FRONT Triennial rebounded in 2022 after a yearlong COVID delay with strong attendance, economic impact

Jun. 16, 2023

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Despite a yearlong delay imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the second FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art in 2022 generated positive numbers in attendance and economic impact.

The pandemic battered cultural institutions across the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. But the summerlong FRONT triennial performed better than its peers in 2022 according to data compiled by the triennial itself and a study completed by Cleveland State University’s Center for Economic Development.

Launched in 2018, the nonprofit triennial is one of Northeast Ohio’s biggest regional cultural events. It involves exhibits of new or recent works by 100 or more artists from across the U.S. and around the world at dozens of cultural venues and public spaces across Cleveland, Oberlin, and Akron.

FRONT 2022 had 75,000 unique visitors, down 18% from the 90,000 unique visitors at the inaugural triennial in 2018. Despite the decline FRONT performed well above the average 38% decline in attendance from pre-pandemic levels reported by the American Association of Museums.

Fred Bidwell, FRONT’s founding CEO, said in an interview with and The Plain Dealer that he saw the triennial’s attendance as highly positive.

“We clearly made the right decision by delaying a year’' from 2021 to 2022, he said. “We still felt the impact of the pandemic, but we performed significantly better than our peers.’’

One important sign of FRONT’s maturation is that the event saw deeper engagement among those who visited its 30 participating venues, which ranged from the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland to the Akron Art Museum, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Wade Oval in University Circle.

In 2018, FRONT had roughly 227,000 individual site visits, a number that included repeat visits. In 2022, the estimated number of total site visits and encounters with FRONT exhibits jumped 65% to 375,000.

According to a survey based on information gathered from more than 400 visitors, the typical FRONT attendee visited 2.5 sites in 2018. In 2022, that number doubled to five site visits.

“That’s a huge accomplishment because it really says that people are really engaging with this show in a much deeper way, which is exciting and gratifying,’’ Bidwell said. “We’re not getting what they call in the retail business U-Turn customers — people who walk in, turn around and walk out. We’re getting people who are coming in, looking, wanting to see more, and going to another location.”

In 2018, CSU’s analysts stated that FRONT generated $31 million in economic impact on top of the $76 million that participating venues would have generated simply by producing normal seasonal programming. The numbers were based on year-over-year data from 2017.

CSU’s analysts were unable to calculate a comparable increment of economic impact for FRONT because data for 2021 were severely reduced by pandemic-related closures or reductions in operating hours.

But the study shows that the total economic impact for FRONT’s participating venues was $120 million in comparison to the $107 million for 2018.

Again, Bidwell saw good news in those numbers, even though an apples-to-apples comparison of FRONT’s economic performance in 2018 and 2022 was not possible.

“The substantial $120 million total economic impact really speaks to the power of these cultural institutions,’’ Bidwell said. “FRONT was really happy to be a significant contributor to that.’’

The CSU study calculated that FRONT supported 1,042 jobs, generated labor income of $40.8 million, created $67 million in value-added, and generated economic output of $120 million. The triennial generated $6.6 million in state and local tax revenue.

Data gathered by the triennial ranks the event as the largest “season-long, multi-venue contemporary art destination event’' in North America.’’

That ranking is based on FRONT’s compilation of data for event budgets, attendance, numbers of participating artists, and venues for the top-ranking comparable events, including the Toronto Biennial; Prospect New Orleans; DesertX, based in Palm Springs, California; the Hawaii Triennial; and Counterpublic, in St. Louis.

FRONT’s ranking doesn’t include large, single-venue exhibits such as the Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, or the Carnegie International at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Reflecting on the pandemic as a cultural force, FRONT’s exhibition theme for 2022 was titled. “Oh Gods of Dust and Rainbows.” The triennial celebrated art and art-making as a mode of therapy and healing.

FRONT is actively planning the next triennial for Northeast Ohio in 2025, and will soon announce updates, Bidwell said.

By Steven Litt,

Updated: Jun. 16, 2023, 7:15 a.m.| Published: Jun. 16, 2023, 7:00 a.m.