Transformer Transition

Laura Ruth Bidwell and Fred Bidwell. Image courtesy of Laura Bidwell.

In 2011, Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell and the Cleveland Museum of Art announced a unique partnership that allowed the art-collecting Bidwells to launch exhibitions featuring their extensive holdings for six months each year, and allowed the museum to create a permanent presence for contemporary art on the Near West Side—an area long known as Ohio City, recently branded by some local boosters Hingetown, and sometimes rebranded by local critics “Cringetown.” The Bidwells bought a streetcar-era electrical transformer station at the corner of West 29th and Church Avenue, had architect John Williams remake the space over a larger footprint, and in 2013 opened Transformer Station, with a plan to turn it over fully to the Cleveland Museum of Art in fifteen years. Seemingly at the mercy of metaphor as much as market forces, the adjacent neighborhood was transformed by development their project spurred—to broad, but not universal approval. But the exhibition space itself was a cultural success, hosting exciting and groundbreaking shows and supporting countless artists whose experience with it has been, indeed, transformative. The Bidwells decided they had enough on their own hands with FRONT Triennial, which Fred founded and directs, and they announced last year they would hand off Transformer Station to the museum ahead of schedule, in 2023. CAN Journal spoke with the Bidwells by video call about the transition.

CAN: Depending on where you set the timer, we’re either at the ten-year mark or twelve-year mark. Any second thoughts about handing it off? Any second thoughts about starting the thing in the first place?

FRED BIDWELL: Definitely no second thoughts about either.

We didn’t quite know what we were getting into when we started this, and somewhat to our surprise it actually turned out sort of beyond expectation. So that was great.

On the other hand, and Laura will give this a big second, while there certainly are no second thoughts about giving it up, [transition] was always our plan. Ten years is a great sort of milestone for us to declare victory. Every plan has an ending. Every good plan has an exit strategy.

CAN: Your original plan was to do fifteen years. Can you explain the change, or do you just feel it’s a good time?

FB: I think we pulled fifteen years out of the air without really sort of having a sense of—I mean it just seemed like a round number. But you know ten years is a long time. I certainly have my hands full with FRONT, which we did not anticipate—that was not an idea when we started Transformer Station. As Laura said a couple of times, we’ve kind of run out of ideas for shows. I’m sure we could totally come up with more ideas but, you know, we plucked all the low-hanging fruit and have to work harder now.

CAN: Has anything surprised you during this decade, good or bad? I’d like to hear both actually.

FB: One thing that surprised us, one of the big sort of things that’s always been a bit of a headline around this project, was how much it changed the neighborhood. That was never a plan for us. We were doing an art project around our collection; we never had planned to do a neighborhood development project. But it had a big impact on the neighborhood so that was a positive surprise.

Laura, what’s something that’s surprised you?

LAURA RUTH BIDWELL: The financial [aspects]. Arts, as everybody who’s in the arts knows, art brings money and attracts jobs. So that was, that was kind of a surprise for me. I mean, I knew it, but to see it in action was very gratifying.

FB: I have to say—I wouldn’t say the negative side because it’s all good but—speaking of financial, since Laura brought it up, the expense side was a bit of a surprise (both laugh). This was not cheap.

CAN: Let me ask a little bit more about the neighborhood. I don’t think there’s complete unanimity about the development of the neighborhood being a positive for everyone. There is some conflict with some longer-term local residents, not really to do with Transformer Station but with the sort of economic development that, that happened alongside it, simultaneous or coincidentally. Do you have any feelings or thoughts about that?

FB: We do, and I think it’s not necessarily the most popular opinion. This whole question of gentrification is obviously been a big one, and I say this with all respect to the people, the longtime residents of the neighborhood, who kept the faith and kept that neighborhood vibrant even during the times when nobody [else] cared about [it]. But, you know, the development of the neighborhood, the so-called gentrification of the neighborhood, didn’t involve displacing anybody. This was about building on empty lots. This is about filling empty buildings. This is about restoring underused infrastructure.

I get it, that the result is that rents rise. Home values increase.

LRB: Property taxes.

FB: And that means property taxes. But it also created wealth in the neighborhood that was not there. And, sure, it changed the character of the neighborhood, which I’m sure a lot of people have been uncomfortable with. But let’s recall what this neighborhood was like at the turn of the century: It was packed, absolutely packed with people and businesses, far more dense than it even is today. This is returning the neighborhood to its original intentions. Cleveland has less than half the population that it had fifty years ago, and if we can’t stand the idea of Cleveland restoring its population, then we should give up on Cleveland. Change is part of city life. I believe this change has been very much to the positive, but I get it that lots of people are uncomfortable with change.

It’s a tough issue, but you know NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) will kill cities. We’ve got to get over it. At the same time, I’m on the board of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and one of the things that we’re working on is, for instance, property tax relief, so that when property values do rise, people who’ve been in the neighborhood get a break. [We’re] also working on subsidies for affordable housing, so that developers can actually afford to build housing for people of diverse incomes and neighborhoods. These are changes that are necessary and need to happen so we can get better. But to say that the city can never change, can never grow, is—if that’s true, then we’re done.

CAN: Do either of you have any like unfulfilled wishes?

FB: Laura’s shaking her head.

I don’t think so. It’s been more work than I think we imagined that we were taking on at the time, but you know the results have been so gratifying and the feedback has really been great. As Laura has said, maybe the greatest reward is something that people don’t see that much, and that is the feedback we’ve had from artists who consistently have said that their shows at Transformer Station have been career highlights, that it’s the place where their work has been presented in the best possible way, that their show at Transformer Station made a difference in their career—that’s been incredibly rewarding.

CAN: What did you learn about Cleveland or about contemporary art and artists that you didn’t know before?

FB: Wow, that’s a tough question. (to Laura) Do you have any ideas on that one?

LRB: We get credit for changing the neighborhood that we do not deserve.

FB: That’s a good point.

LRB: We planted a flag here and then, quickly, people followed. Because we were willing to invest, other people were willing to invest. Now there are plenty of people in this neighborhood who work their tails off. It’s not just the Bidwells. It’s everybody. So, it does indeed take a neighborhood to find the success that this neighborhood has found.

FB: And I’ll say that all the merchants and developers who are in the neighborhood, lots of people who live here, it’s a real team, very collegial, which has been part of the magic.

LRB: They get up early and they work hard. It’s been a lot of people.

FB: One thing that we definitely learned—it certainly changed our behavior—we started this because we were collecting and we had built this collection and were sort of feeling bad that most of it was in storage, so this was a way to kind of get it out and share it.

LRB: This started, this started out as a private enterprise, and then the Cleveland Museum said, “how can we get involved?” and it became a public enterprise. And then it became ADA compliant—a ramp and a bigger bathroom.

FB: Temperature and humidity controls, security. We ended up building a park up in front. All of those were not, you know, necessarily part of the plan. I think we learned how to run a public institution. That’s one thing we learned.

LRB: That’s a big thing.

FB: There’s a lot of responsibility there.

LRB: [There are] staff and volunteers. We don’t have any volunteers, do we? We pay everybody. Another thing we learned: PAY artists! Pay people who work for you.

FB: That was a bit of a shock: so many artists in Cleveland don’t get paid. They put on shows, they do work…

LRB: They pay for framing; they’re expected to pay for everything.

FB: They don’t get paid for a thing. We quickly realized that that was wrong. Everybody at Transformer Station gets paid. It’s hopefully an advantage we’ve set for the rest of the city and also artists because artists gotta stop saying, “oh, yeah, sure, I’ll do a show in the hallway of your bar leading to the bathroom and I’ll put it up myself and…

LRB: and I’ll pay for the framing and I’ll take it home when it doesn’t sell.” (scoffs) “Paid in exposure.”

FB: Another something we learned I would say, we were buying work that we liked from dealers and then backing into ideas for shows based on what we had bought before. What really changed pretty fast is that we realized what was more fun, and kind of necessary, was for us to start with an idea and then go to artists and ask them to realize that idea, or artists came to us and said, “I want to do this show, would you do it with us.” That whole process of working with artists to make the work—the show—possible has been really rewarding. And most of the additions to the collection in the last ten years have really been from those shows.

CAN: You said, when you first announced the idea of the Transformer Station, that you want the Cleveland Museum of Art to be the glue for the contemporary art scene in Cleveland. Do you feel that the Transformer Station has made that happen, or brought it closer?

FB: Honestly, probably not. You know that’s a big task. Did I actually say that? That was a dumb thing to say.

LRB: That’d be great if it were true.

FB: Maybe that was my idealism getting a little bit ahead of me.

The museum has been an awesome partner for this, absolutely, no doubt, and they’ve challenged us to up our game, and I think we’ve challenged them to up their game. But the Cleveland Museum of Art is always going to be an encyclopedic museum and contemporary art is a part of that offering, I hope always growing in importance for them, but that’s never going to be their thing. The great thing about Transformer Station is it gives them another stage to play on with contemporary art, and another place, and I hope that’ll be liberating for them. I say this with all affection, Cleveland Museum of Art is always going to be based in art history, and that’s going to inform how they present the art of today. But it begins with the historic collection; it does not begin with contemporary art.

CAN: I think it might have been Laura who said that the impact of the arts has been underestimated, so I wanted to talk about the impact of the Transformer Station through two lenses—first, the surrounding neighborhood, which we talked a little bit about, but also Trump and Black Lives Matter and a lot of things that happened in [the decade that you ran the space]. Can you talk about how you feel contemporary art has intersected with that?

LRB: The racial portion of the whole thing has significantly changed the way museums view art, approach artists, collect art, show art. Our mix is significantly—it’s changed in terms of balance, in terms of artists, everything I just mentioned.

FB: It’s obviously been an historical time to be operating a cultural institution, between the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. It’s been an eye-opening experience.

LRB: It should be. It should be.

FB: It’s challenged us to rise to the occasion. Not just with the artists that we show and the artists that we work with, but also the people we hire, the people that we try to attract.

Two years after we opened Transformer Station, we physically moved [to an apartment] a block away. There’s nothing like actually moving to the middle of Cleveland to realize palpably that, yeah, this is a Black majority city, we’re the minority here. With that realization comes a real obligation to listen, to learn, and to change.

One thing that’s been disappointing and, you know, there are forces at work that are tectonic and origins that go back 400 years, but the south side of the Shoreway part of this neighborhood–yeah super-gentrified and “hipster” and “cool,” but right across the highway is Lakeview Estates and Lakeview Tower, and a few blocks away is Riverview (all public housing complexes for lower income residents). We haven’t cracked the code, and I don’t know anyone else who has, to let the people—especially people of color in the neighborhood that are so close by—know that Transformer Station’s for them. It’s free, we want everyone to be there. But, you know, there are all kinds of signals contradicting that.

LRB: [The idea that] “it’s not for me. Museums are not for me.” We don’t know how to fix that.

FB: [Urban designer] David Jurca, who designed some of the outdoor amenities in our front yard, which has become sort of the town square of the neighborhood, brought a group of people from Lakeview on a walking tour of the neighborhood just to get a sense of “what do you see, what do you feel when you’re here.” And, number one, nobody had any idea it was a museum or had any idea what they might see there, or had a clue that it might be actually available to them to them. There’s lots of work to be done there.

CAN: It’s very interesting how you took this question because I actually meant almost the opposite. I was asking, “do you feel that contemporary art has had an impact on these issues,” and the way you answered was more about how the issues have had an impact on how you present contemporary art. So, do you, do you feel that there’s been an impact?

FB: It’s interesting the way you phrased that because I would say the issues have had more of an impact on contemporary art so far, than contemporary art has had on the issues. But I firmly believe contemporary art does bring people together, it does allow people to have conversations, to think about issues in different ways that bring people together. I still firmly believe in the power of contemporary art to do that. Whether it’s lived up to its potential or not—I don’t think so. I think it has that power.

But it’s like a tree falling in the forest—if no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? And that’s a bit of the problem.