Community involvement and a strong mix of visual and performing arts offerings have made this West Side neighborhood a place to be
By Alyssa Schmitt
Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood has a history of harnessing creativity. It once was home to American Greetings’ creative studios, and before that, the innovators at Baker Motor Vehicle Company manufactured turn-of-the-20th-century electric cars there.
That tradition continues today, most recognizably in the form of visual and performance arts. The Gordon Square Arts District figures prominently in the creative endeavors of Detroit-Shoreway, the boundaries of which are set by Lake Erie and Clark Avenue to the north and south and by West 45th and West 85th streets to the east and west.
The neighborhood is also home to several theaters and recently served as a blank canvas for LAND studio-selected muralists. The artistic vibes flowing through the streets and those institutions’ philosophy of making art accessible have made Detroit-Shoreway one of the region’s most exciting artistic destinations.
Building the framework
Gordon Square Arts District started out as a capital campaign over a decade ago to renovate area buildings. Once the campaign was over, its mission shifted to help ensure the buildings could sustain the arts, says Carrie Carpenter, the district’s executive director and president.
“(We) raised the money that built and renovated Cleveland Public Theatre, the Capitol Theatre and Near West Theatre,” she says. “But from there, we kind of enhanced our mission to focus on the sustainability of arts in the neighborhood, whether it’s our arts institutions and helping those buildings thrive, or now, we also have a focus on supporting individual artists.”
While Gordon Square has long supported established artists through events like 78th Street Studios’ Third Fridays, during which visitors can peruse more than 60 studios, galleries and shops, it’s beginning to focus on lesser known artists through the recently created Gordon Square Art Space.
The gallery is in a high foot-traffic area, near Cleveland Cinemas’ Capitol Theatre entrance, and when not hosting an exhibition, the space can be used for classes or programs. At 300 square feet, the space is relatively small, but Carpenter says it’s the right size for beginning artists.
“It’s the perfect size though for an up-and-coming artist to have their first solo show because it doesn’t take that much to fill it,” she says. “Our idea is to highlight these local artists. Sometimes it’s a show of their art but it’s also kind of about that community programing and that community connection.”
Diversifying the stage
Raymond Bobgan, Cleveland Public Theatre’s executive artistic director, credits that early capital campaign with helping create a more financially diverse Detroit-Shoreway, offering a little something for everyone who visits.
“Through renovating these properties and the street front, we just created this gravity that began to attract lots of other businesses, so the experience of Gordon Square now is not just these theaters,” he says. “It’s all these other things that were attracted to the area because of the renovation.”
Coupled with the neighborhood’s cultural diversity, there’s a built-in dynamic that allows Detroit-Shoreway theaters – a group that also includes Blank Canvas Theatre, Maelstrom Collaborative Arts (formerly Theater Ninjas), Near West Theatre and Talespinner Children’s Theatre – to stage a wide range of shows. To that point, Cleveland Public Theatre has developed a reputation for forward-thinking, sometimes challenging productions and engaging, community-oriented programming.
“Cleveland Public Theatre produces an incredible array of programming that is quite diverse,” Bobgan says. “Majority of our work is from non-white artists, which is pretty unheard of in the country, except for (in) theaters of color. … Over 50 percent of our playwrights are women, which is not an industry norm at all. (It’s) work that you wouldn’t really see anywhere else in Cleveland.”
When Cleveland Public Theatre takes on a production, it looks for a few different qualities, says Caitlin Lewins, the theater’s director of audience engagement and media relations. It needs to be outside the mainstream, providing a show nobody else in Northeast would do, while incorporating a social justice element.
“CPT’s mission is to raise consciousness and nurture compassion through groundbreaking performances and life changing programs, and so the art we put on the stages is usually asking the audience to allow it to open their minds a bit,” she says.
Looking like an arts district
As the insides of Detroit-Shoreway buildings came to life with art, the outsides failed to look the part.
Enter LAND studio, a firm responsible for a good deal of public art in downtown Cleveland, and via its INTER|URBAN partnership, along public transportation routes.
Sparked by an idea from Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone and with support from the Gordon Square Arts District, LAND studio was enlisted to spruce up the neighborhood’s image by painting murals.
“You can really impact a neighborhood in a quick way with murals, as long as there are buildings around that have walls that are ready,” says Erin Guido, LAND studio project manager.
In early 2017, the studio started gathering artists and matching them with building and business owners. By May of this year, eight murals had gone up along Detroit Avenue, between West 52nd and West 74th streets.
“Once all the walls we had commissioned for were matched with an artist, the artist met with the business owner or building owner to talk through potential themes or what the building owner liked about their artwork, and (then) the artist developed a couple of concepts for the wall,” Guido says. “It was definitely artist-driven. We had to make it clear it couldn’t be an advertisement for the business. … But there was definitely a collaboration in terms of overall theme and aesthetic.”
The Northeast Ohio artists involved were Eileen Dorsey (with Chicago-based graffiti artist Ish Muhammad), Ryan Jaenke, Lisa Quine, Dante Rodriguez, Darius Steward, Matthew Sweeney and Justin Michael Will. Baltimore artist duo Jessie and Katey (Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn) also contributed.
In addition to enhancing the neighborhood’s outward appearance, the mural project helped the participating artists make the jump from canvases to public spaces, and in the process, make art more accessible to neighborhood residents and visitors. cv
Watch It Wednesdays
When 78th Street Studios opens its doors for its popular Third Friday event, artists like Susie Frazier often are asked where their work is created or what the creative process is behind their art.
It then dawned on Frazier that people wanted to see the art-making process — not just the finished product, as is the case during Third Fridays.
This realization led to Watch It Wednesdays, a monthly event – held the first Wednesday of every month – during which art-making is the main attraction.
Visitors enjoy a front-row experience in the workspaces of 78th Street Studios artists. They can witness the creative process unfold before them and interact with the artists, asking questions about techniques related to a variety of media, like oil painting, sculpture and mixed media.
“There’s no better way to get a taste of the grassroots cultural scene than from through the eyes and hands of the artists who work here,” Frazier says. “Watch It Wednesdays is a unique opportunity to step into our world and hang out with some of
Cleveland’s most creative people for the night.”
The event is 5 to 8 p.m. every first Wednesday of the month at 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th St. in Cleveland. Tickets are $15 online at 78thstreetstudios.com or $20 at the door. Each ticket includes an artist-made gift and a free beverage.
– Alyssa Schmitt
Lead Image: Lisa Quine’s “Dream Big” mural on the side of a building at 6805 Detroit Ave. Photo by Gordon Square Arts District.