2019: Evolution in the Art World

Exhibition view, including Are We There Yet? (and other questions of proximity, destination, and relative comfort), by Kameelah Janan Rasheed, 2017, printed cloth banner, Collection of the artist.

The holiday break in the art schedule gives us a minute to reflect on what’s been going on for the last year. While I would never sum up 2019 by saying it was the year of this or that, many of the year’s most significant exhibits and events in Cleveland point to big picture evolution in the art world.


The theme that has been most important, most urgent and longest overdue is the ongoing need to recognize artists of color, including those who are just starting and who should have the same opportunities as white artists have historically had.  That means exhibits, access to funding, to markets, to recognition. All that has been happening in the last year, and long may it continue.

In Cleveland one of the most memorable of those successes was SeenUnseen, in which Artists Archives of the Western Reserve took an exhibit of works from the Atlanta-based Kerry and C. Betty Davis collection as an opportunity to shine a light on contemporary artists of color in Cleveland. The result was enormous in scope, spanning all the galleries of Artists Archives as well as the Sculpture Center, and filling them with visual voices of color from the last several decades. The opening was packed with people and enthusiasm. It’s noteworthy that Artists Archives—an organization dedicated to preserving the legacies of Cleveland artists—was the venue.


Several other exhibits also explored work of African American artists, as well as the legacy of slavery. The Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin presented Afterlives of the Black Atlantic. One of the most memorable shows of the year, hands down, was the exhibit of sound suits and other work by Nick Cave at the Akron Art Museum. Thomas French Fine Art teamed up with Bonfoey to present a great exhibit of new paintings by Darius Steward. Civil Rights era art icon and AfriCOBRA co-founder Wadsworth Jarrell, winner of a CAN Triennial Exhibition Prize, had a solo show at the Mansfield Art Center.


We humbly posit this sign of progress: 2019 was also the year CAN welcomed several galleries and collectives run by people of color, including Kings & Queens of Art / The Art Palace, La Cosecha Galeria, Cleveland Skribe Tribe, Framed Gallery, Edward E. Parker Museum of Art, and Shooting Without Bullets, all of which used our pages to tell their stories.

Courtesy of the Kings & Queens of Art

If any single program could be said to have had major impact in 2019, it must be the Waterways cohort of the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program, which marked the 50th anniversary of the famous fire on the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River. Part celebration, part call-to-arms, and part research project, the Waterways artists and projects were was both inspiring to audiences and empowering to organizations. On the inspiring front, consider the Squidsoup light installation on the subway level of the Detroit Superior Bridge, facilitated by the Kent State University Urban Design Center, which continued to highlight the potential of that publicly owned span. Or Michael Tsegaye’s aerial photos of the Cuyahoga, which offered a literally big picture perspective, presented by the Cleveland Print Room. On the research front, consider designers Douglas Paige (Cleveland) and Lukas Kronawitter (Germany), who explored plans for sustainable bulkheads that could eventually be used to help naturalize riverbanks, while keeping them useful in an urban-industrial setting–a project hosted by the Cleveland Institute of Art. And for empowerment, look no further than Praxis, which built a fermentation facility to organically process locally grown indigo into non-toxic dye.  We’re right behind them in hoping local, natural dye can become a source of revenue, and a thread in the fabric of a local “slow fashion” economy.


Indigo banner by Tony Williams, on view at Praxis

2019 was also a big year for photography.  It brought us the first Cleveland Photo Fest, organized by Herb Ascherman, Jim Szudy, and Laura Dalassandro who hope to make it an annual event. The Cleveland Museum of Art presented the striking After the Shutter exhibit, which highlighted photography beyond its documentary soul. 2019 brought us plenty of hope for the future of the medium. In addition to the Waterways exhibit (and too many more to note), the Cleveland Print Room worked with the next generation of photographers in its mastery program, which culminated in the exhibit, A Collection of Stories. And most recently, Michael Loderstedt opened Photocentric, a new commercial gallery dedicated to photo-based art, located in the long-vacant “gold building” at the corner of Waterloo and East 156 Street. It makes us Hopeful. 


Of course there are always galleries opening and closing, and in 2019 Cleveland saw some noteworthy change on that front. Besides Photocentric on Waterloo, the West side saw Dan Miller open Rant Gallery on Lorain Avenue, a dozen or so blocks west of his former Rotten Meat Gallery.  Of course just as we gained a few, we also lost a few.   Harris Stanton closed its bricks and mortar store in Akron, and is working to close her Cleveland location, just as soon as she can sell the space. Proprietor Meg Harris-Stanton continues to consult for institutional collections, and to sell at fairs.  And speaking of long-standing, respected dealers, Bill Tregoning announced his plan to retire, after the opening of his final show—an exhibit of landscapes by Jamie Morse.  You can see it through January 11.


Speaking of comings and goings, CSU gallery director Robert Thurmer retired, and his shoes are being filed by Kendall Christian, formerly a preparator at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin. Christina Vassallo left SPACES to take the executive director post at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.  Leonard Young stepped aside as the long-standing interim director of the Morgan Conservatory when the papermaking and print studio appointed Geri Unger as its new leader. Ann Albano retired from the leadership role at The Sculpture Center, and Grace Chin stepped in as the organization’s new executive director.


What other news? ArtHouse celebrated its twentieth anniversary, serving Brooklyn Center and the West Side. Events included a faculty exhibit at 78th Street Studios, and an exhibit of works by the organization’s founders Kerri Whitehouse, Sheryl Hoffman, Diane Shoemaker, and Cheryl Carter.  We’d be remiss if we didn’t note that this bootstrap collaborative, nonprofit media project CAN Journal was named by the Press Club of Cleveland as the Best Magazine in Ohio.


All in all, we’d say it was a good year.



The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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