SPACES at 40 Years
In late January of 1978, from under a thick crust of snow deposited by the Great Blizzard of ’78, a new art organization sprouted on the frozen shore of Cleveland, Ohio’s cultural landscape. Squirrelled away above a McDonald’s on Euclid Avenue, this newly minted non-profit entity called itself Aeolus after the Greek god of the winds (apropos of the 70 mph gusts that ushered it in).1 By late May of that same year, Aeolus’ founder, James Rosenberger, pecked out on his typewriter an invitation to like-minded artists in the region to help conceptualize a program of Aeolus called “a space.”
Copied and distributed throughout town, this flyer was not an enticement to a meeting, but a “gathering.” The deliberate choice of words meant that on May 25th the gathered artists would not be debating mission statements, or negotiating public postures, but aggregating their youthful energies and ideals to see what might result.
Rosenberger had moved to Cleveland 18 months earlier after completing his graduate studies in theater at York University in Toronto, ON. When weighing relocation options, he decided that the expense of New York City and Chicago would be anathema to the experimentation he was looking for, but that a faltering blue-collar burg like Cleveland was a place where failure could be affordable.
While at York University, Rosenberger worked with John Cage and was drawn to experimental theater. He also spent time at a relatively new artist-run venue called A Space (founded as Nightingale Gallery in 1968, and later incorporated as the not-for-profit A Space in 1971).2 This venue hosted early residencies for Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci, and it was one of the first venues to organize an exhibition of video art in Toronto.3 Rosenberger was taken by the organization’s adventurous programming, embracing of the new and technological, and urgent energy—something he sought to recreate in his new home of Cleveland.
There was an analogous rebellious vibrancy in Northeast Ohio in the 1970s. Proto-punk and art bands like Rocket from the Tomb, The Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Devo, the Bizarros, electric eels, X_______X, the Pagans, and the Mirrors reflected the snotty and angular discontent of middle-America’s working-class youth and their reactionary neo-Dadaist tendencies. These bands found hospitable environments in Cleveland’s underground bars and clubs where they could form (and break up) over beers and combust on stage with frenetic bravado. Within the triangle of Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown, Kent State’s department of art fostered students who embraced performance, technology, and conceptual art. Although a number of art spaces called Cleveland home, many were of a parochial, regional flavor, or were bankrolled by banks, oil companies, or old family money and had their sights set on the blue-chip avant-garde like Andy Warhol.
Many of Northeast Ohio’s youthful bands, venues, and galleries did not seek permanence, and even distrusted anything with a semblance of considered organization. They burned bright and fast, leaving behind a trail of confusion and awe. Aeolus’ two programs, a space (“a” for art) and p space (“p” for performance), provided platforms and audiences for these bright lights.
Early p space events included a staging of Mason Williams’ hotel-and-salad-themed scenario Crackers, a chaotic live-video happening by Johnny & the Dicks (featuring John Morton, formerly of electric eels), and a number of short-term performance works by various artists. a space hosted large-scale photographs by Abe Frajndlich and Joel Marcus, and film, photo, and video installations involving Kent State University faculty, students, and recent graduates. Through each project, Aeolus’ family grew and its notoriety spread. Few other venues in town invited such adventurous and gritty executions of art.
Underscoring the precarious nature of small alternative art spaces, Rosenberger announced in 1979 that he accepted a position at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati and would be departing Cleveland, taking the names “Aeolus,” “a space,” and “p space” with him. The remaining artists who attended the 1978 gathering, and those that joined afterwards, were left with the options of letting the space flame out or finding a new identity and leadership to push forward (or whether to have a leader at all).
Eventually, co-conspirator Robert Mihaly took the helm. At that time it was decided that rather than addressing individual programs (e.g., an art space and a performance space), the new organization would embrace its plurality and simply be called SPACES.4 It would remain true to its multidisciplinary founding as a haven for the experimental, the performative, and the critical.
It is this type of origin story that is familiar to many artist-run spaces that self-organized in the 1960s to the 1980s. A small group of like-minded individuals could not find a reliable, local outlet for their art, so they pooled their resources and found some real estate where they could stage performances and exhibitions. Initial energies waned and/or key players stepped away from the organization. A crisis of identity, purpose, and fortitude ensued.
Artist-run venues often stay open for a few months or years at best. They tend to run on a diet of gumption and favors. They have to debate becoming a 501(c)3 with all the limitations and trappings—board of directors, audits, lawyers, etc. If they manage to find funding, it is usually only semi-reliable and comes with enough attached strings that some founding ideologies have to be retooled or abandoned. The affordability of their real estate is often undermined by their gentrifying presence in a neighborhood. Founders and directors rarely have appropriate administrative and financial training (and few would get into arts administration if they were aware of the mountain of spreadsheets, insurance paperwork, and budget meetings involved). A small handful of these artist-run spaces make it to a decade. Even fewer make it to two. What makes SPACES unique is not necessarily its beginnings, but its survival. In May of 2018, SPACES celebrates its 40th anniversary.
So much cultural work that leverages external funding, facilities, and networks benefits from a rich ecosystem that is rarely talked about in an effort to keep the focus on the art. (It’s also hard to feel rebellious and punk while debating spreadsheets and building funding projections). The truth is that without a healthy ecosystem, public interface with the art and artists becomes more difficult. Energetic artists without funding (cash or in-kind) can only go so far. Without a responsive audience, artists can wither. In the absence of critical dialog or documentation, cultural amnesia takes a hold and regional identities suffer. If a non-profit’s board activity does not maintain a certain level of activity and engagement, fundraising and networks wilt. Board members that do not fully grasp an organization’s mission statement can alienate staff and artists. Funders, whose dangling carrots are placed primarily according to their needs rather than the recipients’, can redirect organizations away from their missions and into strange territories.
SPACES’ longevity and focus are a testament to its staff, board, funders, patrons, artists, and luck. Not everything always synced up at the right times, but just enough to keep the organization alive and thriving. There were many opportunities for poor bookkeeping, gaps in leadership, withdrawn funding, and misguided public perception to derail SPACES over its 40 years. For decades, SPACES has been creating and tweaking its institutional framework so it can be true to its origins, stable enough to reliably support artist projects, and invisible enough that the art and artists are at the fore. It is an acrobatic feat of administration for an organization to engage artists at the edge of their practice and keep up with them without getting in their way.
One of the first hurdles for an organization to conquer is reliable funding that can provide the necessary resources for artists, and the flexibility to be used for general operations—staff salaries, utilities, rent, and so on. The occasional large donation from a family member or smattering of admission fees are never enough to keep the lights on for an upstart venue. Significant, consistent funding is a must.
In 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) established a new category within the Visual Arts Program called Workshops to support the work of artist spaces. This was a quizzical categorization that seemed to see artist-run organizations as centers of either production or education. The name and framing later changed in 1980 to Workshops/Alternative Spaces (a term coined by Visual Arts Program director Brian O’Doherty), and again in 1982 to Visual Artists’ Organizations.5 This evolution shows the thinking around and eventual acceptance of artist-run presenting organizations.
What this meant was a wider, public support of the contemporary efforts of artists to self-organize and self-present. Small artist spaces that may have only been in existence for a brief instance could now receive enough money through the NEA to extend their life and grow to possibly reach a new level of visibility and funding.
By 1982, the four-year-old SPACES was receiving one-sixth of its operating budget from the NEA, and another sixth from the Ohio Arts Council.6 For a struggling organization that was largely living hand-to-mouth, these funds were a godsend that alleviated annual fundraising tensions. It should also be said that SPACES has received continual funding from the NEA ever since 1982. This was the same year that Robert Mihaly stepped aside and a non-founding, non-artist occupied in the director’s chair: Jane Farver.
This shift of consciousness was striking for an “artist-run” organization that had been led by founding artists. To retain that artist-run identity, SPACES maintained a board of directors that was half comprised of practicing artists. That way policy, budgets, and the choice of executive director were all under the close scrutiny of artists and subject to more than just business concerns.
With Jane Farver, the organization found more administrative acumen, and someone who could speak the language of funders. One of her first items of business was relocating SPACES from its initial location on Euclid Avenue in Playhouse Square. The Euclid Avenue location happened to once house the radio station WJW (850 AM) where disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll” to label the mix of country, blues, and R&B that he spun. This move would signal SPACES’ transposition from its adolescent rock ‘n’ roll roots to a more mature and buttoned-up identity.
As of December 1983, SPACES’ new home was in the Bradley Building in Cleveland’s Warehouse District where artists had been squatting for years. Although a step up from Euclid Avenue in terms of square footage, it was still a rough space. More room meant more renovations and more art—both of which meant more need for funding. A $10,000 community development block grant helped with renovations over the next few years, and the nature of artist projects changed to better address the space. Expansive installation art and full-wall slide projections that were not feasible in the cramped quarters in Playhouse Square now populated the deep corridor-like space on West 6th Street.7
As renovations were underway in 1985, Farver announced that she was moving to New York City to work at the Alternative Museum. Susan Channing, who had just recently arrived in Cleveland with over a decade of arts administration experience, was selected as her successor and began in January of 1986—going on to guide SPACES for the next twenty-one years.
The NEA Advancement Program awarded SPACES a two-year grant in 1988 that provided consulting assistance to create a long-range plan and stabilize the organization. SPACES was the first Ohio organization receive such an awarded, and one of only 37 nationwide. The long-range plan got SPACES thinking about it’s delicate relationship with real estate. As the cost of leases steadily climbed in the Warehouse District (due in part to the presence of SPACES), the organization considered ways to become more rooted and they researched the possibility of purchasing, rather than leasing a location. This was another sign of a maturing organization leaving behind post-graduate attitudes and settling into young adulthood.
In 1989, property was identified across the Cuyahoga River on the Superior Viaduct that could serve as SPACES’ new home. Community development corporations had indicated that the Viaduct and surrounding area had high potential for restaurants and shops, thereby driving foot traffic onto what was essentially a dead-end bridge. It was tempting to get in on the ground floor, and own the building rather than being priced out once all the development occurred.
Through funds from the Cleveland Foundation, George Gund Foundation, and BP America Corporation, SPACES had enough money for the down payment on 2220 Superior Viaduct—a 36,000-square-foot building spread out over three floors and a basement.8 Tenants on the upper floors would help cover the mortgage, and then provide a revenue stream once the mortgage was paid off. The first exhibition was staged as slide projections on the front bank of windows the day SPACES closed on the building on September 14, 1990. Over the next three months, volunteers worked on the gallery spaces until they were ready to open on December 13th of the same year.
Finally, after 12 years, SPACES was not spending so much time and so many resources on relocating and rehabilitating real estate. It had a permanent home where improvements and monthly payments would be building equity rather than disappearing.
By 1996, SPACES was being recognized by local art institutions for the work it was doing. Urban Evidence: Contemporary Artists Reveal Cleveland was a citywide series of concurrent exhibitions that was a collaboration between the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art (now MOCA), and SPACES. The young pup (now almost 20 years old) with the meager budget, was playing with the big dogs.
In 1999, SPACES was invited by the Andy Warhol Foundation, along with 23 other arts organizations, to participate in its new program, the Warhol Initiative, that came with $100,000 to better serve artists. SPACES proposed that it could put that money toward its mortgage. The Warhol Foundation responded by awarding $126,500, allowing SPACES to completely pay off its mortgage.9 This was the beginning of a relationship with the Andy Warhol Foundation that was crucial to the development of SPACES. The Warhol Foundation was radically accommodating and responsive to the needs of smaller art organizations. Endless applications and labyrinthian grant reports were not part of the Warhol lexicon. A few conversations and brief written justifications secured significant funding that helped launch new programs, beef up programming, and direct more money toward artists and their projects.
With new-found stability, support from the Ohio Arts Council, the Warhol Initiative, and some extra space on the third floor, SPACES began an international artist residency in 2002 called SWAP (SPACES World Artists Program).10 This new program was intended to introduce global alternative art to Cleveland to inspire and better contextualize the work of Northeast Ohio artists. Each six-to-eight-week residency asked artists to leverage SPACES and its networks to help them create and present new work. The resulting projects were often social—directly engaged with people and communities. This was not an insular studio residency program, but an embedding in Cleveland. The first years of SWAP saw artists from Chile, Slovakia, Czech Republic, New York, Hungary, Poland, San Francisco, Israel, Romania, Chicago, and Texas.
However, the dreams of financial independence and a bustling neighborhood faded. A decaying building from the 1880s with the second-oldest functioning freight elevator in Cleveland, ill-fitting windows from the 1970s, and a consistently leaking roof required relentless upkeep. Both staff time and money from the tenants were being drained by the needy facility. What was supposed to be a hip neighborhood with bars, shops, and restaurants simply became a monolithic condo development that blocked the view of SPACES from the highly-trafficked Detroit-Superior Bridge. There was no draw to the Viaduct other than SPACES itself, which remained hidden and obscured.
As Susan Channing announced her retirement in 2007, the board began to explore the option of selling the building and moving so that SPACES would not be a landlord and it could have greater visibility. With the prospect of a new building and new director, SPACES was poised for a fresh future built on a sturdy, stubborn, and artist-driven past.
Two failed searches for an executive director was threatening the momentum of the organization and funders were growing nervous as SPACES entered its 30th year. The board and staff valiantly forged ahead, but without a director, plans stalled and the organization moved into a maintenance rather than a growth mode.
In August, 2008, I started as the executive director of SPACES. Coming from my previous position as the director of the Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, I was hired to oversee the sale of the Superior Viaduct building, start a capital campaign, relocate SPACES, and help the organization discern its identity as an alternative art space in the 21st century.
However, the deal to sell the building fell through as the U.S. market quickly crumbled at the beginning of the Great Recession. What was a plan for progress was suddenly looking like a plan for survival. Tighter accounting procedures and monthly finance committee meetings were implemented to head off any potential problem like a funder abandoning ship. Luckily, funders rallied and SPACES barely saw a dip in its funding.
As the organization developed a long-overdue strategic plan, it began to examine its mission statement and purpose. In 1978, there were few contemporary or experimental art galleries in Cleveland, and even fewer that worked with local and regional artists. The term “alternative space” (to borrow Brian O’Doherty’s phrasing) indicated a reaction against the prevailing styles, politics, and practices at the time. As Cleveland developed, the New Gallery became the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art and then the Museum of Contemporary Art; the Cleveland Museum of Art hired a full-time curator of contemporary art and put more money into contemporary collecting; smaller artist spaces were cropping up independently, like Zygote Press, and in aggregate buildings, like 78th Street Studios and the Screw Factory; and some contemporary commercial galleries, like the William Busta Gallery, created adventurous exhibitions with regional artists. With a greater appetite for contemporary art and new generations of artists raised on SPACES’ programming, to what was SPACES an alternative? At 30 years old and with a $400,000+ annual budget, could the initial scrappiness be captured or should that even be a goal? To borrow corporate terminology, who was SPACES’ primary customer?
These are the questions with which we wrestled. After a number of debates and discussions a new mission statement was forged: “SPACES is the resource and public forum for artists who explore and experiment.” To me, this exemplified SPACES in its past, present, and future possibilities. SPACES’ “primary customer” was not “the public” as is the case with most non-profit art venues, but “artists who explore and experiment.” The mission purposefully did not even mention art or exhibitions. These were happy byproducts of SPACES’ relationship with artists, but first and foremost, SPACES was and is a resource and a way for the public to interface with artists who step into the unknown, whatever form that may take.
I stepped away from the organization in 2013 as we finally sold the Superior Viaduct building. Succeeding me in early 2014 was Christina Vassallo, the former director of Flux Factory in New York City. Subsequently, she received similar marching orders to mine—start a capital campaign, move, and make sure that SPACES is relevant and true to its origins. This time the economy cooperated more fully, and in 2017, SPACES opened its new location a half mile west of its previous location, now in the developing Hingetown neighborhood and on a major thoroughfare to downtown. The first-floor space was purchased from local art philanthropists Fred and Laura Bidwell, the powerhouses behind the Transformer Station—a neighboring art venue that is a collaboration between the Bidwell Foundation and the Cleveland Museum of Art—and the upcoming Front Triennial in Cleveland. Vassallo’s work has been marked by fostering more art writing in and about the region, community outreach, and more overtly political projects (inspired in part by Cleveland hosting the 2016 Republican National Convention). She is seeking to grow the ecosystem in which SPACES resides and have the organization act as a responsible citizen to make sure it and its artists are around for another 40 years.
While SPACES hosted a residency in 2011 for Machine Project (the now defunct artist collective founded in Los Angeles in 2004 by Mark Allen), I had a conversation with one of their artists, Emily Lacy. She was talking about Machine Project’s approach to being a nimble, scrappy, non-profit, and stated, “We are intentionally casual.” To which I responded that SPACES was “casually intentional.” This difference in attitude summarizes SPACES evolution over the past 40 years. At first, SPACES/Aeolus was barely organized, and intentionally so. The casual flexibility provided intense freedom for the artists and audiences. However, without a single, hard-headed individual driving an organization for four decades, it could never survive, and would likely not grow much beyond a couple of low-rent rooms above a McDonalds. Part of SPACES’ formula was a shift from making casualness its first priority, to placing intention and planning first, while allowing flexibility. This creates a more stable framework in which artists can experiment. The young punk becomes the upstanding citizen (with a subversive twinkle in its eye). It will be interesting to see how SPACES and the rest of the surviving 1960s and ’70s alternative art spaces evolve as they further grow, mature, and functionally resemble the organizations to which they were once an alternative. It will also be interesting to see what alternatives spring up in reaction to them.
SPACES’s 40th anniversary exhibition 20/20 Hindsight = 40 Years is on view April 20–June 15, 2018.
- William E. Busta, “SPACES and Alternative Art in Cleveland,” in Howling at the Edge of a Renaissance: SPACES and Alternative Art in Cleveland: 1978–1998 (1998), 12. ↩
- Rosenberger named Cleveland’s a space as an homage to Toronto’s A Space. ↩
- “TRAFFIC | Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980: A Space,” CCCA Canadian Art Database, 2010, accessed April 27, 2018, http://ccca.concordia.ca/traffic/profiles/a-space_profile.html ↩
- Credit goes to Kent alumnus Kevin Hogan for the renaming convention. ↩
- Brian Wallis, “Public Funding and Alternative Spaces,” in Alternative Art, New York, 1965–1985: A Cultural Politics Book for the Social Text Collective, ed. Julie Ault (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 178. ↩
- Busta, “SPACES and Alternative Art in Cleveland,” 21. ↩
- Busta, “SPACES and Alternative Art in Cleveland,” 21. ↩
- Busta, “SPACES and Alternative Art in Cleveland,” 34. ↩
- WIlliam Busta, “SPACES 1998–2008: The Artist’s Organization as a Regional Resource,” in Living in Your Imagination: SPACES 30th Anniversary Exhibition (2008), 16. ↩
- Busta, “SPACES 1998–2008,” 16. ↩