Local arts organizations partner to transform Public Square into an exciting platform for art this summer
By Amanda Koehn
Those who spent time around the revamped Public Square in downtown Cleveland between last summer and this March may remember some colorful plastic animals hanging around. The whimsical meerkats, toads and other inviting figures were placed around the Square to be played with, moved around and photographed as part of the Cracking Art project. Frankly, they were a hit.
“Kids who didn’t know each other would work together to move the big snails around,” says Sanaa Julien, CEO of Public Square programming and operations. “It gave people a sense of community because it brought them together to modify and play with these animals in a fun way.”
The presence of the animals, which was funded by a grant from the Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation, not only provided “unstructured play” for visitors, according to Julien and her colleague Nora Romanoff, senior project director at LAND studio, but also helped the two collaborators concretely envision what possibilities a unique space like Public Square holds.
“We were really kind of interested in introducing the Square to a different personality,” Romanoff says.
This summer, that vision is becoming even a larger reality. Thanks to a partnership between Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, one of the largest public funders of arts and culture in the U.S., LAND studio and Public Square, local artists are developing festivals, storytelling events, performance art ideas and a variety of other creative programs for visitors to enjoy throughout the summer.
The new Square
LAND studio is an organization that works with public art, sustainable building and design and arts programming. Romanoff says back as far as 2002, LAND had been in talks about how to make Public Square an arts-friendly outdoor space. As a result, by the time it was conceptualized – and finished in June 2016 – its team already had concrete ideas.
“We weren’t starting from scratch. … We’d already gone through some good ideas and bad ideas,” she says.
Thus, upon the opening of the new Public Square, Romanoff and Julien knew the space was well-equipped for performance and unique art programs. It requires funding to capitalize on those ideas, however – a need Cuyahoga Arts & Culture helped fill.
Funding the arts
Before construction began on Public Square, a partnership was formed between Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, LAND studio and downtown Cleveland’s revitalization organization, the Group Plan Commission. The collaboration was natural, as they all had similar visions about the expansive, yet sometimes intimate, performances and art that could take shape.
“One of the goals is to really create for these artists an opportunity to share in a way where they might not have had those resources prior,” Julien said.
Cuyahoga Arts & Culture is funded by the county’s cigarette tax and doesn’t fundraise, which allowed them to access specific National Endowment for the Arts funds that only an agency like theirs could receive.
“We found out it existed and so we said to LAND and the Group Plan (Commission), ‘well, we all want to do something, let’s see if we can bring some new money to the table to help support it,’ and lo and behold, we were successful,” says Cuyahoga Arts & Culture CEO Karen Gahl-Mills.
Gahl-Mills says that this new arts program, called Arts & Culture in the Square, will likely include performance art, theater and dance. However, she is also hopeful the programs, which will run from about May to September, will extend to creative nature, film/media and science programming. The project’s website also lists festivals, communal painting, science demonstrations and planting a mobile garden as potential projects.
“I hope they get a chance to experience something that they might not experience otherwise,” Gahl-Mills says. “When you bring programming for free to a downtown public space, that takes away a lot of barriers to participation.”
As of early April, more than 50 submissions had been accepted from local organizations. Cuyahoga Arts & Culture has $100,000 to work with and the collaborators will decide how to divide the funds between smaller and larger programs seeking to display work.
“Really what it speaks to is this idea about the Square being for everybody,” Romanoff says. “It was the center of protests for (the Republican National Convention), it was where Cleveland Pride moved to this year and it’s where people are moving around these ridiculous (plastic) snails because they loved it. And it really speaks to the human factor that if you build a space and you do it well, then that human factor is realized to its fullest potential.”
The collaborators are also hopeful that Arts & Culture in the Square will help people who aren’t necessarily “artsy” get something out of the experiences, too.
“Even if you are somebody that says, ‘well I don’t know if I’m an arts person or not,’ we can promise you an event in Public Square under this rubric is going to be something fun and worth checking out,” Gahl-Mills says. CV
On the Square
For information on Arts & Culture in the Square programming once it’s been selected, visit clevelandartsevents.com.
Lead image: The Cracking Art animals were a hit while they were on display in Public Square between last summer and this March. Photo by Bob Perkoski | LAND studio