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As the Front Triennial Wraps Up, a Conversation on What It Did for the Cleveland Arts Community

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Those of us involved in the arts in Cleveland know that it is, and has been, a cultural destination for decades. But what about the rest of the city? And what, if anything, will change after the Front Art Triennial, which has received plenty of positive press since its debut? As we near the end of its three-month stint, which runs through Sept. 30, Scene reached out to participants, organizers, artists and people on the street regarding what worked and what could be built upon for the next triennial.

"What is Front? Seriously, I don't know what that is." That's what Amber, in Lakewood, said when we asked her about it. She'd heard rumblings of a big art show, but didn't understand what all the fuss was about. One gentleman, who wished to remain anonymous, thought it was "a hoity-toity event that nobody cared about within the city limits unless they were actually involved in the arts. Which begs the question: Could the organizers at Front have pushed harder for the attention of and participation from everyday Clevelanders?

Liz Maugans, the chair of Front's local artist advisory board, told us, "I think that more support, resources and efforts could be put into programs with young school-age and college students to be involved (with) tours, docents, activators of the Front sites and partnering shows. On all fronts, they relied on partnering organizations to do this. This could be boosted across the board. Young people need to see this work and be involved. I loved the show at Spaces because of this. (John) Riepenhoff connected to other artists, curated them into his interest in gun violence as an American City theme, particularly with Cleveland and the tragic death of Tamir Rice. It was specific, immersive and an authentic experience for those involved with Cleveland youth (like Amanda King)."

As artist and author Arabella Proffer stated in her recent observations of the triennial, "The marketing of Front and its choices of artists was to serve the purpose of bringing people in. In fact, almost all marketing efforts were targeted to those beyond a 500-mile radius of Cleveland. Does a gorgeous spread in Architectural Digest inspire a culture junkie in Seattle or a diehard art collector in Dallas to make a weekend out it? As though we are on a hamster wheel, always something to prove, Cleveland has a hurdle that most other cities with arts events don't have: the stigma of being Cleveland. Let's face it, Prospect New Orleans, Art Basel Miami, and the Venice Biennale take place in places people want to visit, anyway." Proffer astutely continues, "The process of selecting artists was to choose those who have started to ascend, or have already made a splash in other biennials, triennials, and various degrees of academe in the art world. The list of international artists is staggering for a first-time art triennial in any capacity."

We couldn't agree more. "The American Library," a sequel to "The British Library" created in 2014, is the quiet and visually stunning installation by Yinka Shonibare at the Cleveland Public Library's downtown branch. It presents books wrapped in African wax cloth printed with the names of first or second generation U.S. immigrants and African Americans affected by the Great Migration. It certainly tackles the American immigration debate. We witnessed several visitors participating with the artwork's interactive features.

And, of course, there was the outcry by the local community that there were no regional artists chosen, although this turned out not to be the case. Six artists were, in fact, chosen to participate, including Elizabeth Emery. Emery, a sculptor whose modus operandus is breaking boundaries and the tension of that containment, is presenting "Hear Her Sports" in Front.

"'Hear Her Sports Glenville' is one of the biggest projects I've ever done," she says. "I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to do it. Talking to almost 100 sporty girls and women had a personal impact beyond what I could have expected. Such wonderful women told their stories: seniors at Glenville Rec Center; Tia Blackmon Mosely, the manager there; Coach Crider a stellar basketball coach and her players; Ms. Destiny, a cheer and drill coach at the FDR Academy Boys & Girls Club; the Glenville Panthers Cheerleaders." The project began as screen prints looking back on the lack of media coverage that beleaguers women in sports.

The rogue exhibitions surrounding Front, such as the CAN Triennial turned out with some triumph and even a bit of controversy. Dana Depew's magnificent and very funny installation piece, "Your Art Sucks," was perched at the entryway to the 78th Street Studios complex. It did not sit well with some in the local arts community. It did, however, open up dialogue within the general public, which is an arguable measure of success.

The thing that nobody can deny in the city and within its arts community was that the spotlight was on us. From ArtNet to the New York Times and art bloggers, this triennial brought national and international media attention, which is more than we've ever seen. Front sparked many opportunities for our own artists, as well.

"Some of the later programs on residencies and Midwest studios, galleries and collective spaces was very good for engagement moments and gave information and connectivity to local artists for the future," says Maugans. "I have nothing but admiration for Front and now that they have this foundation year tucked under their belt, new curators and partnerships, new iterations and programming all are ways that possibilities can open up for local artists and continue the impact of Northeast Ohio being a great place to be an artist."

There is still time to take in the citywide exhibitions, and we're certainly curious about what Fred Bidwell and the Front team will bring in 2021.

For more information and a listing of events, go to frontart.org. For more on the Hear Her Sports project, go to hearhersportsproject.com/stories.

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