“You Work.” Cleveland Arts Prize Celebrates Accomplishments

Daniel Gray Kontar presents the Cleveland Arts Prize for Lifetime Achievement to poet Ray McNiece. Photo Credit: Robert Muller, courtesy of Cleveland Arts Prize.

Wednesday night at its annual awards ceremony, the Cleveland Arts Prize recognized 9 artists and advocates for their contributions to the arts in Cleveland. It was a joyous occasion, even if–as out-going CAP board chair Howard Freedman noted in comments–“Cleveland Arts Prize has been called “staid.”

If the word “ceremony” or anything about this sounds stodgy, though, it might be time to re-think that impression. What you can’t really understand or feel without actually being there is the energy of artists supporting each other, and the expression–almost entirely non-verbal–that they understand the work that leads to accomplishment. People listened rapt as, in presentation speeches, we heard colleagues talk about the person being recognized in terms that showed long relationships during which peers watched and were part of each other’s creative struggle.

To wit: Poet and director of Twelve Literary Daniel Gray Kontar, in presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award to poet Ray McNiece recalled their time together in 1994, when they both were on a team representing Cleveland at the National Poetry Slam Championship, and won—as Kontar noted—the first national championship for Cleveland since the Cleveland Browns, 30 years earlier. He recalled the so-very-Cleveland opening line from McNiece’s poem Grandfather’s Breath: “You work. You work, Buddy. You work.”

McNiece could be heard performing that poem in coffee shops and much larger stages all those years ago. All the people receiving recognition in the evening’s ceremony would know the truth of that line.

Vocalist Kyle Kidd and Mourning [A] Blkstar, accepting the Cleveland Arts Prize award for an Emerging Artist. Photo credit: Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Arts Prize.

Poet Kisha Nicole Foster presented the Emerging Artist Award to the band, Mourning [A] BLKstar, remembering the late friend Dwayne Pigee, AKA GORK, who is given tribute in their name of the band; FRONT Triennial creator Fred Bidwell presented the emerging artist award to sculptor Lauren Yeager. Beachland Ballroom co-owner Cindy Barber presented the Martha Joseph Award to Happy Dog proprietor Sean Watterson, who among other advocacy efforts was Ohio captain in the National Independent Venues Association lobbying effort to get support for music venues shuttered by the pandemic, resulting in more than $300 million in rescue funds. Terri Kent presented the Mid-Career Artist award to Tony-winner Alice Ripley, who she knew as a student. Cleveland Institute of Art professor Sarah Kabot presented the Mid Career Artist Award to Corrie Slawson, whose recent collaboration FEAST, with dancer/choreographers Christina Lindhout and Kelley Korfhage explored excess and overconsumption in a time and place of unchecked wealth. Playhouse Square CEO Gina Vernaci presented the Robert Bergman Award to Dr. Joseph Garry, who—among many other things– directed a production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and living in Paris, which is credited with building momentum for the eventual salvation and restoration of the Playhouse Square theatres. And finally, Barbara Robinson presented a special citation from the Board to Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Most, who—having been appointed to the post in 2001—has been a presence in Cleveland for 20 years. “I am a Clevelander,” said the native of Linz, Austria.

Fred Bidwell introduces sculpture Lauren Yeager, winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize for an Emerging Artist. Photo Credit: Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Arts Prize.

Winners of the prize often shared touching memories and connections. Said Sculptor Lauren Yeager—whose work involves rearrangement of often salvaged, quotidian objects from plastic buckets to thermoses and coolers and traffic cones. “My Grandma—she made a lot of weird things, and I think a lot of this comes from that.”

Sarah Kabot introduces Corrie Slawson, winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize for a Mid-Career Artist. Photo credit: Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Arts Prize.

As much as one could feel the connection between presenters and winners, so too between winners of different prizes, in different disciplines, sometimes generations apart.

As Freedman noted, Cleveland Arts Prize has made strides to diversify, and keep itself relevant to the city, including to new generations. There was a time, for example, when all the winners of awards for Music came from the Classical world. This year’s recognition of Mourning [A] BLKstar, and also of Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson, were great steps in recognizing popular music as a cultural force. Additionally, the organization has taken steps to make the awards accessible to more people without lowering standards—such as by opening the competition to application, versus the older, nomination-only process.

This was the first Cleveland Arts Prize ceremony I attended, but surely will not be the last.

Watch for Douglas Max Utter’s upcoming feature on 2021 winners for visual arts, Corrie Slawson and Lauren Yeager, which will appear here and in the Winter 2021-2022 issue of CAN Journal, forthcoming November 19. 

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