Punch Above Your Weight / Growing the Pie: Selling Art Beyond the Boundaries of Northeast Ohio, Part Three

It could happen here: In 2014, two New Orleans photographers—the husband-and-wife team Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick—showed a series of photographs of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana as part of the art triennial, Prospect. Speaking of their exhibit, called “Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex,” Calhoun told the New Orleans Times Picayune, “Angola is still pretty much run like a plantation.”  Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2015 Venice Bienale, saw the exhibition.  And a few months later, Enwezor invited McCormick and Calhoun to exhibit in Venice, on the biggest stage in the international art world.

Lots of artists dream of being discovered, but don’t have a platform that allows the world to see them. But for the local artists who will be eventually chosen to be a part of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, the odds seem to be improving. In case you haven’t heard, the buzz in  the international art press about Cleveland’s new art triennial has been pretty good.  Last year, the initial announcement that international art stars Michelle Grabner and Jens Hoffmann would serve as artistic directors got headlines in major art publications around the world. And in July, when FRONT announced the names of 57 artists chosen from around the world to be part of the event, the scribes responded again.  Artnet News—and more specifically  longtime Art In America editor Brian Boucher—led the charge, calling FRONT International “Cleveland’s Bold Play to Forge the Next documenta.”

The FRONT Triennial Team (Left to Right: Michelle Grabner, Fred Bidwell, Jens Hoffman

The FRONT Triennial Team (Left to Right: Michelle Grabner, Fred Bidwell, Jens Hoffman

There’s nothing like setting the bar high. Documenta, of course, is the international exhibit of contemporary art held in Kassel, Germany every five years.  It began after World War II, with the intent of re-connecting Germany with the international art world, and it was wildly successful: The first documenta included works of Picasso and Kandinsky, and 130,000 people came to see. Documenta 14, happening now through September 17, is directed by the Polish art critic and curator Adam Szymczyk. It is expected to draw about 900,000 people –more than four times the population of Kassel under normal circumstances.

FRONT founder Fred Bidwell says he hopes the triennial event—with a $4.2 million budget, expected to draw a total of 300,000 people, 70,000 of them from out of town– will help a lot of new people discover cultural assets that were already there.  Bidwell has enlisted as presenters the organizations that inform travel stories stories, such as the recent one in the LA Times, which declared Cleveland “on the cusp of cool:” Cleveland Museum of Art, MOCA, and Transformer Station, along with the Akron Museum of Art, Cleveland Institute of Art, the Allen Memorial Museum (Oberlin College), and SPACES. The existence of all those institutions in Cleveland helps the city “punch far above its weight” as a center of culture, as Bidwell says.

“The biggest danger is not failure, but mediocrity,” he adds. As all those headlines promise, the eyes of the art world will be on Cleveland next summer. And those are just about the judgiest eyes the world has to offer.  Whatever judgement they make will have an effect on artists of Cleveland as they work to enter shows, find representation, and sell work outside the region.  More than the odds of discovery for any individual artist, it’s about the “halo” the event casts on the entire city.

Major international art events fall into two categories. On the one hand are the fairs—Art Basel (Miami, Basel, Hong Kong),  Affordable Art Fair (New York and elsewhere), etc—which are focused on shopping. They are commercial events in which galleries pay booth fees (commonly $10,000 to $40,000) to sell works by artists they represent. Recently, some smaller cities have bootstrapped their own such events to jumpstart their art scenes, or give them a bigger audience.

Echo Art Fair, Buffalo

Echo Art Fair, Buffalo

Frits Abell, who founded Echo Art Fair in Buffalo, points to a dynamic that will sound familiar in Cleveland: Buffalo has an extremely low cost of living. He says he founded Echo because he heard the same thing from multilple artists:  “I love that I am here, but am I shooting myself in the foot by not having the same commercial opportunities as I would in New York or San Franscisco or Los Angeles.”

But documenta, Prospect, and FRONT International fall into another category, more about ideas than directly making artists money. They are city-wide, multi-venue events meant to be a part of the international dialog about the world—not only what art is, but about everything.

“I see FRONT as the anti-art fair,” Bidwell says. “This is a different model, common in Europe, but rare in the US. We couldn’t pull off this [city-wide collaboration] in a big coastal city, both because of the cost and the competitiveness of the big organizations.”

The famous Grand Rapids Art Prize – which came to the attention of many Clevelanders last year when Loren Naji made his way close to the top by living inside a spherical sculpture made from salvaged bits of Slavic Village homes – is in a category of its own.  Art Prize has a selection process more like a matchmaker service than curation: Artists register, and venues—from galleries to cafes, ice cream shops, and grocery stores—choose from their proposals. Then 300,000 visitors vote in a process covered locally like a sporting event. The populist approach earns criticism as well as praise.  As Grand Valley State University art professor Anna Campbell told Hyperallergic, “It’s so open, it doesn’t do anything for your CV.” The moral for cities like Cleveland is that critical perspective and artistic vision matters, especially if your event is drawing big crowds. With Grabner and Hoffmann driving the artistic vision of FRONT,  Bidwell has that base covered.

New Orleans Prospect, which debuted in 2008, might be the closest American analog to the vision for FRONT. Bidwell  took a team of nonprofit and commercial arts leaders to see Prospect in 2014.  It is a highly curated, critically acclaimed event, with about 90 percent of participating artists coming not from New Orleans, but from around the world. And that seems to have succeeded –not only for photographers McCormick and Calhoun.

Ylva Rouse, interim director of Prospect, a New Orleans native who has served on the curatorial team since the festival began, says Prospect builded on New Orleans’ history as a cultural center, but also catalyzed a new level of activity.

“New Orleans has historically had a thriving arts community, as well as being the center for antiques in the South, dating back to the 19th century when it had international exhibitions unique in the US., said Rouse. “Fast forwarding to modern times, Prospect gave the community national projection, and an impetus that it didn’t previously have, helping to create the excitement that has caused it to swell to unprecedented numbers, being instrumental particularly in providing the buzz around the co-op gallery corridor on St. Claude Avenue.”

New Orleans’s St. Claude Avenue is home to more than two dozen artist-run spaces and co-ops, which have popped up since Hurricane Katrina. As D. Eric Brooker wrote for New Orleans Arts Insider, “Much of the initial national and international interest [in St Claude Avenue] can attributed in part to the critically acclaimed Prospect.1 International Biennial, which garnered rave reviews from visitors as well as from the national and global art media as they suddenly discovered New Orleans, seemingly for the first time.”

Grabner and Hoffmann have dubbed the inaugural edition of FRONT  “An American City,” with an organizing principle: “Eleven Cultural Exercises.” The message is an ambitious one, that in 2018, Cleveland will take its place in the international discussion of what matters in the world, including how cities evolve.

As Grabner said, “An American City considers the complex transformations that Cleveland– a medium-size city in the center of the country– has undergone in recent decades. It will take the city’s ongoing search for a clearer and more definitive identity as a platform to examine how its particular history might parallel those of other cities in the United States and around the world.”

That vision is a gift to Cleveland artists.  FRONT and all the attention it brings puts Cleveland on the international stage and gives the region’s artists a speaking role in a dialog they know well. The evolution of our city is a constant subject, represented in galleries all over town. What this means for Cleveland artists in the long term will depend on how they handle their part.



This is the third in a series of articles called “Growing the Pie.” Through this series, from the perspectives of commercial galleries, individual artists, major efforts like FRONT Festival, and other collaborations, we will explore efforts to reach beyond the Cleveland art market: to take Cleveland art to other places, to get the attention of collectors beyond Northeast Ohio and to bring them here. Our intent is to help you understand the possibilities, and learn from what others have tried and learned in the process. Growing the Pie is supported by a project grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.



Sources for this article include:

Fred Bidwell / FRONT

Michelle Grabner / FRONT

Frits Abell / Echo Art Fair

Ylva Rouse / Prospect

Greg Peckham / LAND Studio / FRONT

Loren Naji

New Orleans Arts Insider

New Orleans Times Picayune


Calendar of Select International Exhibitions

documenta 14: Kassel, Germany, June 10 – September 17, 2017

Skulptur Projekt Munster: Germany, June 10 – October 1

Vienna Biennale: Austria, June 21 – October 1

Momentum 9: Moss, Norway, June 17 – October 9

57th Venice Biennale: Italy, May – 13 – November 26

6th Yokohama Triennale: Japan August 4 – November 5

Frestas Treinal de Arte: Sao Paolo, Brazil, August 8 – September 3

Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism: Republic of  Korea, September 1 – November 5

Bienalsur: Buenos Aires, Argentina, Opening September 14

Moscow Bienal: Russia, September 15 – October 28

Istanbul Biennale: Turkey, September 16 – November 12

Chicago Architecture Biennial: Sepbember 16 – December 31


Copenhagen Ultracontemporary Biennale: Denmark, September 18 – October 1

7th Beijing International Art Biennale: China, September 30, 2017 – February 25, 2018

Lagos Biennial: Nigeria, October 14 – December 22

Performa 17: New York, November 1 – 19

Prospect.4: New Orleans,  November 18 2017 – February 25, 2018

21st Biennale of Sydney: Australia, March 16 – June 18, 2018

Bruges Triennale: Belgium, May 5 – September 16, 2018

8th Bucharest Biennale: Romania, May 17 – July 8, 2018

10th Berlin Biennale: Germany, June 9 – September 9, 2018

FRONT International:  Cleveland, July 14 – September 30, 2018

13th Havana Biennal: Cuba, Opening November 1, 2018