Every day thousands of commuters speed past the Cleveland State University Art Gallery on Chester Avenue, a modest brick fixture of the gritty urban landscape. Lost in their rush-hour reveries, few notice the building, let alone recall that not long ago, this was the site of a small but significant battle over the First Amendment.
The conflagration was sparked five years ago at the gallery's annual People's Art Show, a unique, nonjuried exhibit open to artists at all levels of experience and sophistication. (This year's show runs through November 20.) For the 1993 show, an amateur artist submitted a collage that consisted of crudely drawn sexual images, onto which was affixed a flyer publicizing the disappearance of a local teenage girl. During the exhibit's run, Cleveland police found the girl's dismembered body. She had been murdered by her boyfriend.
Following that gruesome discovery, a work that had seemed merely strange struck some viewers as lewd, macabre, exploitative, and racist (the artist was white, the slain girl African-American). An outraged fellow exhibitor insisted on boycotting the show, and the story was soon splashed across the local media.
The populist principle behind the People's Art Show, however, dictates that absolutely no work is rejected unless it interferes with other exhibits. "It's a true laboratory," says gallery director Robert Thurmer.
Thurmer believes that the missing-girl artist was trying, albeit clumsily, to make a statement. And the following year, the same artist entered a similar work, this time featuring a missing white child (presumably to demonstrate that he wasn't a racist).
Despite the firestorm of criticism, the university's commitment to free expression never wavered. "Everyone felt that it was central not to change the unrestricted, unfettered nature of the show," says Thurmer. Following a series of contentious public forums, CSU agreed to only one change: It would mount the exhibit biennially.
This year's show remains refreshingly free of curatorial restriction. Inspired images by neophytes stand alongside more polished efforts. There is little here to arouse the censors, but many of the artists tackle provocative subjects. Robin Troyer's "A Dawn Setting Upon the Eyes of Bart" adorns a wood coffee table with a collage of cartoon characters in risque settings: Archie Andrews in a menage a trois with Betty and Veronica; Gumby melting, exclaiming, "But I thought you were my friend, Pokey," while his equine sidekick contemplates a Claymation coup.
The idea of a populist art exhibit seems so basic, it's surprising no one tried it before 1980, when John Hunter, then a curator at the Detroit Institute of Art, organized the first People's Art Show in the institute's basement. The show was held only once, a victim of its own success--the institute couldn't handle the crowds. When Hunter was named director of the Cleveland State gallery in 1983, he brought his brainchild with him.
While the People's Art Show survived its most harrowing censorship challenge, there have been other skirmishes over the years. There was a jar of urine, in the tradition of Andrew Serrano's "Piss Christ," and a wall of religious-themed artworks, which pissed off some of the pious. Then there was the notorious flag-on-the-floor, an installation that invited patrons to walk on the American flag. Veterans' groups frothed at the desecration, and during a public forum held to defuse the controversy, one vet knelt, plucked Old Glory off the carpet, rolled her up, and walked out the door. "Right before our eyes," Thurmer remembers, still awed by the old soldier's audacity.
Every submission to the People's Art Show--the gallery receives more than 300--is treated with sedulous respect. "We go out of our way to accommodate artists and take them seriously," Thurmer declares. "We don't laugh at anything."
The Cleveland State Art Gallery is at 2307 Chester Avenue. Call (216) 687-2103. Hours are Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 4 p.m.