FRONT Triennial brought global art, high standards, to Northeast Ohio...

Feb. 29, 2024

FRONT Triennial brought global art, high standards, to NEO before hitting a wall.

By Steven Litt,

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Invisible walls — including all the voices or factors that say ‘no’ — are omnipresent in the arts. They create barriers to access, cultural diversity, standards of excellence, and understandings of what’s possible. The limits are often caused by lack of imagination as much as money.

The FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, a project initiated by Cleveland-based philanthropist and collector Fred Bidwell, challenged both kinds of boundaries. For all too brief a time, it triumphed.

In 2018 and again in 2022, (delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic) the nonprofit Triennial collaborated with more than two-dozen venues big and small from Cleveland to Oberlin and Akron to host coordinated exhibits of works by more than 100 artists each time from around the world and around the region.

The two triennials were the biggest shows of their kind in Northeast Ohio history, and the results were extraordinary. Under the themes of “An American City’' in 2018, and, “Oh Gods of Dust and Rainbows,’’ in 2022, framed as a response to the pandemic and America’s culture wars, FRONT turned Greater Cleveland and environs into one of America’s best places to view contemporary art.

For a region with a long history of insularity, chauvinism and the occasional willingness to confuse local pride with a tolerance for artistic mediocrity, the Triennial was a breath of fresh air. It showed works by some of the world’s leading contemporary artists, and it showed that selected local and regional artists could meet the same standards of artistic power.

Tens of thousands of visitors came from outside the region to experience the big shows, along with hundreds of thousands within the region. They trooped around by car, swooping through as many museums and galleries as possible during a weekend, or picked off the individual exhibits one by one throughout the summer, along with numerous lectures, film screenings, artistic happenings, outdoor concerts and outdoor murals. It was a pair of feasts.

Memorable moments from the two FRONT iterations included, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,’' a series of photos shown in 2018 by Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey that reimagined the Northeast Ohio landscapes through which fugitive slaves furtively journeyed to freedom in Canada. The photos were displayed at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Church Street in Cleveland, built in 1838, an actual stop on the Underground Railroad. Bey’s series has since been exhibited at museums across the U.S.

In 2022, Firelei Baez turned one of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s glass box galleries into a virtual undersea grotto that re-envisioned San Souci Palace, built in northern Haiti as the home of the nation’s first monarch, Henri Christophe, after enslaved Africans achieved independence from France in 1804 in a bloody revolution.

Attendance between July 14 and September 30, 2018, reached 227,000, resulting in an economic impact of $31.2 million. FRONT estimated that attendance jumped to 375,000 in 2022. For technical reasons, it was not possible to calculate economic impact for FRONT alone in 2022, but analysts at Cleveland State University said the impact for participating venues in 2022 — a number that included total operations, not just derived from FRONT — was $120 million, up from $107 million in 2018.

“The feedback on the results was like, ‘wow that’s amazing!’” Bidwell said.

But on a Friday afternoon three weeks ago, he quietly announced that the exhibition’s board of trustees, headed by Helen Forbes Fields, decided that there would be no FRONT 2025 as previously scheduled.

Pulling the plug

Having heard from funders that they were reluctant to pay for a third iteration of the Triennial, Bidwell and the FRONT board decided to end the project in time for participating institutions including the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he has long served as a trustee, to find something else to plug the resulting gap in their exhibit calendars.

Fundraising for the estimated $5 million cost of the next Triennial was the main sticking point. Bidwell said potential donors had moved in new directions since the project started in 2016. After the pandemic and the racial reckoning sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many are focusing on social justice, community-based initiatives, and health and welfare.

“All of that is urgently needed and important and you can’t object to that,’’ Bidwell said earlier in February. “It’s a different world today. It’s just not a favorable environment for FRONT.’’

It would be tempting to view the demise of FRONT cynically as a comeuppance in response to overreach in a shrinking Great Lakes industrial city. That’s not how Bidwell sees the moment.

“What I would hate to have happen is that this becomes part of a dreary narrative of a Rustbelt city,” he said in an interview last week. “Clevelanders themselves are somewhat responsible for continuing that narrative. That’s not what this is about at all. This is about encouraging big thinking, taking risks and recognizing what’s sustainable, and what’s not.”

Bidwell said, “I knew at the very beginning that this was going to be a grand experiment with a lot of risk involved. Lots of people told me back in 2015-2106 when I was developing this idea that it was too big for Northeast Ohio. And as things evolved, they might have the right to say, ‘I told you so.’ But on the other hand, nothing ventured nothing gained.’’

High aspirations

Bidwell, a retired advertising executive formerly based in Akron, conceived of FRONT as a North American response to the world-famous Documenta exhibition, held every five years since 1955 in Kassel, a central German city that, with 200,000 residents, is almost a third smaller than Cleveland.

Bidwell wanted to focus global attention on the excellence of Northeast Ohio’s cultural infrastructure, from museums and nonprofit galleries to libraries and unconventional places to see art including the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

That excellence is rooted in high-quality venues such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, which completed a $320 million renovation and expansion in 2013 that never received the national and international attention it deserves.

The FRONT project followed Bidwell’s highly successful makeover of a former streetcar transformer station at 1460 West 29th in Cleveland’s Hingetown neighborhood. The project, which Bidwell undertook in partnership with his wife, artist and photographer Laura Bidwell, made the chunky brick building on West 29th Street a must-visit venue for the decade from 2013 to 2023.

Exhibits there included selections from the Bidwells’ extensive collection of contemporary photography, plus special projects they initiated, along with exhibits that help anchor the two FRONT shows in 2018 and 2022.

The Bidwells shared programming at the space 50-50 with the Cleveland Museum of Art, to which they donated the venue last year. (The gallery is temporarily closed and is scheduled to reopen this spring, according to the museum’s website).

Successful as it was, Transformer Station wasn’t enough to absorb all of Bidwell’s energies. He started thinking about creating the Triennial in 2015-16 and by 2018, it was up and running. It was a testament to his vision, power of persuasion, and passion for the visual arts.

Carrying on the work

The region will still benefit from Bidwell’s energy. He serves on the boards of the art museum, the Cleveland Foundation and the nonprofit Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, an umbrella organization for community development corporations.

Bidwell also plans to continue serving as chair of the five-member board of the nonprofit Assembly for Action, a 501(c)4 organization whose mission is to lead a fundraising campaign to increase the Cuyahoga County cigarette tax that supports Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC).

(Assembly for Action is affiliated with Assembly for the Arts, a larger nonprofit 501(c)3 organization designed to function as a regional arts council for Greater Cleveland.

Bidwell said earlier this year that the CAC campaign, which could lead to the county placing an issue on the November ballot, was on pause over discontent among arts supporters and cultural organizations over the management of CAC.

The organization has been accused by critics including outgoing board member Charna Sherman of overreach, mission creep, and poor management of funds. Other board members and Executive Director Jill Paulsen have disputed those charges.

Bidwell said CAC and Assembly are trying to work out their differences, which are beyond the scope of this article and will be explored in future stories.

For now, Bidwell said, he’s focused on the necessity of renewing or increasing the 10-year tax, because without it, local public arts funding will be decimated, which helps no one.

“There’s nothing to talk about if we don’t have funding,’’ he said. “Somehow we’re going to have to work it out. We can’t get paralyzed by our disagreements.’’

Wrapping up, looking ahead

Bidwell also said that FRONT is maintaining its commitment to the FRONT Art Futures Fellowship, a project designed to create meaningful career support for BIPOC artists (Black, Indigenous, persons of color) based in Northeast Ohio.

The four winners named in 2022 were Amanda D. King, Charmaine Spencer, Erykah Townsend, and Antwoine Washington. The fellowships included awards of $25,000, plus entrée to art world connections and a berth in the 2025 Triennial. Those commitments will be met, with the exception of the 2025 show, Bidwell said.

However, he said, as FRONT winds down, it will try to find another venue for the fellows to share their work, Bidwell said.

“I’d love to see a fellowship program continue in one form or another in Cleveland,’’ he said. “It’s really important for the local artistic community to get exposed to the wider art world. That was one of the broader missions of the total Front initiative.”

If the arc of the FRONT story relates in some way to the overall fortunes of Cleveland, the narrative intersects with the city’s economic trajectory and its general failure to perform as well as could, and should.

“We started off strong with fantastic support from individual donors who were really excited about this and wanted to support it, but you can’t go back to the same dozen people year after year after year,’’ he said. “Donor fatigue is a real thing.’’

The issue is that Cleveland isn’t minting new multi-millionaires.

“In a city with basically a stagnant economy, there’s not a huge pipeline of new people coming in with the means to support a new initiative like this,” he said.

Clevelanders are accustomed to enjoying the largesse of prior generations that have resulted in large endowments that are keeping world-class organizations like the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra healthy. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Playhouse Square benefit from good management, solid community support and business models that are working.

But Bidwell warns of complacency, another element in Cleveland’s psyche.

“We can’t celebrate the past exclusively, we’ve got to be engaged in the future,’’ he said.

FRONT was a heroic attempt to break down the walls, financial and psychological, that hem in Cleveland’s creative vision. While it lasted, it was fantastic. For that, we owe Bidwell nothing but the deepest gratitude.