By Elliot J. Reichert
With road trip season finally upon us, there is no better time to take advantage of Chicago’s proximity to a plethora of Midwest cities quaint enough to make you feel like a New Yorker does when they visit Chicago. My perennial favorites are Detroit and Pittsburgh, but this year I’ll be driving over to Cleveland, a city I know nothing about except that LeBron James intermittently calls it home, which is saying a lot coming from someone with little interest in sports. For better or for worse, an art critic is never truly on vacation when there is art to be seen, and so it is for my upcoming trip to the “Rock and Roll Capital of the World.” Yes, I did Google that, and with no shame.
This July, Cleveland joins the hundreds of cities worldwide that seek the promises of vibrancy and visibility offered by hosting an art biennial or triennial. Front International promises to showcase “an American City” to the nation and, presumably, the world. If I had been consulted on the matter, I would have surely tried to dissuade the organizers from investing in a trend that, as early as 2012, was already enough of a bubble for Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, to exclaim exasperation at the impossibility of keeping up with the mushrooming field. Or, as Charles Esche, director at the Van Abbemuseum and curator of many biennials, remarked last year, “There’s been an explosion of biennials, triennials and their ilk, and so many cities now have one. There seems to be a new one every week.” Chicago joined the fray in 2015 with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and now Cleveland has stepped up, too.
If it must be done, there is no one more suitable for the role of artistic director of a Midwest triennial than painter and curator Michelle Grabner, a former Chicagoan who resides in Milwaukee but continues to teach at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and maintains an outsized presence in the city’s art world. When Fred Bidwell, an Ohio philanthropist and art collector, approached her in 2015 about the idea for establishing a triennial in Cleveland, Grabner was just off the high of co-curating the prestigious 2014 Whitney Biennial and well underway curating Portland2016, a statewide biennial for Oregon. Grabner originally shared the role with Jens Hoffman, former director of the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, before allegations of bullying and sexual harassment led to his ouster at these institutions and his departure from the Cleveland venture as well as the forthcoming 2019 Honolulu Biennial. In the #MeToo era it is fitting that Grabner, who is no stranger to the art world’s misogyny, having once been derisively called a “soccer mom” in a condescending review by a prominent New York critic, now directs the project on her own.
Grabner is quick to acknowledge the problematic nature of biennial-mania, but makes a strong case for why Cleveland will stand out in this crowded landscape. Unlike the Carnegie International and the Whitney Biennial, Front is not confined to a single institution, and unlike Prospect New Orleans, Cleveland is not recovering from a natural disaster or economic crisis for which art is the unlikely cure. In fact, Cleveland is apparently doing just fine. “The river doesn’t catch fire anymore,” Grabner jokes, referring to the 1969 Cuyahoga River incident and Cleveland’s infamous history of industrial pollution. “The steel mills are still pumping out smoke, but they’re automated. The economy is fueled by the Cleveland Clinic and Progressive Insurance, which are the largest employers in the city.” For Grabner, Cleveland is a model Midwestern city, which makes it, in a sense, a model American city, if we accept that the heart of this country beats far from the coasts. Tellingly, she observes, “At a time when we feel like America is at war with itself, the worldliness of the triennial is more important than ever.”
Front will be decidedly global, despite the undoubtedly local audience. Only a few of the exhibiting artists come from Cleveland, and others hail from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Beijing. Unsurprisingly, many of the Americans are based on the coasts. However, Grabner has instituted a distinct regional program called “The Great Lakes Research,” a group exhibition at the Cleveland Institute of Art culled from dozens of studio visits she has conducted throughout the eponymous territory. In a minor but remarkable act of transparency, Front has listed the full roster of the visited artists on its website, itself a curatorial act even if the artists aren’t placed in the show.
Predictably, not everyone was immediately thrilled by the prospect of a global art event in their small city. To coincide with Front, Collective Arts Network, a coalition of artists and organizations that publishes a quarterly journal of the same name, has organized a massive, three-story juried exhibition of work by artists from Northeast Ohio that they call the CAN Triennial. “The Art World is coming to Cleveland. We’ll show you the world of Cleveland art,” proclaims their website. Grabner, with her typically earnest cheer, is genuinely enthused by this project. “Of course you should get pushback,” she says. “That is the sign of a vital community. If there isn’t pushback, how do you grow as an artist, a community, a cultural city?”
Veterans of the biennial circuit will find some familiar footing if they visit Cleveland this summer, with non-traditional venues hosting performances, lectures, public art and exhibitions alongside Cleveland’s art institutions. “Working with the public library, the Federal Reserve—I found so much enthusiasm within these civic spaces,” Grabner observes. Civil society is not typically something we associate with the world of contemporary art, so perhaps this truly will be something different, an American triennial in the middle of a divided nation.
“Front International: An American City” opens July 14 and shows through September 30 in locations throughout Cleveland.