Ohio was, once upon a time, a swing state; a pendulum every four years that foretold the political outcome for the rest of the nation. As the state went, the country went. At least until 2020, when it missed the mark by eight points. But the power of the swing state mythos is undeniably formative in how Ohioans view themselves, in particular because it is a marker of national visibility. Other swing states in the vicinity include Pennsylvania and Michigan. The three states have interwoven narratives of labor, post-industrial decline, and rapid demographic changes. These themes have been at the crux of contemporary art in the United States. Ohio presents a concentration of the diverse ends of the political spectra, and, as a result, it offers particularly rich material for arts incubation.
Cleveland is a city that delights in how it can surprise visitors. World class private and public collections (driven by the remnants of Rockefeller wealth) and Cleveland Clinics dot the cityscape. Foundations pour generous funds into a variety of projects. Art spaces and other experimental organizations can appear overnight, due to the relatively low cost of living. Of course, even these seemingly positive changes have negative impacts, as relocation and displacement profoundly transform neighborhoods. As folk are forced from the core city, they are pushed into suburbs where the swinging of a swing state happens.
This is not unusual. In California the major cities are deep blue, but there are counties which voted red by over fifty points. The West Coast, and California specifically, differ from Ohio in the ideological proximity between those red and blue areas. In Los Angeles County an artist might operate completely removed from the alt-right. In Cleveland (or Pittsburgh, or Detroit) the membrane of the culture bubble is thin, and the ongoing pandemic has only stretched it thinner, bringing disparate political factions within sight of each other.
It is hard to imagine that artists, grappling with the challenges of 2021 and beyond, benefit from the neoliberal buffers of coastal cities. The intimacy of arts communities in cities well below the first and second tiers makes cultural reckoning and reconciliation seem possible. The pressure to change can be seriously and meaningfully applied in places like Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. These cities, already devastated by industrialism, (already rebuilding, already rebranding) are uniquely positioned (and poised) to imagine radical futurities. Long before the pandemic, they felt the violent tumult of capitalism as it stripped resources and left cities for dead. But they survived (in some cases, just barely) with Black, Latinx, Arab, and Asian refugees, immigrants, migrants, and long-term residents forming enclaves that steadily grew, while the white populations drastically and rapidly declined.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of a wildly complex network of rust-belt, fourth, fifth and sixth tier cities. But the work — whatever that may mean — of dismantling these systems of white oppression must necessarily center these cities. Toni Cade Bambara posits that, “the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” But exhibiting art in Ohio means producing work for audiences who are not always primed for the radicalism of artists. Or, conversely, artists are not prepared to accept valid critiques of their work that could push it to the limits. And there is a near-constant threat of infighting for resources, that while comparatively plentiful, fall woefully short. These challenges have been exacerbated by a pandemic which came with the perverse silver lining of shining a light on the gross inequities that permeate society. Those in the Cleveland arts communities, specifically, are acutely aware of the intimacy and acutely aware of who is doing what and where. The audiences are familiar, the funders and the opportunities are known, and the politics are right there on the table.
To return to the bubble metaphor, there are places in this region where artists have created ecosystems with effective, meaningful and confrontational conditions that demand more from audiences and artists alike. Detroit springs to mind because the resilience of the city’s arts community has always rested on interdependence. Columbus is also exemplary; as its many arts programs create variegated cohorts that are critically prepared to take each other to task. Similarly, Pittsburgh seems to have produced a vibrant arts community that produces critically necessary art.
And this is where the hot take comes in — Cleveland’s arts communities have not formed coalitions. Instead, many artists are working in frustrated isolation. Divisions have been sown, and who is at fault, or what maintains them is unclear. Artists will cite the competitive nature of limited opportunities, but other cities with fewer resources have managed to co-opt the culture. Conversely, arts spaces and art workers are tied to their respective locales without engaging in the important work of connecting communities. The city itself also lacks effective public transportation solutions, so folks who have been moved to the urban periphery are cut off from events in the core city.
Many of the newer conversations about forging networks are brought forth by recent transplants trying to understand the legacy of segregation and systemic oppression in this corner of Ohio. How can we move forward, if we are not moving forward together? Ultimately, artist communities in the Midwest are not monolithic. They relish their unique and nuanced approaches to art. Amid urban ruin and disinvestment, barely visible to the international arts communities, the artists in this region can do some truly radical work. But progress cannot be accomplished individually. Reflexively, the impulse is to suggest European models of art network building; the salon, the Beaux-Arts curricula, the rigorous critical models of the Bauhaus. But operating beyond the specter of euro-centric arts culture requires innovative ways of understanding how we can relate to each other. It is a scary world for artists, but we should not conflate marketability with success. That is what inflated the cultural bubble in the first place. We should burst the bubble. To put it bluntly, fuck that bubble. The arts need to confront and truly reckon with the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are not many places where that is possible. Ohio is one of them.
Tizziana Baldenebro is the Executive Director at SPACES in Cleveland. An arts administrator, curator, writer, and critic, her practice focuses on emerging artists and designers. She is an organizer and activist in the effort to produce equitable cultural centers.
Volume 35 no 5 May/June 2021