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A Billion-Dollar Industry Hides in Cleveland

Rene Polin and his design crew are part of a billion-dollar local arts 'industry'
Rene Polin and his design crew are part of a billion-dollar local arts 'industry'

A freight train rumbles through mid-town Cleveland, past a cluster of old factory buildings. A century ago, this industrial campus was a global supplier of steel cable, metal screens and elevator cabs. Today, a new generation of companies can be found throughout this hulking complex, including a micro-brewery, a vinyl record pressing plant, and an industrial design firm called Balance, Incorporated.

SOUND: Studio ambi

Company. president Rene Polin watches with wonder as one of his designers sketches on a computer screen

RENE POLIN: He’s quite literally drawing on the screen, and his left hand is on the keyboard. I can’t do it, but he’s really quick with it.

Balance, Incorporated designs the look of products for an international clientele ---such as, a line of food processing machines called Ninja, an elegant ATM touch screen for Diebold, and a vacuum cleaner for Hoover that looks like a futuristic prop from a Star Wars movie. Polin says working in industrial design is his way of making money from his art training.

RENE POLIN: One of the biggest challenges of kids going to art school would be mom and dad saying, “How are you going to make a living? Are you going to be a starving artist?”

A new study out this month documents the success of a number of local artists who are applying their creative skills in fields ranging from product design to advertising to building furniture. The report, “Forming Cleveland”, commissioned by the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture measured the economic impact of visual arts, craft and design in Cuyahoga County. The Partnership’s Thomas Schorgl says a lot money is generated by this hidden industry.

THOMAS SCHORGL: I was surprised to see it was over a billion dollars --- pleasantly surprised, but surprised. And then, when you look at the taxes that are generated, it’s a 135-million.

In the past, Schorgl says, such studies focused on the revenue taken in by not-for-profit organizations like museums and independent galleries. But, this new definition of industry, adds in commercial companies that employ artists.

THOMAS SCHORGL: These are good-paying jobs.

The visual arts in Cuyahoga County employ over 97-hundred people. More than half of these jobs are above the County’s median salary of $35,000 --- closer to $60,000 for industrial designers, architects and curators. But, to get to that kind of a paycheck, you need to learn how to sell yourself as well as your work. That’s where Margaret Denk-Leigh comes in. She teaches business skills to students at the Cleveland Institute of Art --- a course of study which sometimes goes against the grain for budding, young artists.

MARGARET DENK-LEIGH: If we already have these pre-conceived notions of what the artist is, or what the artist does or doesn’t do, then that is the myth or stereotype that our students have to reconcile as they prepare to market themselves.

Students learn everything from negotiating taxes and healthcare, to setting-up websites, and the psychology of meeting a client’s needs. Rene Polin learned the business ropes at the Institute of Art. He says one of the reasons he named his company, Balance Incorporated, was because of the fine line that his staff members walk as they try to find the balance between being artists and product designers.

RENE POLIN: The applied and fine arts always seem to be fighting each other when, at the end of the day, we’re all trying to make a living.

And, according to the “Forming Cleveland” report, it can be a pretty good living. The study recommends nurturing the local talent pool and offering up the city’s low cost of living and affordable housing to help build a different sort of industrial future.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.