Crain's Cleveland Business Opinion: Businesses that value innovation should support creativity of local arts scene

Aug. 28, 2023

Fred Bidwell –

Readers of this publication already understand that Cleveland has a long history as a home for international brands and global businesses. Think Sherwin-Williams, Eaton, Goodyear, Cleveland Clinic, Progressive Insurance and Nestle. The list goes on and on. Every great city today must compete on a global stage. Even when markets are domestic, in business, competition comes from all over the world and the growth opportunity is global.

Our corporate community already knows that their standing on the world stage directly impacts our success locally.

But Cleveland's strongest international brands may not all come from the corporate side.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, Playhouse Square and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum are all among the best of the best internationally in their fields and major magnets for tourism and talent for Cleveland (as well as impressive business enterprises in their own right). But it's not just the large arts organizations that garner international attention.

Recently, the State Department chose SPACES, a small and scrappy artist-focused gallery and laboratory for creativity, to commission the United States pavilion exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale to wide international attention and praise.

The organization I founded, FRONT International, was designed to bring Cleveland's arts and culture to the world's attention with a once-every-three-year season-long exhibition of works by contemporary artists from around the globe spread across our region in partnership with 11 of our world-class arts and education institutions. Our first two editions, in 2018 and 2022, brought thousands of visitors from across the country and around the world to Cleveland and generated millions of dollars in economic impact.

The work of our artists and arts institutions supports the international reputation of Cleveland as a significant intellectual and innovation hub. A great place to visit, of course, but a great place to live, establish a business, innovate and grow, with the world as an audience and a marketplace.

Sadly, until recently, our corporate and governmental leadership has undervalued the scope and impact of our arts and culture industry in Cleveland. Since many of our arts and culture institutions are "nonprofits," they tend to be dismissed as less than serious enterprises.

Remember that the 501(c)3 designation is just a tax status; these businesses must operate in the black, often with higher financial and operating standards, than a public company.

Indeed, creative business is big business in Cleveland.

According to the Assembly for the Arts, the creative economy in Greater Cleveland is a $9.1 billion industry that supports 62,599 jobs. This includes not only arts and cultural organizations, such as museums, theaters, and performing arts companies but a wide range of businesses, from advertising and marketing agencies to design firms and software companies.

Our corporate and cultural sectors have a lot to learn from each other. Cleveland's outsized arts and culture offerings best represent our community's energy and creativity and belie the old narratives about a rust belt city in decline.

The global competitiveness of our business sector is a model for creative professionals and artists in Cleveland to think beyond the local and engage in the global creative conversation.

Cleveland's talent is mighty and deep, but we can only win if we are in the game. Our local creatives are exposed to new perspectives and ideas when we bring art and artists to Cleveland. When we earn a worldwide audience for our arts scene, we open new markets and opportunities to our region's artists.

That's the idea behind FRONT's Art Futures Fellowships: a generous financial stipend, professional development, national and international travel, and participation in our 2025 exhibition. Our goal is to create meaningful careers for artists living in Cleveland.

While not every artist may have an international following and not every business may have a worldwide market, we all are measured by international standards of excellence.

Our corporate sector would be wise to follow the lead of their peers and get more engaged with a local creative industry that is already competitive at a world-class level. The lack of substantive corporate support for excellence in design and artistic expression reflects poorly on our local brands and implies a provincial and unsophisticated worldview.

What drives the arts and culture industry is creativity. What business craves today is innovation. Innovation and creativity are two sides of the same coin. By supporting, sponsoring and collaborating with artists and art institutions, corporations do more than improve the quality of life for their employees and communities; they enhance their status as global competitors.