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SPACES' History: Part II   02.15.12

Note: This text is taken from William Busta's essay in SPACES' 20th anniversary catalog, Howling at the Edge of a Renaissance: SPACES and Alternative Art in Cleveland. It will be republished here on our blog in parts over the next few weeks.

This is Part II, please begin with Part I: http://www.spacesgallery.org/blog/spaces-history-part-i-02-08-2012


The Winds of Change (Part II)

Aeolus was selected as the name of the organization after Rosenberger invoked both chance and the philosophy of the I Ching (also known as The Book of Change) by casting coins. In the text for the Hexagram that he case was "the winds of change." Aeolus was the Greek god of the winds. On January 30, 1978 Aeolus was registered as a non-profit, educational organization with the State of Ohio. The room on the second floor was designated as "a space" ("a" for "art"), and the room on the third "p space" ("p" for "performance"). For a time, reflecting the interests of Rosenberger and Mihaly respectively, "video space" and a ceramic facility were contemplated.

At first, the programming investigated possibilities that were unlikely, if not impossible elsewhere in the region. The first season included 7/8/78 Scratch Music, "1 hour of unrelated activities by a group of artists sharing the same space and time;" Death and the Last Cleveland Performance, "live video presentation of performance, movement, film, electronic music, and environmental works;" and Open Gallery, "a succession of short-term performance works, installations, works in progress, and spectator-participation works, including movement with visual elements."

Perhaps the most significant development of the first year was not the art that was produced or observed, by the integration of artists from Kent State University—both teachers and graduate students—into the Cleveland art community. It is a presumption today that when we speak of a local artist, that the artist might live in Youngstown, Oberlin, Kent, Akron, or Ashland. In the 1970s, this was not true.

For some time previous, in the artist (as well as other aspects of society and culture), the geographical sense of Cleveland (or what came to be called "Greater Cleveland," "the Cleveland Metropolitan Area," and, finally, "Northeast Ohio") had been changing. The personal automobile and an expanded, intensive high-speed highway system were responsible.

For example, the annual May Show of regional art at the Cleveland Museum of Art was limited to artists living in Cuyahoga County until 1961, when it opened up to all counties of the Western Reserve region of Ohio. In the previous decade the Ohio Turnpike had linked those counties. The distance of Cleveland from Kent and Akron shortened remarkably, too (distance being a function of time), as northeast Ohio's Interstate network neared completion in the 1970s. For the arts this meant that more people had faster access to the cultural core of Cleveland.

As Rosenberger cast widely in his search for artists to participate in his vision, a space became the first visual arts organization in Cleveland to actively recruit artists from Kent. Kevin Hogan and Rob Mihaly (who had an M.F.A. from Kent) coaxed Craig Lucas, who was then (in his own characterization) an "eager, young faculty member." As these artists became involved, so did others, and the trip to Cleveland became familiar.

As programming began, funding became an increasing concern. In one concept document, the organization was conceived as a collective of seven working artists, each of whom would contribute $1,000 to get this started. That plan fell apart, Rosenberger explains, because "none of us had $1,000." Immediate needs were eased by renting small rooms on the edges of both p space and a space as studios. In addition to income, this met programming objectives by encouraging interaction by artists with each other and with activity within the spaces. These artists included Mihaly, Jeffry Chiplis (Trustee 1980-present); Image Resource Center Director Warren Crain; photographer Jerry Nesnadny; painter Paula Scherba; and Theater Bridge Director Will Grant. Both Crain and Grant, in effect, lived in their studios. Membership in a nearby fitness club provided access to hygienic facilities. Actually, it all worked, maintaining an incredible charge of creativity even if, at times, the social interactions resembled the melodrama of a Melrose Place.

However true to mission, these studios did not provide enough income to operate an arts facility. With fortune, Peter Galvin had rented offices to the Cleveland Area Arts Council nearby. James Rosenberger credits Nina Gibans, then Council Director and Ric Wanetik, on her staff (currently President of the Board of the Wexner Center Foundation, Columbus, Ohio) with extensive tutoring on the ins and outs of fundraising and the ups and downs of maintaining a non-profit organization. Consequently, early approaches to the Ohio Arts Council brought success.

Since so much of Aeolus relied upon links that Rosenberger had forged between individuals and with other arts organizations, it was a considerable shock when he announced in early 1979 that he was leaving both the Board of Trustees and Cleveland—he had accepted a position with the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati (an offer that came because of his success at launching Aeolus). In short, he and his wife had a new child and they needed a steady income—a patch of part time jobs were not enough.

Rosenberger told Trustees that it was time to find a new name because "a space" and "p space" were projects that he initiated (they were registered by his video production company, Art Space Productions, as a trademark), and he felt that as the organization came together without him it was an opportunity to establish a unified identity.

Rosenberger recalls, "It never occurred to me that this would ever grow beyond an intimate circle of friends. ...I think it was Kevin [Hogan] who said, 'Why don't we call it SPACES.'" Rob Mihaly remembers naming it too. Other names suggested were "nderland," "Alternative Space," and "Exploding Dog." At the time, SPACES had 24 members.

If Rosenberger had brought an alternative space to Cleveland, he had also brought a specific vision. When he left, it wasn't just that SPACES was without a rudder, but it was even in dispute whether anyone needed to steer. What was obvious and essential though, was that someone needed to unlock the doors and turn on the lights during posted open hours. Rob Mihaly became President of the Board of Trustees, and in effect, the volunteer Gallery Manager.

The organization had been shifting. The intersection of visual arts and theater in a collaborative process seemed more a liaison than a marriage. In a Board meeting that spring, the discussion ranged about SPACES' identity. A consensus favored the current tack, in which a variety of programming made it difficult to perceive a specific identity. The minutes of the Board expressed regret that what was imagined as "alternative art forms and interdisciplinary work" did not draw enough "energy" to meet the programming needs. So, SPACES became open to, and welcomed, exhibitions "in a rather conventional format" too.

Robert Mihaly's position within SPACES changed significantly. AT a meeting in October 1979 Mihaly was "elected" to the position of Director, conceived as a half-time position, paying $6,000 per year. The position began effective January 1, 1980. Immediately there were discussions with the Cleveland Foundation (the largest grantor in northeast Ohio) concerning whether it was appropriate for the Board President to hold a paid position. While SPACES resisted, "believing that its "philosophy of government was unique," in June Mihaly resigned as President.

What was happening, of course, was that SPACES, conceived of as an "intimate circle of friends," was being encouraged to become an institution. The carrot was funding, dangled by private foundations and government sources (such as the Ohio Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts) alike. The written and unwritten requirements—such as incorporation, audits, grant writing and reports, a broadly-based Board of Trustees—slowly became integrated into SPACES' operations, although delayed somewhat by a stubborn residual idealism.

The issue was survival. A collective of artists is ephemeral, functioning, at best, for a few years. On the other hand, personality-centered organizations can last decades, dominated by an iron will. For SPACES, neither of these options was attractive—its vision was to serve a continuing, rather than an ephemeral, need and it wished to retain collective programming. For the next decade it struggled to find its own path. While some who have been involved shudder at how SPACES has become "established," its genius has been to adapt to the forms and protocols of an institution while maintaining its core culture.

<em>A Map: the Dull Seque</em>l, by Derf, 1998
A Map: the Dull Sequel, by Derf, 1998

Keywords: history, spaces
Author: Christopher Lynn, Executive Director
Category: History

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