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SPACES' History: Part I   02.08.12

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.

The Winds of Change

In the spring of 1978, a number of Cleveland artists received an invitation. Though pecked out on a typewriter, with staggered lines creating slight visual interest, and on unremarkable paper it is still an extraordinary document. Simple, direct, sincere, and modestly ambitious, it asks artists to walk into a new arts organization and immediately become participants in its programming process. There was a careful word choice-these were not meetings they were called gatherings. This choice presumes the reality of a community of artists and it also presumes a benefit from that community's assembling and discussing issues and ideas of common interest. If one needs to pinpoint a single birth moment for SPACES, the best argument could be made for that casual event, on May 25, 1978. Perhaps 35 people attended.

In the following month, on June 20, the new organization presented its first program—Crackers (considered "the first video/theater performance in the Greater Cleveland area"). On October 13 it opened its first exhibition. Much has changed since, through four locations and three Directors, by there have been two constants—the telephone number and this sense of mission.

But that moment of birth was not really the beginning of SPACES: it marked the end of the beginning. In a sense, it began as a twinkle in the eye of James Rosenberger as the Ohio native was earning an M.F.A. in Theater at York University in Toronto, Canada. While a student, he had the privilege to work with John Cage (the avant-garde composer who suggested that we hear all sound as music and whi championed the opportunities of change). In Toronto, Rosenberger enjoyed "A Space," a place that was programmed by artists and that presented alternative approaches to art activity.

After graduation in 1976, Rosenberger looked for a city to begin his artistic career. Cleveland was less intimidating than New York or Chicago, was relatively close (but not too close) to family, and was the current residence of his childhood friend, Christopher McCracken. A job at Karamu House and the offer to teach pert-time in the Theater Department at Cleveland State University affirmed his decision.

With personal drive to launch a career, Rosenberger looked for a vehicle within which he could explore his potential as an artist. Since his idea was not individual genius creating in an isolated cell but the energy and possibilities generated by meeting and action, he looked first at existing arts organizations in Cleveland. After a glance, he decided to start his own.

Given the times, and given the place, this was common. Much has been made of a "Cleveland Renaissance" in the 1990s, with a focus on professional sports facilities as well as anchor attractions. But a Renaissance in Cleveland's arts preceded it by two decades. It seemed as if new institutions were sprouting (and withering) all the time. […] With more enthusiasm and passion than attention to financial prudence or to Cleveland's social strata, it was a fertile time for the formation of community-based organizations that worked to engage new audiences.

[Rosenberg's] vision did not anticipate an institution. Rather, he intended a crucible for artistic activity. Reminiscent of the movie, Field of Dreams, Rosenberger's attitude seemed to be, "If you build it, they will come." First he gathered a small circle of enthusiasts. He met Patsy Whitlow while clerking at the camera counter in a department store. He sold her a camera and, too, on the idea of an alternative art space. With a Master's degree in Business Administration, she provided management advice. Rosenberger's friend McCracken, by then a lawyer, provided a legal structure. Marianne Doezema, employed in the Education Department of the Cleveland Museum of Art, raised professional expectations and connected with younger staff at the Museum, such as Jane Farver and John L. Moore.

Rosenberger linked with a theater company that had an option on a building on West 9th Street next to a gay bath house. He discussed renting part of the building and perhaps becoming partners in a purchase. To stir interest, he announced an open house. Rob Mihaly had briefly met Rosenberger before, at NOVA's offices. (Among other activity as a ceramic artist and teacher, Mihaly was chair of NOVA's "Artist's Rights" committee.) Mihaly, curious, glanced around at the open house and started out the door, reserving judgement. Rosenberger stopped him at the threshold, drew him back in and sold him on the concept. Also at that open house was Melissa J. Craig (a.k.a. May Midwest, linchpin of the guerrilla art group Regional Art Terrorists) who walked in and out too—Rosenberger missed the grab. To Craig, Rosenberger's enterprise seemed too structured. She would become involved with SPACES, but years later, when both had changed.

Rosenberger also advertised in Scene magazine, soliciting for participants/partners in creating a performance/exhibition space. Kevin Hogan, a graduate student at Kent State University and former gallery manager at NOVA, responded. He was attracted because he was "interested in performance/action and there really wasn't a place to do that sort of thing." There wasn't. While the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art (founded as The New Gallery in 1968) energetically worked to introduce audiences in greater Cleveland to the breadth of contemporary art, for northern Ohio artists it was primarily a place to see rather than to do. And there were no galleries—commercial or educational—that encouraged the region's artists to experiment.

The package that would have enabled opening in what would become "the Warehouse District," on West 9th Street, collapsed after the theater company was unable to assemble the resources to exercise its option. Traxx, a gay bar, concluded a lease instead. Whitlow introduced Rosenberger to Peter Galvin, the President of Cragin, Lang, Free and Smythe, a major Cleveland real estate brokerage. Galvin offered a generous lease in the One Playhouse Square building at 1375 Euclid Avenue. For the first eighteen months no rent was due, then a nominal rent for a period of time.

It would not have been a choice for an organization with a bank balance. The gallery area was on the second floor and was awkward to find once one left the elevator; the performance area was on the third floor for security a doorman had to be hired for evening events and other times when the building was not ordinarily open; and while the building management made some changes to make the area for the gallery more usable, it needed considerable work before it was ready to host exhibitions. To Rosenberger, Mihaly, Whitlow, and McCracken it was a golden opportunity. A contribution of $1000 by Patsy Whitlow's father gave them a bank balance, and these art entrepreneurs began cajoling discount and free services and materials from friends, acquaintances, and (as they perfected technique) from strangers.

Continue the gripping saga:
Part II

Invitation to First Gathering, 1978
Invitation to First Gathering, 1978

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

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