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By Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer | December 25, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Northeast Ohio is blessed with terrific visual arts institutions whose collective heft is greater than one would expect for an urban region of its size.
The question is whether the world knows or cares. Next year may provide the answer. Cleveland is getting ready to command attention in a big way with the FRONT International Cleveland Triennial.
Conceived by cultural entrepreneur and retired advertising executive Fred Bidwell, FRONT will be a sweeping, summer-long, multi-venue exhibit designed to show off the region's riches and to lure global art scribes, tourists and collectors.
In many ways, 2017 has been a prelude to FRONT and the excitement it could unleash.
Here's a brief look at the shows and events that gave the past year the feel of a build-up:
Cleveland Museum of Art
Ohio's biggest art museum settled any doubts about long-term leadership by re-upping the contract of its ebullient, energetic Director, William Griswold, through 2024.
After mounting outstanding exhibits including a show on Alex Katz's paintings in the 1950s, and "Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s," the museum followed up in the fall with a new strategic plan stating that the institution aims to increase attendance to 1 million annually, and to increase its endowment to $1.25 billion within a decade.
The museum also demonstrated adroit diplomacy in the politically fraught area of collecting antiquities.
It announced in April that it returned to Italy a Roman marble head of Drusus Minor after learning that the work, bought by the museum in 2012 when David Franklin was director, apparently had been stolen in 1944 from a provincial museum near Naples.
Losing the Drusus was "disappointing, even devastating," Griswold said, although he made it clear it was the right thing to do.
But in 2017 the museum also received tremendous benefits from its decision in 2015, made under Griswold, to return to Cambodia a revered statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman that it learned had also been looted before its purchase in the 1980s.
The museum's proactive approach to the Hanuman issue resulted in Cambodia's decision to lend it a spectacular relief sculpture of carved stone blocks that once formed part of the temple wall at the Banteay Chhmar temple.
The museum also embarked on the reconstruction of its famed Cambodian statue of the Hindu god Krishna with additional fragments sent to Cleveland by Cambodia in gratitude for the return of the Hanuman.
The Cleveland Foundation set an upbeat global tone 2017 with its Creative Fusion cultural exchange, which focused on Cuba.
The foundation organized a five-day trip for Clevelanders involved in art, dance, photography and architecture to interact with peers in Havana and Matanzas.
Ensuing residencies supported by the foundation included a student project involving Kent State University's Urban Design Collaborative to redesign a former daycare center in Glenville as part of the new Glenville Arts Campus.
The Glenville campus will also play a big role in FRONT. It includes the remodeled 1962 medical office building at 1464 E. 105th Street, renamed in honor of its designer, Robert P. Madison, Ohio's first black architect. The building will host artists' residencies in the months leading up to and during FRONT this year and next.
The Cleveland Foundation's Cuba initiative also resulted in an outstanding exhibition on contemporary Cuban art at the Cleveland Institute of Art this fall.
More on FRONT
During 2017, Bidwell and FRONT announced the names of 57 national and international artists who will participate in the exhibit, scheduled from July 14 through Sept. 30. The show also announced local participating artists.
CAN, the Collective Arts Network, announced it would organize a companion local exhibition to coincide with FRONT that will take over a good deal of space in the West 78th Street Studios.
Bidwell and FRONT also announced late November that Jens Hoffmann, the artistic co-director of the exhibition with Chicago artist Michelle Grabner, left the project.
His exit came just a week before the Jewish Museum in New York, where Hoffmann served as director of special exhibitions and public programs, said he had been suspended after museum staff raised allegations against the curator. (Hoffmann was terminated by the Jewish Museum on Monday, Dec. 18, ARTnews reported).
It was unclear whether Hoffmann jumped or was pushed from FRONT, but stories surrounding his departure provided the show with its first sustained burst of national media attention.
FRONT collaborating institutions will include the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, the Akron Art Museum, Transformer Station, Spaces, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
All turned in solid performances in 2017.
The Allen marked its 100th anniversary with twin exhibitions by contemporary artist Fred Wilson that ran through the first half of the year, followed by its current salute to the contributions of collector and Oberlin College professor Ellen Johnson.
The Akron Art Museum pulled in the biggest donation in its history, an $8 million grant from the Knight Foundation. It also staged impressive shows including one on the hyper-real and surreal illustrations from the Bay Area magazine, Hi Fructose.
MOCA Cleveland held an excellent early career retrospective on the art of Adam Pendleton, announced two years' worth of upcoming exhibitions organized primarily by Senior Curator Andria Hickey including the current "Poethical Wager."
Transformer Station gallery in Ohio City, a brainchild of Fred Bidwell and his wife, photographer Laura Bidwell, captured attention with excellent shows including an outstanding exhibition organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art on abstractions by Scott Olson and Jerry Birchfield that closed Saturday.
Spaces settled into its new home at 2900 Detroit Ave. in the renovated Van Rooy Building, purchased by the Bidwells in 2015.
Strong exhibitions there included the powerful "On Exile" video essay by Jose Carlos Teixeira, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Cleveland refugees from Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Iraq.
In addition to exhibitions and news relating to the liftoff for FRONT, 2017 was a year of transitions.
Albert Albano, director of ICA Art Conservation in Cleveland since 1996, retired after 21 years at the helm of the leading Midwest art conservation lab, and after helping it win a prestigious, $500,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant.
His successor, Julie Reilly, a veteran conservator and executive director of Omaha by Design, a nonprofit that promotes excellence in urban design and policy, was named in August.
2017 was also marked by the deaths of Cleveland Op Art abstractionists Julian Stanczak and Ed Mieczkowski, of artist, critic and Cleveland Institute of Art lecturer Dan Tranberg, and of Frances "Franny" Taft, a longtime and revered art history professor at the art institute.
All four had a huge impact in developing a visual arts scene in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio that continues to grow, and which should have a very big year in 2018.
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