CLEVELAND, OHIO, UNITED STATES – 2016/10/07: City skyline and the Cuyahoga River. (Photo by John … [+] Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Could Cleveland, Ohio become the next Venice, Italy? Before scoffing at the idea, consider this.
“In 1894, Venice, which these days we think of as a tourist location, a sparkling jewel on the Adriatic, was down at the heels–failed port city, a backwater of Europe, looking for a purpose,” Fred Bidwell, Executive Director for FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, told Forbes.com. “They needed to do something to rebuild and reimagine what that city meant and that was the origin of the Venice Biennale.”
The Venice Biennale is the longest running, most prestigious art event in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world visit every other year to experience art-filled pavilions curated by participating countries and the galaxy of ancillary programs which its popularity has spawned.
“That idea of a World’s Fair of art changed Venice from being a has-been city to a really important destination,” Bidwell said. “That’s my dream for Cleveland.”
Cleveland, in fact, is better positioned to become “the next Venice” than Venice was to become the first Venice. Again, before scoffing, consider this.
Cleveland’s art and culture infrastructure already exists at a world class level. The Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the 10 finest art museums in the country. Joining it in service to the region are the stand out Akron Art Museum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the Sculpture Center–one of the few institutions of its kind in the U.S.–SPACES, an artist support organization/gallery, and Transformer Station, Bidwell’s privately owned and operated art museum on Cleveland’s west-side.
CLEVELAND – JUNE 19: Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland on June 19, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. … [+] (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)
Don’t forget the exceptional Cleveland Institute of Art. Or the city’s orchestra, ranked second-best in America and fifth best in the world in a 2022 survey. Or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Who’s scoffing now?
Cleveland’s latest cultural offering with a global reach enters the home stretch of its second edition as the FRONT Triennial wraps up October 2, 2022.
“Cleveland has these fantastic arts institutions, but often they don’t get visited as much because (Cleveland’s) not on the coast. It’s not a big tourist city,” Bidwell said. “The birth of (FRONT Triennial) was what would happen if we brought all the museums of the region and some of the most important educational institutions together to do a contemporary art exhibition, united around one theme, led by one artistic director, for an entire summer every three years.”
Debuting in 2018, FRONT’s second iteration this summer brought together over 100 artists at more than 30 sites across Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin. The museums, of course, but also Cleveland’s public library, the Cleveland Clinic and a former Quaker Oats factory. Collaborations and new commissions were featured from artists across the world. Julie Mehretu, Nicole Eisenman, Jacolby Satterwhite, Firelei Báez, Chakaia Booker. Films, performances, public programs.
Abigail DeVille, The Dream Keeper. Installation view, Quincy Garden, July 16–October 2, 2022. … [+] Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Field Studio. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, with support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Joanne Cohen and Morris Wheeler, Fleischner Family Charitable Foundation, and Arts Midwest. © Abigail DeVille.
“This is not a regional art show. This is contemporary art at the Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, Paris, London level in the Midwest,” Bidwell, who twice served as board president of the Akron Art Museum and is currently on the board of the Cleveland Museum of Art, explained. “There is some cognitive dissonance here, right. How could that be? But that’s part of the attraction and our visitors often come here for the first time never having even been to a Midwestern city. It’s a little bit like an exotic safari, but that’s a good thing because you know, once you have that experience, it’s pretty cool.”
It turns out there’s high culture across the Midwest beyond Chicago despite the region’s meat-and-potatoes, Rust Belt, Drew Carey branding. Compelling, provocative, best of their kind arts events and institutions call places like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, MI, Toledo, OH and Sheboygan, WI home.
And Cleveland.
FRONT may be the most ambitious of them all with its stated mission of “making Cleveland one of the most important world destinations for arts and culture.”
Bidwell’s aims are even grander.
“There’s a real opportunity with this model to change the balance of power in the art world,” he said. “New York, L.A., Miami, those are great art centers in the United States… but their art events are all commercial. The Armory Show or Art Basel Miami, those are trade fairs; all the art you see there is for sale. That’s a very big difference with FRONT which is driven by ideas and free and open to the public, paid for by philanthropy. We are giving artists freedom to do work without a commercial motivation, outside of the pressure cooker of the commercial art world and providing the public with an experience that’s very high quality.”
Bidwell’s rightful mention of Miami as an arts capital may serve a better example for Cleveland’s cultural aspirations than Venice. No one would have considered Miami an arts destination prior to Art Basel’s arrival there in 2002. Now, it is unquestionably a world hotspot for contemporary arts. Art Basel Miami has become the largest, most prestigious contemporary art fair in North America, at least, perhaps now overshadowing its Swiss forebearer.
Miami’ transition occurred in a mere 20 years, sparked by one event, built on a foundation nowhere near as culturally rich as Cleveland’s.
Foreground: Chakaia Booker, Strayed, 2019. Background, from left: Chakaia Booker, Untitled, 2016; … [+] Untitled, 2016; Untitled, 2013; Left Over’s, 2021; Splitting Memories, 2022; Untitled, 2021; Untitled, 2021. Installation view, Quaker Square, July 16–October 2, 2022.
FRONT’s inaugural edition generated over 90,000 visitors from more than 25 countries and brought $31 million in new economic activity to the region. That success raised eyebrows locally, where increasingly, Bidwell sees buy-in around the idea of Cleveland for arts.
“Civic leaders, the new mayoral administration, the philanthropic community are really starting to think of arts and culture as a driver for the brand of Cleveland,” he said. “I think many people, even though we’ve had these great institutions ever since the turn of the century, took it for granted; ‘Gosh, the Cleveland Museum, the Cleveland Orchestra have always been here, don’t all midsize cities have these institutions?’ Of course they don’t, but that’s what happens when you grow up with it. You take it for granted. Initiatives like FRONT have caused leadership in the city to say, ‘Wait a minute, we actually have a tangible competitive difference here in arts and culture assets that is leverageable.’ It may be very difficult to turn Cleveland into a high-tech capital, that might take 30 years to happen, but we already have the arts and culture assets, we’ve just never leveraged them effectively.”
Cleveland as the next Venice?
Who’s scoffing now?

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