On Saturday February 2nd I sat down with Laruen Hansgen, Executive Director of the Cleveland Artists Foundation to talk about the Cleveland art scene. Get more info on https://aquariumairpump.com/. The Cleveland Artists Foundation has its offices and gallery within the Beck Center for the Arts, at 17801 Detroit Ave. Cleveland, OH 44107, 216.227.9507.
Rustin McCann: So what is the mission of the Cleveland Artists Foundation?
Lauren Hansgen: The Cleveland Artists Foundation promotes and preserves the significant visual art and architecture of the North East Ohio region. We are equally committed to advancing the current and future arts in greater Cleveland as we are to celebrating its proud history. Am I a good ED or what?
RM: That sounded like a pretty canned response.
LH: Well that’s our elevator pitch. You were supposed to feel like “Oh I understand what you do by that thirty seconds of speech you just gave me, but I want to know more!”
RM: I do want to know more. So what do you do here? What drives you every day?
LH: Well, executive director sounds very fancy, but I am the only employee so that means I do everything: I change hats multiple times a day. I spend my days planning exhibitions, seeing them through, writing grants, doing the books: bookkeeping, administrative stuff.
RM: I guess I am interested in your intellectual drive. What are you interested in talking about with the work you put up?
LH: We are always trying to show artists who should be household names that are not. There is no reason that everybody who lives in Cleveland shouldn’t know about William Sommer. He is a really important early modern painter. But people don’t, and I accept that, I know that they don’t. It’s my dream that one day they all will.
In 2006 we did a show on Edris Eckhart, she is a really important glass artist and sculptor. The catalog we published for that show marked the only printed material about her, so if you wanted the monograph on Eckhart, it’s the one that we published, and there wasn’t anything before that. On a national level, national art historians are only going to look at secondary source material when they assess American art. They aren’t going to come here and do research from primary source material and come up with something to say. So it is up to us to put out those out as our product so that we are picked up on a bigger level. A driving force behind our shows is exposure. Just by virtue of showing regional artists, and I am not at a loss for good ones, the quality here is easy to find. There are certain things like “this is a show about north east Ohio water color painters” because we had a really strong tradition of water color here. Like Boston good. That’s important to get a across.
RM: And well what else do you do here?
LH: If I were to say “what have I done here? What is my mark?” Well, I feel kind of dirty saying this, but I feel like hey, I will sell my soul a little bit, I will play the game and I will do shows my board wants me to do, I will do people pleaser shows. They wouldn’t have touched these shows before I was here. That might be selling your soul but, yeah, I wanted people to become members, care about who we are, participate. I have to get our public profile elevated, like most people haven’t heard of us.
RM: I hadn’t.
LH: Right, that’s a problem. So I feel like I have been willing to please the masses a little bit more. Now that being said, I still think shows need a thesis, I still think that we have to strive to quality and there is stuff I have
definitely said no to with my board. And that’s another thing. I am insistent on historic context as well.
RM: You said earlier to me that context is important to you. (Yeah, so much) Explain that.
LH:I just feel like if you try and separate that from your experience with a work of art you are doing yourself a disservice.
RM: So you don’t think the piece should stand alone? You want to know where its coming from?
LH: I like that, yeah. I just feel like it always matters, The person who made something has their own life and moment and all of that goes along with it and I don’t think that you can take it away from the work of art. And I wouldn’t want to personally. I am always, even if it try and look at something like that painting behind you, August Biehle, you could really focus on physically the way painted, because there’s some interesting things going on there. But it’s the bathhouses at Edgewater, and they aren’t there anymore, and that’s really cool! There’s just so much more to experience.
RM: For you that informs the work? You like telling the story as well as the work.
LH: I remember I was in an undergrad art history class at Ohio State, and the art students drove me crazy. We were talking about Kirchner’s ”Self-portrait as a soldier,” and this guy, an art student, was describing the brush strokes, and wouldn’t shut up about the fucking brush strokes, and I’m like “Do you know that he painted this right after his boyfriend died in the war and he felt like he felt like he was stripped of his soul?!” And that is the experience of the work is knowing this horrible thing; it’s a gut wrenching painting is horribly sad, and I was so frustrated because I felt like he was missing the point of the work by leaving that out. So. Yes. I need it all.
RM: I mean it’s interesting, but for me, I don’t care. To me, it’s the work. It’s like trivia. I like to know it, but it’s like IMDB, I like to know that “oh that scene was shot by accident, or something like that” but it doesn’t make the movie any better it’s just interesting. What is really intriguing though is how engaged it makes you.
LH: Well I also think, maybe I’ve stayed this way, because now it is my job, and this is one of my favorite parts about my job. It’s my job to convince people that think that art is not for them, that they can enjoy it. You should be able to come to the gallery and you don’t have to dress nice, be quiet, know what you’re looking at, etc to be able to enjoy it. Art is for everyone. Giving “Behind the painting” helps people access it and enjoy it, so I use that a lot. Like “Do you know what’s interesting about this blah blah?” and they are like, “Really?! I didn’t know that!” and that sparks something for them and maybe its memorable for them. So I use it as a tool too. Maybe that’s why I get so pumped up about it.
RM: It is important. I mean I am a trained artist. Both technically but also intellectually, so I am already engaged, I am already there, I am already performing the function as consumer of art. But I do think it’s really important. With some pieces, while it’s good that a work is there, however, I don’t like it. You know? When I talk to people about art, and art I like, I always have to preface “Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean that it’s not GOOD. And just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I don’t think it should be here.” Because it is important to have a conversation. It is important for me to say why I don’t like something to you and for you to disagree with me, and we can talk about why.
LH: Sometimes you just have a bad art day and you just can’t like anything. Leave a museum immediately if that happens to you, by the way. Though I did have a bad art day at the d’Orsay, and I said to myself, “I am in Paris, I can’t come back!” so, I had to power through it. It was really horrible I almost cried.
RM: Ok so let’s argue about regionalism. So you are interested in mid-career Cleveland based artists?
LH: And old dead guys too, they are still my favorite. I want everyone to love them, it’s a little difficult, but it’s really important.
RM: So how come there isn’t better work here? Or do you think that there is and it’s just under represented?
LH: B. There is really great work here, there’s really good artists here.
RM: So how come people aren’t thinking about Cleveland in the arts?
LH: I don’t know. They should be. We need to connect more to the contemporary arts community. When you said we focus on mid-career, we recently got together with artists in the community and we asked what is it that Cleveland Artists Foundation can do for them, how can we uniquely contribute to the contemporary arts community, and they resoundingly said “shows for mid-career artists.” Meaning that there are opportunities for people fresh out of art school because they are hot and on a roll, but the mid-career artist, people who are between 40 and 60 years old, people who’ve decided to stay here, are probably teaching but they have made a career as an artist and have decided to stick to Cleveland. There’s plenty of work to look at. You know if a contemporary gallery shows a mid-career artist they are going to want to show their most recent body of work. So by showing these artists, and I can show what they have been doing for the past 40 years, I am holding on to art historical perspective, I am putting them in the cannon, but I am still showing someone who is alive and walking about the community, who is connected.
RM: So why do we stay in Cleveland?
LH: Plenty of artists are here because if you are in Cleveland and not New York you can have a studio, and it can be big, and you don’t even have to live in it, you can live in a house, or an apartment somewhere else and still have your studio. That’s really important.
RM: I think we are in a place right now where in the next 5-10 years Cleveland can be a major thing.
LH: I fucking hope so!
RM: So what do we do? What’s interesting about regionalism, if you think about major art cities, those are international art scenes.
LH: Here’s another problem, we have some good arts writers here. But, we don’t have many of them, so the same people are writing about the same things all the time, but like, where are they going to publish? Like if you wanted some major critic to come and write up a show, well, where is he gonna fucking write it up? Like, where’s he gonna go? So we don’t have any coverage. So not only do we need more people who have things to say, we don’t have any place for them to say it. That’s a big problem too.
RM: It’s important that the Transformer Station opened up, like a place that has a curatorial vision.
LH: Wouldn’t it be great if that happened more often? Like “We have all this money and we don’t know what to do with it and we have all this great art and we don’t have a place to show it.”
RM: I also think hipster DIY independent galleries are important because it’s one of the few ways you can show work that’s interesting that’s not just there to make a buck.
LH: It’s also important they aren’t just showing their own work. Like I like what Alex is doing at Survival Kit because she is honing her own craft as a curator. It’s important that not only the work is shown but its curated. It’s rewarding to see the journey of a gallery. At the former Legation Gallery, I remember at early shows thinking “Hrmm hrmm?” and then I remember a turning point show, Derek Gelvin and Annie Stimson, and it was a really good show and I was like “I am starting to see their vision, I’m starting to get what kind of work they’re showing, they’re showing quality art, the space is wearing it really well so they are understanding the physical space that they occupy,” and that’s really nice to see a gallery grow like that.
RM: So what’s a new path forward for like a thirty year old maker?
LH: You want me to like just give an answer to like the hardest question!
RM: No let’s just talk about it.
LH: That’s a really hard… I don’t know that, that’s awful, I don’t know that, good god. That’s a really hard question.
RM: Yeah, that’s your gotcha question! You can’t be president!
LH: I don’t know what the answer to this question is…
RM: I’m not sure there is an answer. Well, how do people get to their mid career so they can be shown at the Cleveland Artist Foundation?
LH: I would say that you have some length of career that is strong. A couple decades of really strong work, with some kind of evolution or story to it.
RM: So how do you move past emerging artist to mid career, besides “keep on keeping on?”
LH: Dexter Davis, do you know Dexter Davis?
RM: I don’t know anybody.
LH: Dexter is one of my favorite artists in Cleveland because of his work and because he is a really great person. He didn’t show for a number of years because of problems, a lot of personal tragedies, he had a fire and a lot of
RM: So it really is just keep working?his work burned up and it was really bad. But William Busta used to show him in the late 80s, early 90s, and then he showed him again in the fall of 2010 and it was incredible. That’s why galleries need to publish a pamphlet. It’s really atrocious that we don’t regularly enough create a record of an exhibit. Even its just a pamphlet. So there’s this story of his career that started to happen because he had these shows and then the story got so much juicer because he hurricaned back and the work had grown. I guess I like to see some kind of arc .
LH: Keep working! That’s why we have to show artists work, because if we don’t show their work they don’t have any reason to make it! Artists make art, I know so many artists make art because they have a show! Because you are showing someone’s work they are making it, that’s really awesome, really awesome. So awesome. I talk to so many artists who are like “I need to make like 3 more pieces I have a show coming up.”
RM: So we do need more hipster galleries?
LH: As long as they aren’t idiots.