My Response to Steve Litt’s Article

On October 13th, Steven Litt published Grand Rapids’ wildly successful ArtPrize event offers lessons for Cleveland’s Ingenuity Fest“.  In it, he sets up ArtPrize as a competitor to IngenuityFest, and profiles its founder, the festival model, and its success.  In his praise for ArtPrize, Litt heavily criticizes Ingenuity for its venue, presentation of art, and the quality of the art itself.

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Akimitsu Sadoi’s animated LED piece Rainfall which sat just to the left of Litt’s photo of Ingenuity featured in the October 13 Plain Dealer Article.  Photo courtesy of the Plain Dealer.

It’s bewildering and confusing as to why Litt would go out of his way to make such a lopsided argument against an organization that is striving to do the very things that he cites as positive attributes of the Grand Rapids event.  In addition, it is baffling as to why he doesn’t compare budgets.  ArtPrize has a $3.5 million budget while Ingenuity’s is approximately $400,000.

The article underscores its point by using a poorly framed photo of Ingenuity that deliberately shows no art.  Meanwhile he featured an entire gallery of work from Grand Rapids.  Litt could argue that he was simply recording what he saw, but The Plain Dealer itself featured a slide show showing similar happy crowds of people interacting with art at Ingenuity.

It’s also confusing as to why the ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos was given plenty of quotes, while Ingenuity was only asked about attendance a few hours before deadline.  If the article is going to compare two organizations then both should be given the chance to respond.  We’re happy to talk about the festival, its goals, its success, economic impact, and why it’s important to Cleveland.  We’d also be happy to outline why IngenuityFest is actually achieving more impact dollar for dollar than its supposed competitor.

ArtPrize also gets a free ride when it comes to the quality of the artwork itself.

To be sure, the event is artistically mixed. That’s to be expected, given the open, bottom-up nature of the collaborations among artists and venues.

George Kozmon creates his epic 80-foot mural at IngenuityFest. His work is featured in collections at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Hyatt Regency Cologne, The Progressive Collection, IBM, The Butler Institute of American Art, and The Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

Meanwhile, Ingenuity artwork is dismissed as “poorly installed, B-grade art.”  Litt spends a few paragraphs discussing the merits and problems of several ArtPrize pieces but doesn’t give the artists at Ingenuity even the courtesy of a critique.  Many of the artists at Ingenuity have work installed in major museums, have received praise for their work around the world, and created insightful work for Ingenuity that will have lasting impact.  They deserve well thought out, insightful criticism, not a few sentences dismissing their work.

Tesla Orchestra lights up the lakefront with a dazzling display of light and sound.

Litt also disparages Ingenuity’s location as “two grimy lakefront warehouses.”  (How dare you call them warehouses, sir!)  Look, of course they’re grimy.  But if you can’t see past that, then you’re missing what Cleveland seems to have missed for decades:  A BIG BEAUTIFUL LAKE!  Ingenuity has created a minor miracle by doing what this city has yearned for: an urban lakefront filled with bustling activity during the day and at night.  Anyone who witnessed the Tesla Orchestra’s amazing display of lighting over Lake Erie on Saturday of the fest could not describe this festival as ‘small bore’ in any sense.  The location allows us to do projects that are large scale and transformative.  Sometimes you make a trade-off for grime. It seems like Grand Rapids had another problem: renovation and revitalization with no street-life.   Most Clevelanders would agree that our major problem is not pristine but bland spaces.  Rather we have a city that is reinventing itself on top of an industrial past that, in many ways, is still our future.

Also, the warehouses, while grimy, allow art to appear that wouldn’t be possible in other venues.  George Kozmon’s epic painting was 80 feet long and was created on site over the course of the weekend.  The Voix De Ville was a circus tent pitched inside along with two shipping containers from Cleveland Container Systems.  These types of installations take advantage of large space and are responding to it.  They would not work in a pristine environment.  It’s a whole narrative that goes beyond grime and is about reinvention and renaissance.

Cleveland Container Systems help transform two grimy warehouses into a vibrant space for art, performance, culture, food, and more.

And then there’s the budget.  Why Litt makes no comparison is beyond reason.  Ingenuity’s operating budget is tiny compared to ArtPrize.  In fact, if you did the numbers, we would scale up nicely against them. Better even. Ingenuity’s spends about $10 per attendee while ArtPrize spends about $15.  That means that if you scaled us up, Ingenuity would potentially reach nearly a 1/3 more people.

Comparing an organization with$3.5 million to one with $400,000 without acknowledging that fact is ludicrous.  Where is the lesson here for Ingenuity?  We need to drum up more financial support?   If that’s the lesson, it seems misdirected.

Ingenuity has a very lean budget, spends comparatively little on marketing and overhead, and still produces year-round events like Maker Faire, the Bal Ingénieux and other educational/outreach activities.

Digital art from Michael Nekic, whose work is featured in local and international collections.

It’s no secret that some Clevelanders are sometimes their own worst enemies and this article appears to be an addition to that sad, tired narrative.  In this storyline, Cleveland is a place where, either nothing is happening or all the wrong things are.  This is a world where even success is a failure because it doesn’t live up to another city’s activities.  This is only my opinion, but I believe that there are dozens of artists that were presented at Ingenuity whose work would compete very well in the context of ArtPrize.  Their only sin was to appear in Cleveland.

Pinch and Squeal outside the Voix du Ville. The mobile vaudville theatre premiered at Ingenuity and will pop up all over the region. Several performers also participated in ArtPrize in previous years.

Thankfully I think this attitude is changing. A new group of innovators, creators, artists, musicians and passionate change-makers are seeing potential in this city.  These are people who encounter two grimy warehouses on a lake and see only possibilities.  It’s also an energy that is catching on as Ingenuity’s curatorial process attracts artists from all over the world.  (If you missed Akimitsu Sadoi’s piece Rainfall you can view it at the Cleveland Public Library on the lower floor).

Jeff Chiplis’ work greets visitors at the entrance to IngenuityFest. After displays in galleries in Cleveland and New York City, this was the first fully-realized version of the piece.

You can see this movement happening all over the city with events like Brite Winter, Weapons of Mass Creation, the Cleveland Flea and many, many others in addition to Ingenuity.  The sooner we stop wishing we were somewhere else, and start investing in what we have, the sooner these passions can ignite true change in the city.

The sad part here is that Litt missed an opportunity to make a great point and offer a truly valuable lesson.  $3.5 million invested in a festival can do fantastic things for a city.  It will be a happy day in Cleveland when we can say that an event funded to that calibre exists here.  Let’s just hope that funders see the real story here: Cleveland’s IngenuityFest is gaining momentum and could have a larger impact with a larger budget.    In other words, the model is working here.  Full scale it is working in other cities.  Now it’s time to double-down and scale up.

4 Replies to “My Response to Steve Litt’s Article”

  1. Well said – Ingenuity is part of the creative renaissance that is energizing Cleveland’s core neighborhoods. Whether its festivals, The Flea, urban farms or affordable Loft Homes (St Clair Superior) – art and creativity are creating economy and hope. Litt should use ArtPrize as a bar to leap over, not to bash.

  2. Some further points to consider.

    1) ArtPrize was bankrolled, and still is to a great degree by a wealthy, politically powerful family. Dick and Betsy Devos and extended family own or are invested in someway with much of the real estate that ArtPrize encompasses. It could be argued that the initial success of the event was not as much about the idea but the social influence of the family.

    2) The Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation is a ultra conservative politically active foundation. The Devos’s have organized and funded political attacks agains worker right, LGBT rights, abortions rights, environmental regulations and have led a national campaign against public schools in favor of religious school vouchers. They are the Koch brothers of the midwest.

    3) Last year ArtPrize generated $15 million for area business off the backs of artists who had to pay to play this scrum for a prize. Artists, who are the free content for the event, have to pay all costs to exhibit their work and even are charged $50 to apply.

    4) ArtPrize is a foray by a religiously conservative family into the control of culture. The populism that is at the root of ArtPrize is the same ideology the Devos’s have politically exploited in Dick Devos’s failed run for governor. The Devos’s recently gave $22 million dollars to form the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, an institute that offers training to arts organizations and institution directors and staff.

  3. Well, all I can say is artprize smacks heavily of blatant commercialism and elitist philosophy. Ingenuity fest was a display of true, dirty, gritty, hands on art.

    Seems to me you aren’t comparing apples to apples. However if you want to truly experience art, it would seem the “dirtier, grittier” atmosphere is where you would find it.


  4. I just stumbled upon this. Litt is such a DB. The guy lost all credibility when he missed the whole Cleveland Museum of Art Director scandal.

    On to the Ingenuity Fest. This is the best thing Cleveland has going for it. I love the venue, I hope it remains there. That is what Cleveland is, an industrial town tied to shipping on the great lakes. The last two years I attended the weather was great (last year it rained but cleared up in the evening on Saturday) which made for a beautiful sunset. I don’t know how many people I witnessed take pictures of the sunset. Walking around may be a little difficult due to the railroad tracks, but that too gives it character.

    As for the art, I don’t like all the displays, but I like the opportunity to see different things. If all exhibits only show what I like, I would imagine that would be boring. The bands are great, the food good and I truly enjoyed all the street acts. It was so much fun. I don’t know how many people I told about the Ingenuity Fest, I’m a big fan.

    In closing, don’t pay any attention to the little man, he knows not what he says. You guys have a good thing going, stay true to yourselves and thank you for making Cleveland a better place.

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