Looking Forward: The Art History of Cleveland’s Future

As noted in a previous issue of CAN, ARTneo—which could colloquially be described as the Museum of Northeast Ohio art—has recently been through significant changes in its staff, board, and even its location. At its 2015 benefit, the organization recognized the contributions of scholar, curator, and professor Henry Adams, who has written extensively on American art, including  art of Northeast Ohio, for multiple publications, including catalogs for ARTneo. This essay is based on his comments written for the occasion.

— Editor

We sometimes forget that in the period from about 1910 to 1940, Cleveland was one of the greatest centers of art-making in the United States, not only in painting but in fields such as illustration, poster-making, photography, fashion, and industrial design. And during a time when Cleveland is working to define itself for the future, ARTneo has done more than any other organization to bring this history back to life.

For the last thirty years, ARTneo has produced an impressive number of exhibitions—and of equal significance, a truly groundbreaking series of scholarly catalogues, documenting the work of artists such as Henry Keller, Paul Travis, Auguste Biehle, Carl Gaertner, Abe Warshawsky, Paul Travis, Frank Wilcox, Viktor Schreckengost, Edris Eckhart, Julian Stanczak, and many others.   Written by top-notch art historians such as Karal Ann Marling, Rotraud Sackerlosky, Bill Robinson, Christine Shearer, Larry Waldman, Marianne Berardi, and many others, these catalogues are worthy of a major art museum.  Indeed, it’s hard to think of an arts organization of similar size in the United States that has done so much to produce significant scholarship and present it in lasting form.

Frank Wilcox, "Shipping, Dordrecht, 1914," pencil and watercolor on paper. Gift of Henry Adams to ARTneo, in honor of Joan Brickley.

Frank Wilcox, “Shipping, Dordrecht, 1914,” pencil and watercolor on paper. Gift of Henry Adams to ARTneo, in honor of Joan Brickley.

Right now it’s clear that Art Neo is on the upswing, due to the inspired leadership of its forward-looking executive director, John Farina, and of its impressively hard-working curator, Christopher Richards, and new members of its Board.  I applaud them all.   At the same time this is clearly a critical moment in the history of the organization, both in terms of its mission and its survival.  As I see it, there are at least two central issues that need to be addressed.

The first is whether the organization will embrace only historical art, or whether it will begin to embrace living artists as well.  If I may venture a personal opinion, I hope it will do both.  If it neglects history, I think it will become like a ship without ballast.  If it neglects the living artists of Cleveland, I think it’s missing an opportunity to play a vital role in the living art scene.  This is particularly true since the Cleveland Museum of Art seems to have no interest in reviving the May Show and has pretty much turned its back on the artists of its home city.  I think that’s too bad– even a tragedy for this city–but it provides an opportunity for other organizations to pick up the slack.  To do so will also bring to ARTneo the energy of the present, which every organization absolutely needs.

And this leads into the second issue:  the one that’s most critical.  Can ARTneo survive in the long term?  The fact is that this is still a relatively fragile organization, which still does not have a permanent home, or a significant endowment, and that can’t afford to make many mistakes.  If it’s going to flourish into the future, it needs a permanent home, it needs more funding, and it needs donors who will build its already significant collection into something extraordinary.  I don’t have an answer to this, but it’s clear to me that Art Neo can’t survive entirely on its own.  It needs to start forging alliances with other organizations to reach the critical mass where it can survive and have major impact.  This is a good time to look carefully at new alliances, whether with the Reinberger Gallery of the Cleveland Institute of Art or the Graduate Program in Art History at Case Western Reserve, or some other organization.

I’m particularly struck that the Cleveland Institute of Art, under its amazingly gifted new President, Grafton Nunes, seems to be finally paying attention to its extraordinary history, going back to its founding years when one of its first graduates was Clara Driscoll, who designed lamps for Louis C. Tiffany—one of the greatest achievements of American art in any medium.  Grafton, I might note, has a background in Hollywood film-making, and has a wonderful ability to deal with difficult, eccentric, highly creative people and to get them to produce something remarkable on time and on budget.

There must be a way that alliances can be formed between ARTneo, The Cleveland Institute of Art, and perhaps other arts organizations that are interested in exploring and supporting Cleveland Art—both that of the past and that of the living present.  I know that John Farina has already started some conversations along these lines.  In other words, working together, we can accomplish a lot more than if we break into factions and splinter groups.  We need to form new partnerships and new alliances.  And while there’s definitely a place for disagreement and argument, we should stage arguments that end up with forward action.

I don’t wish to bore you with a long list of names, but I think it’s clear that an evening such as this doesn’t honor a single person, but pays tribute to a battalion of gifted individuals who have built and supported this organization and made it what it is today.  What I’d like to suggest is that together we can play a vital role in bringing art-life to this city even more energetically than in the past—both delving into the rich history of Cleveland art of the past, and actively supporting that of living artists.  Cleveland deserves another Renaissance and we can start making that happen right now and right here.