“Apply” for the Cleveland Arts Prize

Cleveland Arts Prize Interim Executive Director Aseelah Shareef. Photo by McKinley Wiley / The Dark Room Company. 

How does Cleveland recognize its artists, and how are those artists chosen for recognition? Sometimes a single, unobtrusive word can make a huge difference. Consider the Cleveland Arts Prize. This year, the organization’s application window is open March 1 – May 1.  That word “application” is key. It represents what CAP trustee Scott Westover says is the most significant change in the history of the organization.

Since 1960, when members of the Women’s City Club of Cleveland created the Cleveland Arts Prize, it has been one of the most prominent ways artists of all disciplines in Northeast Ohio have been recognized for their work.  It has recognized world class talent that has come from Cleveland, or called this place home. Past winners in the visual arts, for example, include Julian Stanczak, Victor Schreckengost, and Moe Brooker.

And for all of that history, CAP identified potential winners through a “nominating” process: One could not simply apply for consideration. For the first 60 years of CAP’s existence, artists could only be considered after having been nominated by another person.

This year, that changed. The application process means any artist or performer can be the champion of their own cause. CAN spoke about the change with the organization’s recently appointed interim executive director Aseelah Shareef, and trustee Scott Westover.

In the past, as Westover says, “You were only able to be considered if someone in the community nominated you. And you can imagine who that person might be—a member of the cultural elite, an art-hungry, culture hungry audience member in Cleveland. You can imagine that would be [people involved with institutions].  …  So before our jury members got to the adjudication process, there was already a blessing, a preliminary approval.”

The change must be seen in the context of the times, during which organizations of all kinds are dealing with historic inequities in their staffs, boards, audiences, and the content of what they present. The hope is that changing from a nomination process to an application process will help bring to the attention of CAP’s jury some artists who—despite an appropriate level of accomplishment–might not have had connections that previously would have brought them to the attention of the decision makers.

As Shareef says, the filtration processes that have historically defined such awards and generally served as gatekeepers to opportunity in the arts are all about privilege. “It is any and every level of privilege. The racial issues have been highlighted. They are not new. These atrocities [which have been highlighted through the Black Lives Matter movement] have made it difficult for people to ignore.”

Westover adds, “There are many creators across the region serving different audiences with different tiers of background and professional achievement. To rely on a body of nominators can be an efficient way to narrow down the list. The downside is . . . there are too many worthy and deserving artists we were aware of, who were not coming through the channels. And the question became how many are we not aware of? Because for so many years we had operated through this filter.”

It is also a matter of ensuring the organization’s continued relevance to changing audiences, which Westover sees as a challenge going forward.  “Like many institutions, our audiences are aging. And they weren’t necessarily super diverse. We have to continue to work and grow and diversify our audience.”

Apart from the opening of the application door, the criteria for winning the prize remains the same. In visual art, for example criteria include that an artist must have “Work that has been recognized nationally as well as locally and regionally in one or more of the following ways: Included in catalogues, major collections, gallery and museum exhibitions, reviewed in major art periodicals, result of public commissions.”

Does the meaning or impact of the prize have the same impact or gravitas as it aims to cast a wider net?  Westover does not shy for the question: “As a board member nearing veteran status, I can say our elder states people were concerned that the broader our reach, the more we relied on younger and emerging talent in the jury process, the weighty reverence of the prize in the past would change. But our new board and new leadership is singularly focused on identifying the artists of our time. I guess in that way if we achieve our goal through this change in the process, and we begin to [recognize artists who] for some would be surprising, I suppose the prize identity could change–I think for the better.”

Meanwhile, the Prize does still accept nominations, through a portal on its website, Clevelandartsprize.org.

This summer, the organization celebrates great artistic talent from prior to 1960, when the awards were founded: The Past Master project celebrates the likes of Langston Hughes, Margaret Hamilton, and Dorothy Dandridge, among many others. It officially kicks off during a fundraiser, Twilight in the Garden of Good and Greatness. It’s a gourmet-style picnic in the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, June 24. Click for tickets.



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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