CITIZEN MAUGANS: Zygote Press Executive Director Liz Maugans Moves On
In Cleveland’s visual art community, it would be hard to find someone who has etched a broader, deeper line than Zygote Press director Liz Maugans. By the print studio environment she created there, and by her spinoff projects and advocacy, Maugans and Zygote have built community to a degree that not many artists or other organizations could claim.
That is a bold thing to say, and it is particularly important to acknowledge that one of those projects became Collective Arts Network, and CAN Journal. But the evidence to support that high summation is far broader, and forthcoming.
But first, this news: more than 20 years after she helped found the organization, Maugans will soon step down from her role as Executive Director at Zygote Press.
“The shop is healthy, thriving, and established, and is in the loveliest of positions,” Maugans says. “All who know me understand that this is by no means a departure, but [the exciting] possibly of filling some gaps in the arts and culture sector that need filling.”
As her co-founder and longtime board president Bellamy Printz says, “We used to have this joke: If we are walking across the street together and get hit by a truck, what happens to Zygote?” But Printz says that has become less and less a concern as the now-stable nonprofit has built its organizational structure, membership, and relationships in the community. She also recently stepped away from her leadership role at Zygote. “Now there are people who will come to the shop regardless of whether either of us is there. It is not a bad thing for the organization to grow on its own after the founders step away.”
Besides that, Maugans has lately been drawn toward activism that doesn’t always fit under Zygote’s umbrella. At age 50, she’s looking for an outlet for that.
“She’s been an advocate not only for artists, but for arts and cultural organizations, and especially small to medium-sized ones,” said Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture director Tom Schorgl. “Cuyahoga County is blessed to have had an arts administrator who has also been such an activist.”
Ohio Arts Council Artist Programs / Percent for Art Director Ken Emerick says Maugans has made Zygote a model he references often while speaking with other arts organizations. “They’re firmly rooted in community, as well as nationally and internationally recognized by artists and arts professionals for their creative programming. Under Liz’s guidance, Zygote has provided resources, connections, and created a fertile environment for collaboration and experimentation.”
Zygote’s current board president Morena Carter says the organization will announce details and a timeline for its search for new leadership in the coming months. Maugans will stay on board until they’ve found the right person. They expect that to happen by the end of the year.
MOMENT OF CONCEPTION
In 1994 Maugans—just married to John Bando, and with a fresh MFA from Cranbrook–was working as a TA at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Joe Sroka was a student. Together they had an idea to build a place where artists could continue to make prints after graduation. Fine art presses for etchings, lithographs, monoprints, and letterpress are big, and heavy, and expensive, and in just about every way difficult for individual artists to manage, which means that after graduation printmakers often find themselves without their necessary tools to continue what they studied. Maugans and Sroka were both twins—the result of zygotes, biologically speaking. And twins, of course, are multiples, just like prints. So the name and organization were conceived.
In 1995 they rented space in the Buckeye Carbon Ribbon building—a former typewriter ribbon manufacturer–at East 72 and St Clair. Holly Morrison and some other CIA faculty had studios there. Maugans, her new husband John Bando, and Sroka all poured sweat equity into the place. In June of 1996 they got their first presses. A month later Bellamy Printz and Kelly Novak joined the effort. Printz had been the lab TA at CIA prior to Maugans, but they didn’t know each other. “I called her out of the blue because Holly Morrison called me and said Joe and Liz are opening this space,” Printz says. “My interest was the administrative part. Liz was a doer. She really hasn’t changed very much.
A couple months later they threw a party. Zygote Press was off and running.
At first none of the four founders was paid. Maugans is actually the organization’s second executive director, a role she took near the end of a tumultuous time. Printz recalls that it was all in the space of about two years that Zygote threw its first benefit party, went through strategic planning, lost a board president, got a grant to hire a managing director, the managing director resigned, Maugans was hired to replace him, and the organization decided it was time to move. In 2006, still new in her paid executive director role, Maugans and company found a new place at 1410 East 30th Street. Zygote’s budget, at that time, was about $60,000 a year.
“Her ability to bring people in and chat them up and tell them we’re having an opening and say ‘you should come’ . . . she is the ultimate matchmaker,” Printz says. “She gets people to sit at the table who might not otherwise connect.”
One way to look at Zygote’s impact is as a model for other cooperative studios. In the last 10 years, Cleveland has seen the rise of several, serving a range of interests with large, expensive machines. Often, Maugans has served as consultant, and mentor. In early 2012, she met with Shari Wilkins to talk about her found photo business.
“She mentioned that they were looking for an organization or person in Cleveland to take their darkroom equipment to put to use in the arts community,” Wilkins says. “The idea for the Cleveland Print Room (a community darkroom) was at Liz’s suggestion.” Subsequently, Wilkins says Maugans advice and contacts have been invaluable.
Other studios that have developed similar community access models include the Morgan Conservatory, Praxis Fiber Art Studio, and the ceramic studio, Brick.
Praxis founder Jessica Pinsky says having a functioning, cooperative studio already in place contributed to her organization’s success. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard, ‘Oh, so like a Zygote for Fiber?’ Yes!” she says. “Explanation complete.”
Meanwhile, several printmakers have used Zygote as a launching pad for commercial ventures. April Bleakney developed a line of Cleveland and Ohio-centric merchandise, Ape Made. A group of letterpress artists –Wendy Partridge, Jamye Jamison, and Elizabeth Emery–created a line of greeting cards, coasters, and other ephemera as the CLE Collective, made possible by Zygote’s collection of type and presses. Countless screen printed and letterpressed posters have been created in Zygote’s studios, for progressive causes like Black Lives Matter and the recent March for Science, as well as for bands performing at the Beachland, Grog Shop, and other venues.
Maugans began to venture into other types of programming, too. After the recession, Zygote hosted the Strategic Arts Leadership Talks (SALT), which gave small arts organizations a forum to explore ways to support each other in tough economic times. Out of the SALT talks came the idea that in a declining media landscape, the arts industry needed a way to communicate with the public, and further, that galleries could work together to create it. Therefore Collective Arts Network and CAN were born. The organization then spun off and became an independent nonprofit organization.
About the same time, Zygote established ZPASS—an apartment for rent above the studio, used to house visiting artists. The facility boosted artist residency programming, which Morena Carter says is one of Zygote’s defining programs. An exchange with the Grafikwerkstatt in Dresden, Germany, supported by the Ohio Arts Council, is the longest running international artist exchange in Ohio. Speaking of that exchange, OAC’s Ken Emeric says “Liz has placed Zygote, and Ohio, as an important destination for artists globally.” Since Maugans became executive director, Zygote has been a frequent host of international artists via the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program. For several years it exchanged artists with a center in Homer Alaska, through the Rasmusson Foundation. An new exchange program with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan is currently in development.
“As a person who is not an artist, but an appreciator, I know artists that work in the shop get value from meeting and engaging these artists from other places,” Carter says.
In 2013 Maugans participated in a neighborhood art intervention, re-casting abandoned homes on a neglected street in Columbus. Ben Campbell, then working at Slavic Village Development, visited the project, and with her encouragement launched Rooms to Let, which has become an annual event in Slavic Village, with artists using abandoned homes as a resource to bring new energy to the neighborhood. The fourth iteration of Rooms To Let took place May 20-21.
In 2014, when Alenka Banco was recruiting arts businesses to North Collinwood, Maugans saw the potential, and had faith that a contract printmaking facility could develop a new market for fine art prints, collaboration, and services. So Zygote bought one of the foreclosed homes, raised the money to bring it up to code and establish studios there, and Ink House was born.
Zygote’s own budget grew from about $60,000 when Maugans became executive director to about $350,000 last year. There has been no economic impact study of all that spinoff activity.
This is a momentous time for Ms Maugans, even if she weren’t stepping down from the organization she built. In May she opened a new show of her work at HEDGE Gallery at 78th Street Studios. She is also also part of the group exhibit, Constant as the Sun, opening June 2 at MOCA.
For more than a decade, Maugans’ own art work has been a window on the breadth of her life, including her professional and civic concerns. She has been fueled by a darkly humorous and sympathetic mix of inputs: parenthood, gender roles, sexuality, the emotional and economic stresses of modern family life, marital relationships, classified advertising, efforts to communicate one thing via words that accidentally reveal something else–scraps of speech or writing that ooze desperation and highlight the expressive limits of language and its users: really, just about any detail that evokes humanity might find its way into Maugans’ output.
Her exhibit at HEDGE Gallery continues in that vein. The collection of print collages is called Too Much Information. She writes, “This is an accumulation of left over materials from projects I have done over the past five years that include scraps, detritus and discards that were literally picked out of the garbage cans at Zygote.”
She says the series serves as a record of her own midlife, and the pivot from youth to wisdom, from building an organization and a family to handing it off, and watching kids grow. And in the mean time, it’s about having to cope with the other side, too—caring for aging parents, planning for how to age, and what to do with life and time while that goes on.
“We all want starring roles, and are constantly reminding those around us that we have not retired yet, and still demand to be the protagonists of our own narratives.”
It’s easy to see stepping away from Zygote as a natural part of that narrative. She’s done a lot. She’s got more to do. It’s time to move on.
The work she’ll install at MOCA as part of Constant as the Sun is a step in that direction. The Artists Trust is a community art project, a collection of self portraits by artists from the region. Given the opportunity to exhibit at MOCA, Maugans conceived to give other people the opportunity too—as many other people as she could. So she put out a call. More than 100 had responded at the time of this writing, and she anticipates that as many as 200 will ultimately participate.
“It’s another endorsement of her that so many people were absolutely willing to help her out on that project,” Schorgl says.
The self-portraits are the physical manifestation of something Maugans plans to build on: an artists registry that begins with websites and email addresses, but which she hopes will serve as a resource to help artists connect with each other, and then eventually to evolve into a political group that can play a role in funding and policy discussions, such as the current re-cast of local individual artist funding by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.
“I feel especially that this division that has been bubbling up with support for artists–who is supporting who, who is getting it and who is not, and judgement based on how you connect to community versus whether you are a studio artist–it is unfortunate how this has rolled out, and I think this is a great way to get back into a dialog. Our policy makers and neighborhood development corporations, our schools and our foundations always could use more support, stronger connections on the ground, and open communication between artists and our community.”
As Bellamy Printz says, “For someone like her who has this energy and drive—the whole advocacy thing has been a game changer for her.”
Carter adds, “It is an opportunity for Liz to go out in to the world. I think this is the time for her to step away because she has so many ideas, and she needs to find the next platform that gives her the room to maneuver.”
Carter says Zygote’s new executive director—whoever that may be–takes over an organization on sound footing, whose core mission will continue to be giving artists an opportunity to print and make their work in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, in addition to broader advocacy, Maugans –as one might expect—has plans for all that life has to offer. “I hope to devote time in the studio making work, and apply to some residencies. I want to bite into some longer-term projects which take time and concentration. I want to hang with my family and friends, read more, walk more, take some classes, teach, consult where I can help, and approach the next fifty years with the same vim and vigor I did living the first 50.”
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