HERDING CATS: Four artist-organizers discuss the hows and whys
Artists build careers by their individualism. They function on their own clocks, and get attention with original ideas. That means the people who organize them have a tough job. They not only take time away from their own art, but also to tiptoe around opinions and hover above chaos. And they’re almost always volunteers. Nonetheless, Cleveland has plenty of artists working to organize their colleagues at the grass roots level. We interviewed four to ask how they did it, and why.
William Martin Jean
William Martin Jean remembers a long arc of the Cleveland art scene, back to a time when the Cleveland Museum of Art, Beck Center, the JCC, and others offered big, juried shows and competitions. But there were far fewer galleries then, and therefore fewer opportunities for individual artists to show their work. And then gradually those shows went away.
“With the demise of the big shows, I think we understood that if you want anything done, you’ve got to do it yourself,” he says. It was 1997, and Jean had recently moved his studio to the Heller Building on Superior with a handful of other artists, including Mindy Tousley, Susan Squires, and Ruth Bercaw. “I said, it’s easier to get PR if several of us who have studios are open together.” So with support from the Ohio Arts Council, they launched City Artists At Work. They learned from experience with the New Organization for the Visual Arts (NOVA), where Jean served on the Board.
“NOVA’s open studio days were so extensive, from Lorain County all the way to Painesville. Artists would say they had a terrible day because the crowd was so diluted, it seemed no one showed up,” Jean says. So CAAW made two defining choices: one was to focus on a few blocks of the near-East side, where several buildings full of artist studios are clustered close enough to make the neighborhood a destination.
The other choice was to emphasize education, by offering in-studio demonstrations. “The more people know about art, the more engaged they become,” he says.
In recent years CAAW has found new outlets, curating bi-monthly exhibits for the gallery across the street at the Plain Dealer. Last year it presented its first group show of members’ works, at Convivium 33. In addition to the exhibiting opportunities, Jean finds other rewards of City Artists At Work. “For years, I worked in my basement,” he says. “I like the idea of working where other people are working. If we need to work, we have doors we can close.”
Two days before the Screw Factory Artists annual November Open Studio event, organizer Gina DeSantis is painting glaze on items for the sale, and drinking red wine fittingly labeled “Herding Cats.” The ceramicist opened her Screw Factory studio in 2009, six months after Kristen Cliffel and Phyllis Fanin worked with the City of Lakewood to organize the first artists open studio event there. At the time, just a handful of artists rented space in the building. DeSantis became the organizer shortly after moving in when, as she says, she “opened [her] big mouth: ‘Hey guys, we should have
an open studio.’
“One reason I started to do this is that as a potter you schlep your work from show to show, and it’s a whole lot of work to move all this pottery, and most of the people who come out to art fairs have come just for something to do.”
In short, the effort exceeded the reward.
She says the other artists in the building were on board with the open studio idea from the beginning, but no one wanted to take charge. So she wrote a press release, collected ten dollars from the participating artists, and made a post card.
These days its a much more demanding project, with more artists, visits from the health inspector, contact with the media, press releases, making sure all the names are on the card and spelled right, making signs, and just answering questions. “It take time. It’s free time. I don’t get any income from booth fees or anything. I think that’s why it’s successful. If you do it for profit, that’s the wrong reason,” she says.
If there’s any money left after an open studio event, DeSantis passes it on to her fellow organizer and Screw Factory resident, Kathy Patton—who coordinates the annual “Last Minute Market” there (10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Dec. 15 at 13000 Athens Ave., Lakewood). Patton launched the annual December sale in 2009 when her friends on the Etsy team Cleveland Handmade wanted to get together and have a party. They also ended up bringing work to buy and sell.
“The sale was an afterthought,” Patton says. But the idea took hold, and this year—with 100 artists and 4,000 shoppers expected—it has become a big deal.
Patton has the same kinds of tasks as DeSantis, but with the added complication that most of her participating artists are not tenants in the building—including some who come from other cities and states. She has to carry an insurance policy, for example. She spends about 80 percent of her time answering e-mail, and jokes that she and DeSantis are going to compile a book of interesting e-mails from artists with questions about the shows.
“Once I got an e-mail asking “Who’s going to replace you?” Not that she has any plans to retire.
Cleveland West Art League founder Mona Gazala fell out of touch with the art scene when single motherhood demanded all her time and energy. When she was able to make and show art again, she found it a challenge to get back into the scene. So, inspired by the openness she saw during visits to Columbus , she decided to start something new.
“ … It just seemed as if Columbus’s community had more of a sense of inclusiveness: open calls for art, people advertising artist opportunities on social media, organizations whose goals were to help artist members interact and develop as exhibiting artists.” As she saw it, Cleveland’s scene was more insular, with opportunities and invitations being passed on to friends, or well-known artists. So, with that motivation and 5 years of nonprofit experience at Spaces in her background, she launched Cleveland West Art League in the Summer of 2010.
At first, it was a sidewalk mural painting project for the Ingenuity festival. A few months later she mustered a volunteer board, developed a mission statement, applied for non-profit incorporation, and joined the waiting list at 78th Street Studios. She says the key was to start small and sustainable.
CWAL is a membership organization, open to anyone, with dues helping to pay the rent. It’s an all-volunteer effort for now, but she hopes it can eventually hire a paid director and expand its space to offer classes.
Gazala admits that CWAL takes time away from her own work, but says being able to work with a lot of people, and creating her own launching pad has made the effort worthwhile. “Single motherhood was all-encompassing for a long period of time, and I really lost all connection to what was happening in the art scene for a while. Having a group to join and in which to participate was the springboard and encouragement that I needed. I give a lot of credit to the German
Village Art League (in Columbus) for being my first re-contact with the art world in 2009. I guess Cleveland West Art League is my way of paying it forward.”