More than a Ceremony: Cleveland Arts Prize
The Cleveland Arts Prize recognized artists in its 2022 awards November 2 at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium, in what is called a “ceremony,” though that word does not seem quite right. While the purpose of the event has held steady—to recognize artists doing great work in the city—and while it is indeed a ceremony, complete with speeches and the presentation of medals, the awards themselves and the mood of the presentation have evolved in laudable, exciting ways. It might more accurately be called a celebration.
Recognized Wednesday evening: Emerging artist Amber Kempthorn, whose animated film Ordinary Magic: A Sunday in the Cuyahoga Valley premiered recently with its music performed by the Akron Symphony; Emerging artist the late Peter Debelak, the founder of Soulcraft Woodworking, and a designer and wood worker whose imaginative projects entered the realm of sculpture; Mid-Career artist Dominic Farinacci, an international performer on jazz trumpet, and creator of Modern Warrior Live, a musical and narrative production and touring nonprofit organization telling a Cleveland veteran’s story in Afghanistan; Mid-career artist, Baroque oboist Debra Nagy, who founded the chamber ensemble Les Delices, and whose programming innovation went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of a variety show called SalonEra; Lifetime Achievement award winner, Gladisa Guadalupe, who began her career with the Ballets de San Juan in Puerto Rico, before studying under George Balanchine in New York, then Ballet Nuevo Mundo in Venezuela and eventually the Cleveland Ballet—which she re-founded, and which is now a company of 32 dancers; Robert P. Bergman Award winner Julie Patton, who lived and performed in New York for years, improvising poetry with jazz musicians, eventually teaching at Naropa University, New York University, and back in Cleveland at Case Western Reserve, and in 2018 opening her home as an installation in the inaugural FRONT Triennial; and Martha Joseph Prize winner Sujatha Srinivasan, a performer and advocate of Bharatanatyam classical Indian dance whose students have won top international dance competitions and launched companies of their own.
The substantial evolution to note is that along with the art sector generally in recent years, the awards have recognized a more diverse range of artists and other cultural contributors. That’s true not only in the Verge prizes, which were made to artists “on the verge” of greatness, but also in the primary discipline awards.
It is also worth observing how the awards presentation itself has evolved, and the reason the word “ceremony” seems not quite right anymore. The evening felt more like celebration, and not only for the mutual support of all the artists present, but the new practice of engaging past winners as performers on stage during the event.
The band Mourning [A] BLKstar won the prize as Emerging Artists last year and came to the stage again this year, but this time to make music, which energized the audience with punchy horns and intensely soulful vocals.
Poet Raymond McNiece also was honored in 2021. McNiece has been writing and performing poetry in Cleveland and around the US and the World for decades, but for people outside that world, his skills might not be well known. His performance this year made clear why he got the recognition, as he poured love for the city against a relentless blues that touched on neighborhoods and people, the color gray, and the “burning river running through its rusty heart.”
Jazz man Ernie Krivda performed solo on his big sax, a searching exploration of scales “in memoriam,” as images of notable Cleveland artists who passed away in the last two years were projected above on screen.
The presentation and acceptance speeches also shone with emotion, and often highlighted the ways artists influence each other. Musician Debra Nagy thanked curator and gallery director William Busta, who presented the first concert by her ensemble Les Delices in his Prospect Avenue art gallery. She also credited him with telling her that sometimes “success is just hanging in there long enough.”
Nagy also credited Dominick Farinacci’s Songbook Watch Party for inspiring her to create her SalonEra series during the pandemic.
Kristen Cliffel gave heartfelt tribute and presented the award to Charles and Helene Debelak, receiving on behalf of their late son Peter Debelak. The family generously pledged the $10,000 award back to the Cleveland Arts Prize to support its activities in the future.
In receiving the Robert P. Bergman Award, poet, artist and life force Julie Patton gave thanks, letter by letter, to the word thanks, including the S, “for the plurality of it.”
“I don’t know what I have done, but to do what came naturally,” she said.