already has only one such art fair, Prospect, which emerged in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. He said the niche to be filled by FRONT is wide open in the United States.
He also said Cleveland is uniquely qualified to hold a global art exhibition because it has a regional collection of highly sophisticated arts venues eager to collaborate. He said that's not true of cities such as New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, or even Detroit or St. Louis.
"I believe the arts organizations [in those cities] would never collaborate to this sort of degree," Bidwell said.
The Cleveland project would overlap with and complement other regional events including the triennial International exhibition of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a two-week art competition held every fall, with winners determined by popular vote.
Cleveland hosts numerous cultural events and festivals, including the Cleveland International Film Festival, IngenuityFest, a celebration of art and technology, and Brite, an outdoor music and food event held in winter.
Bigger, longer, more impact
Bidwell said FRONT is intended to be bigger, to last longer and to spread viewers across the region.
Visitors would tour clusters of exhibitions and venues over a period of several days, staying in local hotels, experiencing neighborhoods and restaurants and other attractions, such as Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
A retired advertising executive, Bidwell in 2011 co-founded the nonprofit Transformer Station gallery in Ohio City with his wife, photographer Laura Bidwell.
As interim director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2013-14, Bidwell said he was struck both by the institution's excellence and its low national visibility, a function of Cleveland's location away from major media markets.
He combined that insight with his awareness of the city's strong visual arts scene, which also includes MOCA Cleveland and smaller nonprofit institutions such as Zygote Press, which will also participate in FRONT.
"We've got this amazing cultural legacy and a cultural renaissance that nobody knows about," he said.
Beyond sports, rock music and food
FRONT is a way to "reframe Cleveland as a city away from sports and rock 'n' roll and more toward the intellectual and cultural side, which I think it very much undervalued outside of Cleveland," he said.
"Cleveland is somewhat guilty of jumping on the food and sports and rock thing, which is great," he said. "But it's a one-dimensional story and not complete."
Lastly, he said, FRONT is conceived as an answer to local art enthusiasts who have clamored for years to have the Cleveland Museum of Art revive the May Show, the one-time annual local exhibit ended by the institution in the early 1990s after it had grown stale.
We're not going to do the May Show," Bidwell said. Speaking of FRONT, he said, "this is something we are going to do, and it's going to be so much more impactful."
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