The Key Ingredient: Cleveland Public Library hires first-ever Director of Art and Culture
With an extensive collection of WPA prints, a long record of commissioning art installations and exhibits at the main library, as well as murals at its branches around the city, plus important collections of artist books, art catalogs, art objects, maps, and even chess sets, and with the Lockwood Thompson fund specifically supporting art programming, the Cleveland Public Library system has resources that would be the envy of just about any art institution in the region. Until this year, though, no one in the institution has been charged with coordinating all those resources, or leveraging them for greater engagement. Now, with the appointment of Tiffany Graham Charkosky as director of art and culture, the region should see all that potential turn into something more.
In April, Cleveland Public Library’s new Director of Art and Culture Tiffany Graham Charkosky was at the Riverview Welcome Center—the CMHA-owned building overlooking Irishtown Bend—stringing dried flowers on copper wire. She was working with volunteers, and with staff from LAND studio, preparing literally tens of thousands of flowers to carry out the vision of British artist Rebecca Louise Law: the flowers will hang in streams from an armature eighteen feet above the floor in Cleveland Public Library’s Brett Hall—one of the grandest rooms in the city, with its marble walls, forty-foot, vaulted ceiling and murals by Cleveland School artists.
The Rebecca Louise Law installation was planned before Charkosky’s appointment. Titled Archive, and opening to the public on June 15, it is the latest in a series of public art installations the library has commissioned in the See Also program, which has been funded since 2009 by the Lockwood Thompson fund. Each year, See Also brings a new temporary installation to one of the library’s spaces.
While the commission of this installation and the See Also program predate her tenure, the impact of Charkosky’s appointment in the future could be, and should be, huge. In addition to the Main Library downtown, Cleveland Public Library has 27 branches throughout the city, each of which provides an opportunity to engage people in neighborhoods through art. Besides that, there are extensive assets. Within the library’s special collections are 1.3 million photographs, many of which have been digitized. There are hundreds of works of art from the New Deal, including murals, WPA prints, sculpture, and more. There’s an extensive folk art collection reflecting the cultural heritage of Cleveland’s ethnic communities. There are books made by artists, and a collection of books about art, including international art encyclopedias, monographs, catalogues raisonnés for important artists, museum catalogs and handbooks, and instructional manuals on drawing, painting, and other art techniques. There are 20,000 song titles in a collection of sheet music. There are music education materials, and art education materials. There is the largest collection of chess sets and chess ephemera in the world.
Arts programming at the library has a specific fund to support it: the Lockwood Thompson fund. Lockwood Thompson was a founder of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Contemporary Art Society and also a trustee at the library, and he set up the fund in memory of his parents while he was board president. He died in 1992.
At the moment, all those resources point to enormous potential, not yet realized beyond having the ingredients.
The library’s chief of special projects and collections, John Skrtic, says to realize that potential, he has been pushing for the establishment of an art and culture director for five years. “We have to make it someone’s job,” he says.
“It’s like opening the cupboard and seeing all the ingredients there, and deciding what meal do we want to have from all this?” Charkosky says of her new role.
For now, she is just getting the lay of the land. At Executive Director Felton Thomas’s suggestion, she has spent the first months visiting every branch, getting to know their interests and visions for art programming. She doesn’t yet have a staff or a budget.
Charting a course and executing arts programming—including work alongside volunteers—are familiar territory for her. Charkosky started working at LAND studio when the Ohio City-based nonprofit was still known as Cleveland Public Art: an over-the-transom note to Lillian Kuri (who was then director, and has since moved on to the Cleveland Foundation) landed her an internship. She was promoted to the fulltime job, and for twenty years managed the logistics of murals and other public art installations, festivals, institutional collections, and similar projects.
“Public art is never just about art. It’s about community building and engagement,” Charkosky says.
She says that even with all those holdings and eventually a vision for arts programming, the library will always be different from a museum. “When you go to a museum, you go for that purpose. But the library functions like a park, or other public space. When people come to the library, I think a lot of them don’t expect to see art. I think the vision was, ‘how do we generate more visitors and engage them to extend their time in the library?’”
When she visited branch libraries in neighborhoods, she says she heard from all of them that they are trying to figure out post-COVID engagement with their visitors, and that they have strong interest in showing local art—including advancing artists’ careers, especially for emerging artists. Artist talks are one of the possibilities Charkosky says she’d love to see realized.
Engaging, or re-engaging the public is about more than just emerging from COVID. The digital age has changed the way people access information and the reasons they engage in physical space. Historically, libraries kept with the times by developing physical collections of different media, from vinyl records decades ago, to CDs, and movies on tape and DVDs. Streaming, followed by COVID in recent years have yet again changed the playing field. The experience of art and related programming could be the special sauce—or at least one of the ingredients—that re-engages people with libraries as physical spaces.
Relationships will be a piece of whatever evolves. A part of the job will be to manage the library’s relationship with Charkosky’s old employer, LAND studio. LAND will continue to manage logistics for the See Also program, and probably to be involved in other specific projects. For example, the library has been a host for both iterations of the FRONT Triennial, which in 2022 brought to Brett Hall a sound installation, 40 Part Part, by Jace Clayton; works of Cleveland artist Paul O’Keeffe; and other works. Additionally, The Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) is a part of the organization’s budget annually, restoring murals and other objects in the collection as the need arises. The Library’s collection of WPA prints has been used by students of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Currently Under Curation program for an exhibition at the library’s Martin Luther King Jr Branch. More recently, the library’s international languages department is working with SPACES Gallery to provide space for an exhibit created with support from its Satellite Fund. All these relationships already engage the community. But an overall vision of arts programming should certainly lead to more.
“It’s making sense, trying to figure out what’s that bigger story the library is telling with these investments,” Charkosky says.
It’s also notable that the City of Cleveland recently announced its own search for Senior Strategist for Arts, Culture and Creative Economy. While at LAND studio, Charkosky worked with the city and with community development corporations on multiple public art projects—including MidTown Cleveland and its critically-acclaimed CLEVELAND WALLS! mural project, which was championed by MidTown’s then vice president for community development, Joyce Pan Huang. Huang is now planning director at the City of Cleveland.
Could there be additional synergy between the arts leadership of the two public institutions?
“Where you put your focus and energy is where you’ll see results,” Charkosky says.
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