At the May 5 Quest for the Fest planning meeting, attendees perform a SWOT analysis identify to strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to past arts events in Cleveland. Canvas Photos / Amanda Koehn

By Amanda Koehn

Local artists and advocates who have been meeting over the last few months to develop a Northeast Ohio arts/creative event don’t know exactly what their eventual festival looks like yet, but they know it will reclaim arts programming to be envisioned and led by creatives themselves.

While details like the event’s theme, expected timeline and locations are still to be determined, the leaders of the Quest for the Fest group – as they refer to the planning initiative – are clear that they want it to be inclusive, fun and interesting to diverse generations of artists. The group has had three meetings starting in February to discuss the potential fest, with the most recent meeting on May 5 at Artful Cleveland in Cleveland Heights.

The Quest for the Fest began after the recent cancellations of other major arts events in Cleveland and surrounding areas, including the FRONT Triennial, the Collective Arts Network’s CAN Triennial and The Robert Thürmer People’s Art Show at Cleveland State University.

Frustrated by the loss of these major exhibitions and opportunities for local artists, those working toward creating the new festival are looking beyond typical funding and gallery show opportunities. They are focused on a mission that puts the economic and creative needs of artists at the forefront. It’s also about making sure younger generations of artists have models for what an arts career looks like in Cleveland post-COVID-19 pandemic, says Liz Maugans, an artist, advocate and one of the leaders of Quest for the Fest.  

“For me, it’s a beautiful thing to get more people involved in the arts and the creativity of what we do, and break down barriers and to get our young creatives involved and to build mentorships and all different kinds of connections,” she says at the second planning meeting on April 7, which she led with David King, another artist and group leader. “This is going to be sloppy work. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be, I think hopefully, fun and joyful.”


Quest for the Fest stems from wanting to build something for Clevelanders to enjoy in a creative space as cancellations of major arts events have been announced over the last couple of years. 

Importantly, the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art was permanently canceled earlier this year after introducing the triennial in 2018 and hosting a second iteration in 2022, which was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason given for the cancellation was due to a lack of funding for its 2025 event as “public and private funding priorities have changed to focus on the critical needs of our communities.” According to the announcement on FRONT’s website, “a realistic analysis of the support FRONT 2025 can gain from local, regional and national funders has led the FRONT board to conclude that it is impossible to produce FRONT 2025 at the same high standards it established for its prior editions.”

Similarly, the Collective Arts Network’s CAN Triennial was canceled, also announced earlier this year. The CAN Triennial, which also began in 2018, ran in conjunction with FRONT and sought to further highlight local artists amid the international emphasis of FRONT.

Liz Maugans, an artist, curator and one of the leaders of the Quest for the Fest initiative, runs a brainstorming session at the May 5 meeting.

Maugans also points to the end of the Robert Thürmer People’s Art Show, which was hosted for 24 iterations at The Galleries at Cleveland State University. The People’s Art Show, which was promoted as a “non-juried, uncensored exhibition, celebrating diversity and imagination” on the CSU website for its last iteration in 2022, ended due to the gallery space’s closure, Maugans says. 

“It’s one of those things where everybody else steps backward, and you are left standing by yourself and you realize what happened,” King says at the April 7 meeting. “So, we’re building the plane as we’re flying this right now – we’re all fluffing our wings.”


The city of Cleveland is also attempting to fill the void in arts funding and public projects by launching the Transformative Arts Fund – a $3 million fund for public art projects and initiatives led by Cleveland artists in collaboration with partner institutions in the city. TAF was approved by Cleveland City Council earlier this year, using American Rescue Plan Act funds set aside in 2022. 

Each “transformative public art initiative” accepted will have a budget in the range of $250,000 to $500,000, according to the city, meaning about six to 12 projects will receive awards.

Rhonda Brown, the city’s senior strategist for arts, culture and the creative economy – the first to hold the new role – declined to be interviewed for this story, citing her full attention is on TAF. 

“The Bibb (Mayor Justin) administration is excited about this brand-new initiative and what projects will come from it, and looks forward to continuing our work with the arts community to ensure their voices are heard here at city hall,” she says in an email.

A longtime activist for supporting artists in the community directly, Maugans advocated for ARPA money to be allocated to the arts, she says. However, she believes some of the best initiatives to build up the art scene will come directly from artists rather than governments, and thinks the large TAF grants to be given to a small number of artists and institutions are unlikely to help a larger community of artists struggling to earn a good income. She wishes for the success of the program but sees things differently, she tells Canvas in a March 28 interview at YARDS Projects – the gallery she runs within the Worthington Yards apartment complex in Cleveland’s Warehouse District.

“I see the artists because I know them, and I see them struggling,” she says. “And I see these students who are financially strapped. So trying to find resources, which is opportunities, which is connection, that’s how we do it.”

She says she’s over the “rules and regulations” surrounding arts funding and opportunities. And centering the needs and interests of artists and creatives is paramount to building an event the community will be excited about, she says. 

“As we’re in sort of a post-epidemic loneliness and isolation and distancing and division, to be able to have a situation where the artists’ energies, where we’re using a sort of network, artist-led concept to be able to figure this out together, is extremely exciting to me,” she says.

Funding for the Quest for the Fest event will need to be figured out further down the road, Maugans says. A goal is to make sure barriers to engaging in the fest are low, meaning more creatives and attendees can take part. For example, if artists have to spend time and money on applications to be selected for a show, it limits inclusion to who has time and resources to spend on the application. On the audience side, if the event costs money to attend, that can limit who can enjoy it and learn from it. 

Maugans hopes any event her group creates will be less concerned with making money or fitting certain criteria, she adds. And while selling art will ideally happen at the new fest, the primary goal is to make it fun.

“… I think that artists can create energy really well together, and I think we’ve been a little lured for the fantasy and the seduction that all these grants are available and you just have to apply for them,” she says, noting these problems don’t just exist for Clevelanders, but for creatives everywhere.

David King, a Quest for the Fest leader and artist, leads the April 7 meeting with the goal of planning an arts/creative event that prioritizes local artists and communities.


At the April 7 Quest for the Fest meeting, about 40 creatives and supporters voted on categories and ideas for what the event might entail. They established a desire to create a multidisciplinary festival, and a “strong majority” expressed interest in doing a multi-week event with a culmination event or weekend, the group’s leaders later relayed at the May 5 meeting. 

At the May 5 meeting, the group discussed in more detail what they could learn from past events’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (or challenges the festival could not control), as well as what venues, institutions, people and associations may be involved. They also talked about how the Quest for the Fest must be a safe space in terms of openness and mutual respect for diverse creatives, led by Britney Kuehm, a creative management professional. 

Maugans jokes that while her group may seem “unorganized” or “aimless” at this stage of planning, experimentation is part of the process. 

“I don’t know where we will be, but it will be democratic,” she says. 

Maugans specifically mentions the importance of including both emerging artists and those who have been making work for several decades.

In addition to being artists, both Maugans and King are educators – King is a retired high school teacher and currently teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, while Maugans teaches at Cleveland State University. Maugans says she’s seen the hardships student artists have experienced since the pandemic hit in 2020, as schools continue to experience reduced funding for the arts and under-emphasize artistic careers. 

As such, they want to provide young artists opportunities to show their work in Cleveland, as well as become better exposed to how one might have a successful arts career here, today. 

At the April 7 meeting, attendees also considered the wide range of creativity that could be represented. Designer Jacinda Walker told the group it’s important to make the event inclusive toward professionals who work in creative industries that wouldn’t self-identify as artists. Defining programming solely under the umbrella of “art” could close it off to a wide facet of the creative community, she says. 

“If you are calling it art anything, I am having a design week right behind it, I promise you,” Walker says. “… If you don’t include us with the language, why should we support it? We all create differently. And to be able to say we are trying to do something in Cleveland for creatives, you have to use the language that is creatively inclusive. And art unfortunately is not.”

Additionally, participants spoke of including creatives who aren’t necessarily connected to major galleries or institutions, further opening up the tent and related opportunities.

Maugans is visibly excited when she discusses the possibilities for the event she and her teammates are trying to build, referring to it as a “love fest.” While some attendees at the two most recent meetings were more questioning in terms of establishing a core mission of the Quest for the Fest, many agreed it was important to create something that puts creatives and their work at the center and focuses on their impact on Cleveland and beyond.  

One of the leaders of the May 5 meeting was Jurnee Ta’Zion, a CSU graduating senior and sculptor headed to the Cleveland Institute of Art for post-baccalaureate studies. Maugans was her professor at CSU and connected her to the festival planning. At 21, she represents a younger generation of artists and emerging leaders lending their skills and voices to events like this. She hopes the fest will first of all, happen, and second, engage people who may not believe the arts are for them, she says. 

“I hope it will be accessible and we get to share it with everyone in Cleveland,” she tells Canvas, “because I know a lot of people who don’t think the art world is accessible or feasible or for them, and just getting everybody involved from 0 to 105.”

The next Quest for the Fest planning meeting will be at 1 p.m. June 2 at Artful Cleveland – and the creatives involved are open to adding more voices to the mix.