Art in the age of ‘Rona in Cleveland: An art scene update

Tobili Hatcher, Alumni Reporter

No museums. No concerts. The Met Gala has been canceled for the year. Broadway has shuttered its doors until next year. Live, in-person dance recitals and operas seem reminiscent of another time. 

In many ways, it seems as if the art world has taken a collective timeout as everyone tries to come to terms with the new normal that the novel coronavirus has set for us over the past five months. Since the first COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders in the US were enforced in March, the pandemic has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on America’s art sector, with financial losses that equal up to $1.9 billion in lost government revenue and just under 330,000 jobs no longer being supported.

Although times have been particularly tough for the arts world, a lot of creatives are doing their best to continue expressing their artistic talents. For some, that may mean hosting an Instagram Live ballet class or hosting a book club online to discuss great American literature.  For others, it may mean hosting a virtual concert or play via Zoom. However one thing has remained constant during these trying times: people’s love and appreciation for the arts. 

In Cleveland, the arts scene is doing its best to find ways to continue to flourish, both through new online initiatives and more traditional, in-person art experiences. For example, when the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) closed on March 14, they began to release parts of their collection online for public view. For example, CMA uploaded portions of their previous feature exhibit, “PROOF: Photography in the Era of the Contact Sheet,” which was originally only available to be viewed in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall. Even after the museum opened its doors back to the public on June 30, they still have a wide variety of works that can be viewed online. Additionally, they have converted one of the museum’s most popular events, “MIX @ CMA”, into a virtual format. This allows patrons to still enjoy and experience the monthly dose of culture that the museum provides while still adhering to the Center of Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines about social distancing and avoiding large crowds. 

The Cleveland Museum of Art isn’t the only institution that has become more open to virtual showcases. Recently, the Maltz Performing Arts Center (MPAC) started a new livestream series called “Live! Streamed @ Silver Hall” which began officially on Aug. 5 with featured music from the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. While their livestream concert series may have only just started earlier this month, MPAC has been busy sharing photographs and short history blurbs as part of their “Blast from the Past” series. Not only is this a great way for people to learn more about the rich history that MPAC has in the greater Cleveland community, but it also allows the public to get a behind-the-scenes look of the performing arts center from top to bottom, something that wouldn’t have been as easily done before the coronavirus pandemic took over.

Although it may seem as if the majority of the arts world is now exclusively online, there were still some in-person art experiences that are open and available to the public.  

One local art gallery that was able to stay open amidst everything is the District Gallery located in the Van Aken District of Shaker Heights. Founded by art collectors Karen Chaikin, Bob Roth and Richard Uria, the gallery opened its doors in August 2019. Since the gallery’s opening, it has been a place where artists, local and international, have been able to present and sell their work to the public. 

Gallery director Carmen Romine recalls how the gallery “closed for the shutdown, but left the space open by appointment only for about two months.” The gallery operated in this manner until late May, when they then switched to a 12-person capacity limit and normal business hours, which equates to roughly 24 hours a week. Romine emphasizes how “the biggest thing we focused on was sanitation… we focused on having more sanitation products, but as well as limiting the number of people in the space at all times.”

While continuing to adhere to Ohio’s mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, the District Gallery has been able to successfully hold two new art installations since June. The first art installation opened on June 15 and featured work by South African painter Natasha Barnes. The gallery also included new works by Alex Katz, Marc Ross, Gavin Rain, Paul Rousso, Ian Davenport and many more around the gallery.

In July, the gallery held an art viewing that featured photography from two Cleveland based artists, Austin Halpern and Dr. Michael Weil. Notably, Weil is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University, earning his PhD here in art history, with a concentration in photography, in 2007. He is also an adjunct professor of art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Originally slated to take place in May, their joint photography showcase entitled “POLYTROPOS” finally opened on July 9.

Halpern recalls how there were a lot of doubts about whether or not they’d be able to pull off the show. Due to the shutdown and social distancing guidelines, printmaking took longer than usual because they weren’t able to go into the studio and make real-time adjustments.

In place of real-time adjustments, the printers would make a print and hang it outside of the studio door, and Halpern would then take the print home, make any color adjustments on his computer and send feedback over email. Once the feedback was received, the printer would make a new print and they’d repeat this process until they both came to a point where they both liked how the photographs came out. 

Fortunately, Halpern and Weil were able to showcase their highly anticipated collections to the public without any issues. Weil’s portion of the show is entitled “EQUIVOCANCE”, which showcases a series of cloud studies. It’s meant to explore questions and themes such as whether: “Clouds [can] clarify the comedies and tragedies of our performance down here”. To an extent, Weil’s art is supposed to be left up to interpretation by the viewer. There is no specific emotional reaction that his cloud pieces are meant to elicit. 

Halpern displayed his new series “ELEMENTAL”, which featured six landscape photos addressing climate change in Chile. The photos show scenery from both the Atacama Desert and Patagonia. Although both areas are “two wildly different landscapes…the big idea that [Halpern] was trying to get across is that both climates survive because of their glaciers.” 

A bit of a nouveau environmental activist himself, Halpern has made it a big part of his work to also talk about relevant topics that pertain to the environment, such as global warming. He wanted “ELEMENTAL” to “not be a sad series about climate change, [but rather] a representation of so much beauty in our natural world.” The series acts as a sort of call to action for us, the audience, to start caring and protecting the environment around us before it’s too late. 

When looking back at the successful show he was able to hold with Dr. Weil, Halpern reiterated: “[I am] grateful to everyone at District Gallery for organizing an exhibition opening that felt safe and enjoyable. For me, making my art has kept my spirits up during these unprecedented times, and I couldn’t be happier with the reception of this show.”

Following “POLYTROPOS”, the District Gallery is set to open its next monthly exhibition featuring “painting, screen prints, bronze and resin cast sculptures” by South African and London based artist Neill Wright. Wright’s show will run from mid-August to mid-September.