Mysteries Revealed: Inside the Cleveland Arts Prize
The process unfolded dramatically, mostly via email but with important scenes taking place among the gritty realities of Collinwood and other crusty Cleveland locales. It was like the plot of an early Russo brothers movie–except that our gang had good intentions.
Before the work began, we were sworn to secrecy via PDF file. Later we assembled in propria persona at odd venues around town, some of us meeting as a smaller group in the back of a storefront, and then together with most of our 22 fellows as a “Jury of the Whole” on the third floor of a mysterious former factory. Maybe not that mysterious: it was the Cleveland Institute of Art’s McCullough building, on Euclid Avenue.
In the end our plan succeeded. We gave away money–lots of money–bestowing along with it some overdue recognition. Maybe people should do this more often.
The Cleveland Art Prize has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, keeping pace with the burgeoning local art scene. Most of the last decade has been the best of times for all concerned, as old and brand new players made high-profile moves. The Cleveland Museum of Art and MOCA built new buildings. Neighborhoods from Waterloo to Gordon Square blossomed with galleries and their attendant crowds. And of course it all got a boost in 2006, in the form of public funding from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture– a testimony to the arts’ importance in the community, delivered in dollars-and-sense language that everyone understands.
Riding high on this wave, the Cleveland Arts Prize also gradually redefined its vision of what the organization and its honor could do, both to recognize artists and to further the expansion of the arts in the city. Fund-raising efforts were redoubled, the endowment grew, and with that came new ideas and ambitions. Year by year, CAP was gradually reborn.
It’s come a long way. The Cleveland Arts Prize was founded in 1960 as a function of the Women’s City Club. Cleveland arts advocate and administrator Martha Joseph (who was also founder of the Cleveland International Piano Competition) headed the organization from its inception, and kept things running for thirty years. For most of its history, CAP had a steady, but fairly quiet presence in the city. It began to move into the spotlight only after the new century began. Under the leadership of Diana Tittle (author, publisher, magazine editor and significant other to the Cleveland Museum of Art curator Tom Hinson) the Prize codified its selection criteria and achieved not-for-profit status. Then, when Marcie Bergman took over as Executive Director in 2006 everything at CAP began to supersize.
The Visual Arts jury that I served is one of five that ultimately came together to award a total of five awards–at $10,000 each. The other categories were Literature, Music, Design, and (new this year) Theater and Dance. There were 47 candidates for Visual Arts alone. Our job was to sort through a total of 133 nominees, identifying the strongest candidates for three cross-category, meta-awards: Emerging Artists, Mid-Career Artists, and Lifetime Achievement. The duty of the Jury of the Whole was to pick two artists representing each of these career stages, and one for Lifetime Achievement.
I’ve sat on a few panels and juries over the years, and I worried about this one. It’s never easy to pass judgment on other artists. In this case it was especially difficult, because I’ve written about so many people producing good work here in town. I don’t have a thumbs-up, thumbs-down attitude where artwork is concerned; the more I know about a given painting or sculpture, film, installation or performance, the less I’m inclined to “rank” it at all. Inevitably some of the artists under consideration were people I know quite well, and many were people I’ve admired for many years. So doing a thumbs-down felt pretty brutal for many reasons; I had to bear in mind that there are only five awards, even now. Then there’s the fact that next year will bring another round of opportunities.
On the plus side, I was very impressed with the process, with the expertise and fairness of my fellow jurors, and with the really dazzling display of our region’s art and talent. In the course of our sessions we managed to reach an agreement about our choices in the course of about six hours of lively, non-rancorous consideration and discussion.
No doubt another jury might have chosen different candidates. Often successful Cleveland Arts Prize picks have been nominated on numerous occasions in the past; hopefully that will be the case with the many superb artists who weren’t recognized with a prize this year. My advice to nominators would be to keep on trying. The likelihood is that even larger cash awards, and possibly more of them, will be available in the future. The real prestige of the award is also certain to increase as it becomes a more and more visible adjunct to high levels of achievement here in our remarkable, pockmarked old city.