Changing of the Guardians: new leadership at ARTneo, Artists Archives, and the Cleveland Arts Prize




Three Cleveland nonprofit organizations are mission-driven to recognize, preserve, and collect the art of Northeast Ohio. They are not the city’s biggest institutions, but three relatively small ones, with staffs of one or two people: ARTneo, the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. They are completely separate organizations, but taken together, their work is to build our cultural record as a resource for the future. It’s not reaching to call them guardians of Northeast Ohio’s visual heritage.


Helen Weinberg, pop portrait by Phyllis Sloane, from the collection of Art Neo. Sloane is just one example of an artist whose work is represented in the collections of both ARTneo and Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, and whose work is also recognized with the Cleveland Arts Prize.

Helen Weinberg, pop portrait by Phyllis Sloane, from the collection of Art Neo. Sloane is just one example of an artist whose work is represented in the collections of both ARTneo and Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, and whose work is also recognized with the Cleveland Arts Prize.

All three of these organizations have in common the challenge of how to make their historic work come alive. In an art scene driven by exhibit openings, by artists showing new work formed of new ideas, the task of relating the past to the present is as important as it is huge. All three have been through significant change in recent years, including financial challenges. To wit, while they have received project support from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, none of the three received operating support in CAC’s most recent round of grants. But at the end of 2014, all three of these organizations announced the appointment of new executive directors. John Farina has taken the helm of ARTneo. Mindy Tousley now leads Artists Archives of the Western Reserve. And Alenka Banco has become director of the Cleveland Arts Prize.


The coincidence of these new beginnings could mean great things for the awareness of Cleveland art history. All three of these new directors have taken up the challenge of connecting history to the 21st century, via technology as well as in the in-person, old-fashioned way.



The most visible manifestation is ARTneo’s move from Beck Center in Lakewood to space in 78th Street Studios, in Cleveland. It’s just a few miles’ difference on the West side, but the move from suburb to city is huge: more than symbolic value, being at 78th street studios enables new director John Farina to access a monthly, built-in audience of thousands at the Third Friday events. ARTneo is building new gallery, office, and storage space there to present their shows to the crowds.


The move will also impact their exhibition schedule, as well as the nature of the shows they present. Farina says the smaller gallery will enable curator Christopher Richards to create more shows—six per year, instead of three–and to explore facets of its collection in ways that they couldn’t in the large exhibit space at Beck Center.


“Our collection has been so ‘under seen’ … we have more than 2500 objects. There is no reason we couldn’t focus on particular artist or style to do something focused and interesting.”


Already, the ARTneo collection is accessible in an online catalog, alphabetized with information about each work. Farina says the effort to expose Cleveland art history to new audiences –and raise revenue–could even include merchandising some pieces in the collection. Could pop portraits by Phyllis Sloane appear on T-shirts? Perhaps.


John Farina, executive director, ARTneo. Photographed by Bryon Miller.

John Farina, executive director, ARTneo. Photographed by Bryon Miller.

He sees opportunities for collaboration in the future, including exhibits in other venues—possibly the galleries at Cleveland State University, which are directed by ARTneo trustee Robert Thurmer. “They are dark in the summer. If we presented exhibits there in the summer it would help Robert by keeping the gallery space active year-round. That puts us downtown, which gives ARTneo great exposure, and of course the partnership with CSU is good for both of us. ”


ARTneo’s evolution extends beyond its director and venue, into its board and its mission. Longtime trustee and driving force Nina Gibans stepped down, for example, and others are broadening the organization’s scope. And while money was tight in recent years–which meant the organization had to take a break from acquiring art–That could change.


“Our initial mission is to collect from a certain time period, from the Cleveland School, 1900-1950. Then new folks like myself and Jon Logan and Betsi Morris believe there are a lot of artists we need to thin about who are outside the core Cleveland School.” He names several Cleveland artists active in the late 20th century, some of which are still exhibiting.


“Our collections committee is now chaired by Bill Busta, and with Christopher Richards here as our curator . . . with that knowledge of the contemporary and historic community, that will help us build our collection.”



Artists Archives of the Western Reserve

Mindy Tousley joined the board at Artists Archives of the Western Reserve in 2013, and at her first meeting was asked to tell her colleagues what she thought of the archives. She says she laughed as she made several criticisms, and at the end of her list they asked her if she wanted to be executive director. They were kidding at that point, but a year later, she was officially appointed to the post.

Mindy Tousley, executive director, Artists Archives of the Western Reserve. Photo by Keith Berr.

Mindy Tousley, executive director, Artists Archives of the Western Reserve. Photo by Keith Berr.


“I think part of the reason the Archive was formed is that the (Cleveland) Museum doesn’t really collect art of the region,” and with the passage of time, it becomes difficult to find., Tousley says. “This is an organization started by artists, not art historians. You produce a lot of work in your lifetime. What happens to it when you die? Relatives may not know how valuable it is. A lot of times it ends up on the curb.”


Artists interested in having a collection of their work preserved at AAWR apply for inclusion, and must pass peer review, including showing an exhibition history. Either by scholarship, fund raising, or simply paying, those that are accepted help defray the cost of maintaining the archive. In return, they become part of the raw material of culture, preserved for future generations of art historians.


Last fall, the publication of a book–The Archives Speaks—was a significant milestone, six years in the making. Rotraud Sackerlotzky and Roger Welchans served as editors. It collects color images and personal essays from 62 archived artists, some of which are well known, others not so much. Most worked in the late 20th century, and are still living.


In recent years, $50,000 in capital improvements have included a new HVAC system for climate control of the archive itself, as well as cleaning and inventorying work from the artists’ bins. But Tousley has taken charge of the organization at a time when AAWR is ready to look beyond physical preservation. An Ohio Arts Council grant enabled the purchase of Past Perfect, a software package for inventorying historic collections of art and other objects. When the project is complete—and Tousley predicts that will happen before this issue of CAN is released–the entire collection of works by 64 archived artists will be available to the public online via the AAWR website.


For now, Tousley’s attention is focused on exhibits and relationships. Because she chaired the board’s exhibition committee before becoming executive director, some of her work has already come to fruition: She organized last fall’s juried exhibit at the Tri-C East gallery, The New Now. She sees that juried regional exhibits (like the Cleveland Museum of Art’s former May Show) help build a pedigree for artists and their works. One hundred sixteen artists from the region submitted work to be part of The New Now. Akron Art Museum chief curator Janice Dreisbach chose 69 for inclusion.


Several recent shows have aimed to connect the past with the present by grouping deceased artists from the Archives’ collection with surviving friends, family, or associates. The Three Amigos, for example, paired the late Ron Joranko with Loren Naji and Ron Johnston. Another show, Pearls of Cleveland, paired the late watercolorist Moses Pearl with works of his artistically inclined children.


Tousley invited archived artist Judy Takacs to curate an exhibit of women artists from the Archives—the result being Majority Rising, which opens March 12. In addition to works of archived, figurative artists Kathleen McKenna, Lee Heinen, Marilyn Szalay, Marsha Sweet, and Shirley Alley Campbell, the show will have Takacs’ own portraits of those artists.


Tousley sees the coincidence of new beginnings at AAWR and other organizations in the context of the energy of the city and its art scene. “There could be more collaborative things happening between the organizations. I don’t like the idea of the organizations compete with each other. I think there’s some kind of zeitgeist going on in Cleveland now. Like the city is on the brink of positive change.”



Cleveland Arts Prize

Founded in 1960, the Cleveland Arts Prize is the oldest of the three organizations. In fact, new director Alenka Banco says it’s the oldest prize of its kind in the US. If bringing art history to life is a challenge, that is heightened for CAP by the fact that the organization doesn’t have a collection of objects, or a regular exhibition schedule. Each year, apart from the February nomination period, the organization has just one public event—the awards ceremony.


Alenka Banco, executive director, Cleveland Arts Prize. Photo by Mike Levy.

Alenka Banco, executive director, Cleveland Arts Prize. Photo by Mike Levy.

“We want to respect the organization and its history, but be more relevant and appeal to the next generation of artists and art leaders,” Banco says. We want to reintroduce our past winters and keep them engaged. Every year we celebrate the next group, but our biggest asset is our past winners.”


Banco was interim director of the organization for a little more than a year, since her predecessor Marci Bergman stepped down. Prior to that, Banco was a board member since 2007. So she’s well familiar with the organization’s need to evolve.


Even her time as interim director was busy. She contracted the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs to help restructure and rebuild a board. During that time, she developed a written handbook for the CAP jury to follow. The prize had never developed written guidelines before.


What the future holds is still under development, as the organization enters a strategic planning period. But some ideas have surfaced: Banco is establishing a committee to serve as a voice for all past winners. “We are asking them what they think, to engage them.”


One outcome of that is likely to be creating more activities with past members and promoting their ongoing work.


“We are working on grants to reintroduce winners,” Banco says. The organization has commissioned biographies of winners all along, and has produced videos of winners, and will continue to do that. All of them are accessible on the CAP website. But she says the organization wants to be more of an asset to past prize winners, and to develop a broader audience for them.


“We have a strong support system, but we need to strengthen our voice to people who haven’t heard about us.”


That could include an exhibition of some kind. CAP has presented at least one exhibition, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2009. Banco says there may have been a previous exhibition, but that the 50th anniversary show was the first that included all the disciplines. CAP recognizes not only visual artists, but also writers, dancers, composers, and theater artists.


“What were doing is key because a lot of our past winners are still very active,” Banco says. “Our biggest asset is our past winners.”