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Cleveland Artists Don't Want to Be Left Out of FRONT International Spotlight

Dana Depew's in-your-face sculpture for the CAN Triennial (David C. Barnett / ideastream)

The FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art was planned with the hope that the eyes of the art world would be fixed on Northeast Ohio this summer.  Over 100 artists from around the globe are participating.  But, a number of area artists not invited to FRONT are staging separate shows, looking to bring some attention to the local scene. 

Above the entrance of a westside Cleveland gallery is a sculpture made out of individual letters salvaged from old neon signs and reassembled into a new message: “Your Art Sucks.”  

"I love that piece," said Michael Gill.

Gill is executive director of the Collective Arts Network (CAN), a group of local galleries, schools and other organizations that publishes a quarterly journal of area art events.  This month, CAN created its own event – a juried show for local artists - that is running in reaction to the international ambitions of FRONT.

"Every once in awhile, the word 'competition' with FRONT comes up," Gill said.  "The idea that this regionally-focused event is in competition with those institutions is completely flattering."

Veteran gallery owner William Busta was tapped to help plan and curate the CAN exhibition.  Long a champion of regional art, Busta is excited about the potential of the CAN Triennial and its fellow renegades to create an aesthetic portrait of Northeast Ohio. 

"There are things in the art of the people that live here that are not in the art of people that live in New York or Los Angeles," Busta said.  "And there’s something about that art that’s in conversation with the past and something about it that’s our voice of the future."

And if the CAN Triennial still sounds too competitive, there’s always the CANT Triennial, which welcomes everybody.

"The CAN’T Triennial is a reaction to the CAN Triennial, which was a reaction to FRONT," said Tina Ripley. 

Tina Ripley (David C. Barnett / ideastream)

She's part of a group called the Church of Art that’s set-up an exhibition space for the CAN’T show in the garage of a foreclosed house slated for demolition in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood.  Hundreds of artists applied for the CAN exhibition, but only 90 got in.

"What we’re doing is hosting a pop-up show for anyone who was rejected from CAN," Ripley said.  "Our attempt here is to fit in as many artists as we possible can."

A few miles away over on the east side, the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve has concocted a different sort of local show in reaction to FRONT.  It’s called “Graphic,” and it features the work of noted comic book and graphic novel artists with Northeast Ohio roots.  Artists Archives executive director Mindy Tousley says the show features everyone from Superman co-creator Joe Shuster to underground legend Robert Crumb. 

"We want to show our artists," she said.  "You should be coming here to see them, rather than bringing in artists from all over the place to try and make us look good."

These grassroots reactions to a $5 million art event are being compared to the Salon des Refuses, staged by a band of French artistic rebels in 1863 who created an exhibition of works rejected by the upper crust Paris Salon.  CAN’s Michael Gill mostly downplays any serious rivalry between his show and FRONT, noting that each show is giving the other a boost.

"We both want the attention of each other’s audiences, so, we simply traded advertising space," he said.  "It was easy and a natural thing to do." 

At a City Club of Cleveland forum last week, FRONT artistic director Michelle Grabner said she welcomes the competition.

"I stand by the fact that this is a reflection of a very healthy cultural community when we have push-back, critique, alternatives, all kinds of other offerings," Grabner said.  "I just think it represents the richness of this city." 

And it’s on display everywhere, from museums and galleries to a garage in Slavic Village.

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