Surge, Resurge: Tremont and Little Italy work to recover their art walk magic


Nothing could be more emblematic of the churn on Cleveland’s art-walking scene than the coincidence of the Little Italy and Tremont art walks one Friday in October. Both neighborhoods once were the edgy hot spots of the Cleveland art scene. Each of them once defined the term “Art Walk” in Cleveland, and together they are responsible for establishing here the idea that artists could bring new energy, business and money to a neighborhood. And on that artwalk night, a look around those neighborhoods showed that both once had more galleries and many more visitors browsing art than they currently do.

But artists and others in those neighborhoods are working to change that. In both places, they are collaborating with community development corporation boards and staffs to recapture the crowds and reputation they once had.

Part of their challenge is that options for artists and patrons have virtually exploded in the last decade. After Tremont’s and Little Italy’s grass-rootsy success, landlords and community development corporations in other neighborhoods–boosted by their own real estate market forces and by grants–built art walks of their own. Maybe it was natural that crowds would move on to new centers of activity, like Collinwood, with it’s monthly first-Friday Walk All Over Waterloo, and the Detroit Shoreway, where 78th Street Studios’ Third Friday events draw crowds in the thousands.

People working to bring back crowds to Little Italy and Tremont look at those neighorhoods and note that the art walk game has changed.

Jean Brandt doesn’t describe herself as being in charge. Still, she took responsibility not only for opening her own gallery’s doors each month for 23 years, but also for making sure the Tremont Art Walk had a monthly postcard, and that participating galleries were listed. That meant working with volunteers, including Sandy Rutkowski Mikel Mahoney, David Szekeres, and Steve Mastroianni to handle the details. In the 90s, Tremont West Development Corp supported the effort by allowing the group to mail the cards using its nonprofit postage permit. The rest was all sweat equity.

Both Brandt and Mastroianni acknowledge that the DIY model for these events may not work anymore. Mastroianni notes that the currently thriving art walks have an anchor—a nonprofit gallery with a staff programming exhibits, or a landlord who works to promote monthly events, or a CDC with funding to subsidize the establishment of new galleries. That gives them some stability, and a big advantage.

Brandt says after 23 years, she’s stepping aside from her role with the Tremont art walk, and hopes the best for its future as a relatively new TWDC arts committee plays a larger role.

Meanwhile, Tremont West board president Lynn Murray chairs an ad hoc arts committee on behalf of the organization. When the board president—who is not an artist or gallery owner— takes on the challenge of maintaining the reputation the artists built over the decades, that says it is important.

And indeed, Tremont West has raised significant sums and made a significant commitment to the arts in general, including the performing arts series Arts in August, for which TWDC’s Michelle Davis says the organization annually raises $60,000 to pay for performances by dance companies and other nonprofit organizations. But Art walk was its own thing, she says.

During one meeting of that committee, discussion centered around the lack of commercial space that artists or galleries could afford: in one sense, a good problem for a CDC to have. On the other hand, if the neighborhood’s repuation is closely tied to an active art walk, it’s also an important problem to solve. Mastroianni notes that there were never multitudes of galleries open all at once in Tremont—but at one time, Dana Depew’s Asterisk, Jean Brandt’s gallery, Doubting Thomas, and Raw and Company were all open at once, devoted to presenting monthly shows. Now, the one dedicated gallery is the loosely run, DIY space, Doubting Thomas. The most actively, consistently curated space is probably Loop—a coffee shop.

Brandt says each gallery that closed did so for its own unique set of reasons. But when that happens against a backdrop of rising rent and an apetite among restaurants and other businesses for commercial space, it makes it harder for the next gallery to move in.

The challenge of exhibiting Tremont artists’ work in their own neighborhood was met for one weekend in September, during the annual Tremont Arts and Cultural Festival. Murray says for the first time ever, the committee created an exhibit of art by neighborhood residents. Among the 19 exhibitors were the well-known names of highly accomplished artists, including Angelica Pozo, Jeff Chiplis, Christopher Pekoc, Giancarlo Caliccia, Bruce Edwards, Hilary Gent, Bruce Checefski, Paul Duda, Rob Hartshorn, Lila Rose Kole, Patsy Kline, and more. It was a significant accomplishment, and a great pop-up show for the neighborhood, but not a solution for the art walk.

Little Italy’s art walk isn’t seeing a specific person step aside, but is certainly evolving by forming closer ties to the local CDC.

Tricia Kaman has painted in the same studio in Little Italy’s Murray Hill Road school house since 1989. She remembers when that neighborhood was a top artwalk destination—when William Busta Gallery, Riley Hawk, and others combined with individual artist studios to make it a lively place. Together, the artists and galleries formed the Little Italy Art Association. But their source of revenue was always “passing the hat,” as Kaman says. She still gets visitors and steady commissions, especially during the June art walks, but the people coming now already know what they are looking for. It’s no longer drawing newcomers to the scene. “The numbers for art walk probably peaked 10 years ago,” she adds.

Kaman recently began to share a space with other artists at 78th Street Studios, and attributes the crowds there partly to the fact that the building’s owner advertises, prints promotional materials, maintains a website with links to participating artists, and is thoroughly engaged in the scene. It’s hard for loosely organized groups of individual artists to compete with that.

But several artists, a gallery, and shopkeepers are bringing some new energy to Little Italy, and with them a realization that if the neighborhood is to emerge from the shadows of younger art walks that have grown up around it, that will take work. Just as in Tremont, the issue isn’t a lack of artists. Deb Lawrence recently opened her own painting studio and a small gallery space exhibiting other artists’ works alongside her own. Kate Baker opened Stillpoint, a boutique featuring original art and craft, and with her husband, photographer Geoff Baker, has been presenting solo shows in a space across the hall. Longstanding tenants like painter Sam Roth and photographer Janet Century are still there. The botique Urban Orchid has begun presenting shows of individual artists’ work alongside flowers and gifts in the former church next door–including a recent exhibit of monoprints by Lisa Schonberg. Tara Seibel –known partly for illustrating comic books by Harvey Pekar–opened her own studio near the corner on Mayfield. She has taken up the volunteer task of drawing the art walk’s promnotional posters.

Kate Baker notes that Little Italy has space for more new artists, as well, and names several vacancies along Murray Hill Road and Mayfield Road. She adds that they could also stand to attract some younger artists to the available spaces. One dramatic possibility–the Random Road shell of an edifice known as the Singer Steel building, which is mostly used for parking cars—may have opened some eyes when it was used as exhibit space for large paintings by up-and-comer Rose Haserodt under the auspices of Emerge Cleveland.

Whether that adds up to a revived art walk, though, remains to be seen. Promoting what goes on in a neighborhood requires coordination and money. In the future, for both Tremont and Little Italy, that may come not so much from grass roots passing of the proverbial hat, but from grants via the local community development group.

Earlier in the Fall, Kaman joined the board of Little Italy Redevelopment Corporation as a way to pursue the art walk’s interests in a more organized way. She says the future may include hiring grant writers and getting money to support the effort. Baker says the money could be used for advertising, street banners, and other measures to call attention to the neighborhood.

Both of these neighborhoods are justifiably proud of the grass roots history of their long-running art walks. Both acknowlege that for them to remain viable may require institutional support. Whatever the different challenges the two neighborhoods face, the entire, burgeoning art walk scene will eventually have to sort out how many art-walking neighborhoods the region can sustain. Perhaps we are seeing “growth of the pie” rather than simply slicing it into more pieces. Only time will tell.