In Plain Sight: Exploring the Cleveland Art Market at 78th Street Studios

Fading toward the point where it dead-ends at a railroad embankment just south of the Shoreway, West 78th Street doesn’t seem very special, at least not at first. An Episcopal church rests behind a white picket fence; a little farther along there’s a short  strip of weathered brick factories. The area is becoming known by the trendy name “Battery Park” because of its proximity to the old Eveready plant, but you need Google Earth to see the anything resembling a park.

So forget the park and head into the West 78th Street Studios, housed in that clump of two and three story factory  buildings just to your left. You won’t be alone. Thousands of art lovers and curiosity seekers have “discovered” the place over and over again, making it one of the best attended arts venues in the region. Among the in-house destinations  offered are several of Cleveland’s most serious art dealers, plus the ninety seat theater “Blank Canvas” (whose recent  production of “Texas Chainsaw Musical” was a hoot and a half) and a range of other art-related venues and events, like  the annual “Bizarre Bazaar.”

Several acres of rough-looking parking lot stretch to the north and west just past the last structure on West 78th,  accessing a general entrance. Most days the place is on the quiet side, though there’s always a moderate amount of traffic  beneath the windows of a long, low structure near West 80th Street where some twenty artists rent studios from  proprietor Dan Bush. This kind of thing is commonplace in Cleveland: buildings overflowing with artists can be found all over town, from long-time artsy Larchmere and Murray Hill neighborhoods on the East side to the Screw Factory in Lakewood, or interspersed with other small businesses in rehabbed midtown buildings along Superior and Perkins  Avenues.

But on West 78th Street the studio activity is just the tip of a hard-to-grasp, difficult to describe arts combo—a big chunk of artworld experience floating in unlikely seas; an “arts-berg” if you will. Toward nightfall of every third Friday of each month the place begins to look like the scene of a flash mob, or a really big party. More than a thousand visitors pour  past a mammoth food truck parked to one side of the entrance, hungry for the mix of art, snacks, drama, and sheer surprise that the place seems to have on tap. Judging from the crowd, if the proprietors here could bottle the mix they could sell it almost anywhere; and after about 6:45PM there’s absolutely nowhere to park. The usual would-be hipsters are there, of course, but then so it seems is everybody else—young and old, academic, self taught, untaught. Most aren’t likely to spend thousands or even hundreds of dollars, but several Studios businesses report a big increase in all kinds of fine art sales compared to other locations and approaches they’ve tried. So something appears to be really working  here. Just maybe these are the stirrings of a new regional art market.

At the elegant Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery on the second floor of the complex’s central structure, for instance, things  have never been better. It’s a family business which for many years made its money on the road, selling regional  paintings and Italian glass to clients around the country, especially in New York. They also hit 22 art fairs a year between Chicago and Miami, but by 2001 the time had come to grab a prime spot in Bush’s building, and centralize their  operation. Soon they were joined by Bill Scheele’s Kokoon Arts Gallery, specializing in classic Cleveland School works mixed with highlights from the contemporary scene, and eventually Hilary and John Aurand’s Legation Gallery, which also showcases the northern Ohio scene. The Leskos themselves have changed their focus and currently represent some of the region’s best up and coming talent. Brecksville entrepreneur Dan Bush, who bought the place in an inspired or  insane moment toward the middle of 2001, deserves most of the credit for its ongoing success. If the place isn’t exactly a  “berg,” it’s not a ship either. Nevertheless, Bush is unmistakably its captain, as well as navigator and chief engineer,  plugging holes and peering through Cleveland’s economic fogs. Following a 1959 renovation the complex (originally  built in 1899 for the Baker Electric Motor Vehicle Company) housed American Greetings’ Creative Studios for a couple of  decades. By the time Bush walked in the door it was something of a handyman’s special, but fortunately Bush was that  guy, combining carpentry and construction expertise with more executive talents—and, crucially, a background in the  theater arts (he studied at Miami University’s extension in Luxembourg). He quickly began to evolve a vision of what his  new, century-old rambling half-block could become.

There were several local models for an arts mixed usage plan, ranging from the Murray Hill School in Little Italy, to Loftworks on East 40th, and real estate entrepreneur Bruce Madorsky’s flagship Artcraft Building at 25th and Superior Avenue (Madorsky’s Roy Group was also West 78th’s previous owner). And Bush soon had an interesting bunch of  businesses to work with. Early tenants included arts auctioneer Rachel Davis, longtime rock publication Alternative  Press, and Marty Geramita’s 1300 Gallery, which featured shows and parties often built around the work of Cleveland  artist Derek Hess. It didn’t hurt that during that initial phase Jakprints also operated at the far end of 1300’s space,  catering to artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs.

Most of that area, which is still the first business that visitors are likely to see located right on West 78th Street itself, has  been retooled as the stylish Tregoning and Co. Gallery. Like Bill Scheele and the Leskos, Bill Tregoning, whose earlier,  much smaller gallery was in Chagrin Falls, often trades in the works of Cleveland School Artists. For that matter, Dan  Bush collects those paintings and prints and sculptures, and it’s tempting to see the names from Cleveland’s golden midcentury age—Paul Travis, William Sommer, Carl Gaertner, Viktor Schreckengost, and a dozen others – as links in a  chain connecting the Studios’ diverse present-day interests and clients. Something makes it all cohere—the festivals, the gravitas of formal gallery settings, the search through the complex’s uneven interior domain. Maybe that’s it—a hidden  sense of the continuity of passions and beauty leading from one Cleveland generation to the next, always right under  your nose.

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