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More Than Murals: Cleveland Artists Use Skills For Civic Change

Cleveland artist Will Sanchez bought an abandoned convenience store to transform it into a neighborhood art gallery  [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

City governments and community organizations often turn to local artists to brighten-up abandoned neighborhood walls. Eyesores are beautified and artists get a chance to earn some money.  But, arts advocates argue that artists offer much more than decoration to area neighborhoods.  

A couple of years ago, Cleveland artist Will Sanchez bought an abandoned convenience store at West 54 th Street and Storer Avenue, in the heart of the city’s Latino community.  He's transforming it into an art gallery.  Sanchez is part of a growing movement of artists who are using their skills to promote civic change.  That's the topic of a national conference coming to town this week,  The Artist as Problem Solver II: Building the Capacity of Artists & Cultural Workers as Civic Leaders, sponsored by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation

Will Sanchez said the inspiration for creating his gallery came from the lack of options for artists of color.  He and his friends couldn't find a place to display their work.

“We were trying to get shows in Tremont, but we couldn’t get any shows,” he said.  “At the time, they were calling us ‘outsider artists,’ basically artists that weren’t going to school. We just loved art. And there was a big group of us.” 

The now trendy Tremont arts district was once considered a dangerous neighborhood.  When aspiring artists like Sanchez saw how painters, sculptors and other creative people were starting to make Tremont a popular destination, they wanted in on the action.  

“You want to have an impact on the community around you,” Sanchez said.  “I grew-up in this area, and for me to go to different neighborhoods that were developing, and not do it in where I’m coming from is wrong.”

The Gund Foundation is co-sponsoring this week's civic art conference. Jennifer Coleman is Gund's senior program officer of the arts.  At an ideastream arts forum last year, she noted artists bring unique skills to community development that go far beyond painting murals to beautify decrepit streetscapes.

Artists can bring "creative thought that might end up not having anything to do with a mural, but the process that artists bring to the conversations,” Coleman said.   

LaShawnda Crowe Storm will bring some examples from her hometown of Indianapolis to the conference.  Crowe Storm is an artist, urban famer and a community activist.  She said artists are helping area residents re-imagine her city’s landscape of vacant properties and food deserts.  For instance, a 10,000-square-foot raised vegetable garden was built on the parking lot of a dying mall.

“It was a space to get people to re-think when they say, ‘Oh, this is a mall.’ And you know, my perspective is that, no, it’s not a mall.  It’s just a building and it can be whatever we want it to be,” Crowe Storm said.  

LaShawnda Crowe Storm [photo: LaShawnda Crowe Storm]

She thinks the community development process won’t change with the same people at the table.

“But, we can bring new people to the table, that includes artists and a lot of community voices to mix it up,” she said.  

Cleveland photographer Amanda King will also make a presentation at this week's conference.

“I think it’s very important to speak through art, but I think it’s important to use art as a form of pressure for change,” King said.

Three years ago, she founded “ Shooting Without Bullets,” a non-profit organization teaching teens and young adults how to push for social change by documenting the reality of their lives.  In 2016, she organized an exhibition by some of her photography students for the police.  

This image of a neighborhood basketball hoop was part of the "Shooting Without Bullets" exhibition for police officers [photo: Jasmine Banks]

“I think that police officers consider themselves to be the gatekeepers of the community, when really the young folks are the insiders,” King said.  “So, I wanted the insiders, the people who are living in this community every day, to be able to tell the officers how they truly and authentically feel about their community and their own experiences in a way that is productive.”

The common theme for all of these artistic civic activists is giving a voice to neighborhood stakeholders who don’t typically have much control of their own narratives.  Will Sanchez is putting the finishing touches on a sign that will christen his Cosecha Galeria (or Harvest Gallery), next month.   He thinks artists can put a fresh spin on community change.

“The entire process of being an artist is envisioning something that’s not there.  And then using whatever you have to make it happen,” he said.

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