Look Out, Cleveland

The Times review from 2014 was not much more than a blurb—an attempted takedown of Chicago-based conceptual artist Michelle Grabner by critic Ken Johnson dripping with contempt. It must have irked Johnson that he was duty-bound to refer to the artist, whom he dismissed as a “comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom,” as “one of the curators for this year’s Whitney Biennial.”

While many artists and critics rose to Grabner’s defense and called Johnson out for what they saw as the critic’s sexism, Grabner herself merely posted a link to the review on Facebook, without comment.

Reading between the review’s 24 lines, it’s possible to detect what might be the panic of a coastal critic living in fear that his art-world view was drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch that was about to be shaken up and possibly erased.

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“It was 300 words but it tells us a lot more about the world we live in than it does about Ken Johnson and Michelle Grabner,” says Grabner.

One thing it tells us? “New York is the center of distribution [for the arts] but it’s no longer the center of idea-making,” Grabner says.

Instead, Grabner says, talented young people, like the Yale grad students she teaches, are now gravitating to cities like Cleveland. “They’re not going to New York any more. They’re watching it; New York has been a place in which cultural ideas come to the fore. But it’s not right now.”

That assertion will be given a test of sorts when Cleveland’s inaugural triennial exhibition, Front: An American City, takes place next summer. Grabner’s experience as curator for both the Whitney Biennial—the pulse-taking, trend-spotting survey of contemporary American art–and for the region-centered Portland Biennial, along with her life as a Midwest working artist accustomed to the need to look outward make her the ideal curator to pair with globe-spanning curator Jens Hoffman.

“Having relationships with the rest of the world is hugely important to understand the context of your own localized world,” Grabner says. “In New York you don’t have to do that, and that’s what makes it provincial. It doesn’t need to look out.”

Though she says she doesn’t get “mired down in my own locality or regionality,”

Grabner says her sensibility draws directly from her sense of place living in the Great Lakes region, which she reads to encompass the entire Great Lakes region—as far out as St. Paul, Minn., and Pittsburgh. “I think it’s innately in me. It is who I am.”

Besides drawing from among those who literally drink from the same water, what will set Front apart from similar events is the broad swath of institutional partners who are participating in it, from the Cleveland Museum of Art and MOCA to Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum and the Akron Art Museum. As a result, she says, “we’re not thinking about curating. We’re thinking about discourses as opposed to relationships to objects that enter into institutions.  We’re thinking about ideas and how those objects or video installations can contribute to ideas, to be discursive in the world that we’re living in.”

Though no stranger to controversy—a Joe Scanlan piece in her Whitney show drew sharp criticism and the withdrawal of an artists’ collective—Grabner would rather have Front provoke a sustained discussion rather than a brief but heated flare-up that ends when the exhibition closes.

“We’re just not seeing that long, protracted conversation to create change. I hope the exhibition itself creates that around everything from how we think about studio practice, or formalism, or materials, to how we think about politics.”

Grabner’s prediction for Front is that it will be unpredictable. “There will be very intimate moments and ideas of identity in maybe even the historical works that will be housed in some of the biggest institutions. And then some of the smaller institutions will have big, huge, physical impacts.

“Thinking about how viewers from Cleveland may understand the CMA or may understand MOCA and what to expect there, that’s something that I wouldn’t count on.”

That fresh perspective on their own institutions is one of the ways Front will help Clevelanders understand their city better—and help outsiders develop a sense of the city. Such an identity, however, may not emerge until the triennial’s second edition—and even then its form will continue to shift over time and over viewers.

“The fact is there will be no truth,” says Grabner. “There’s no truth in what this really is. So someone from Hong Kong who is reading about this exhibition, who will never get here, will shape that exhibition in their mind and thus shape Cleveland. Someone who is driving from Chicago, they will shape a different understanding of not only contemporary art in Cleveland, but the truth of its institutions here.

You can’t control these things. And that’s what’s interesting about a triennial: you have the first edition and in three years we have another one and—even though the city will change and contemporary art will change—a kind of understanding will start to evolve that will be more truthful just because time will aggregate a kind of relationship to it.”