Yet the shows — particularly an exhibition of work by the organization’s artist members — embody complex issues related to racial equity that underscore the importance of changes already underway at the gallery, located at 2900 Detroit Ave. in Ohio City.
The members’ show is mixed in quality, but that’s not the issue. Founded in 1978, Spaces was conceived as a locally rooted non-commercial gallery with a national and at times international scope, which provides exhibitions, commissions, grants and residencies. The idea is to give artists the freedom to experiment and even fail, outside the strictures of the art market.
At issue now is that David Ramsey, a Black cultural entrepreneur, who was invited by Spaces to be the juror for the members’ show, withdrew after telling the gallery in January that he was disappointed by the low number of minority artists who submitted work for consideration.
Ramsey is the founder of Higher Art Life, a nonprofit organization in the city’s Central neighborhood devoted to art education programs for youth. On Friday, Ramsey opened “Black Excellence: Who Are Your Heroes?” an exhibition at Deep Roots Experience, a new gallery he founded at 7901 Central Ave.
Spaces said it responded to Ramsey by offering to add three minority artists of his choosing to the 15 or so he had already picked. At that point, according to the gallery, Ramsey ceased communicating with it, an action that could have been interpreted as a form of cancellation.
Ramsey broke his silence Thursday evening in an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. He said he didn’t intend to criticize Spaces specifically, but that he wanted to raise a point about barriers facing Black and brown artists in Cleveland, and the art world in general.
He said he recognizes Tizziana Baldenebro, who joined Spaces last summer as its director, as someone “very much interested in doing the work to bring equity within the art experience in Cleveland.” He also described Kristin Rogers, president of the Spaces board of trustees, as “an ally.”
Baldenebro said Friday that she appreciated Ramsey’s statements.
“We were not trying to defend ourselves,’’ she said. “We acknowledge that the place where he’s coming from is in fact correct. There has been deep oversight and disregard toward Black and brown artists and that is something we are constantly working toward changing.”
If anything, the Ramsey incident highlights a need to rethink the Spaces members’ show, which includes works by roughly half of the 28 members who submitted work for inclusion — a small slice of its total membership of 153. It’s an approach almost guaranteed to be non-representative of the region in a broad sense.
Shows organized by Spaces with a stronger curatorial approach have more completely embodied its commitment to equity.
Under its immediate past director, Christina Vassallo, for example, Spaces invited artists to respond to controversies over immigration and gun rights. A powerful suite of shows in 2017 dealt with prison labor, the legacy of the Black Afro-futurist musician Sun Ra, and the Green Book, the Jim Crow-era travel guide for Black motorists.
In 2018, Spaces staged a nationally significant installation by Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz, plus additional works by several Cleveland Black artists, responding to the 2014 police killing of Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old who was playing in a park with a pellet gun.
And now, in addition to the members’ exhibition, Spaces is displaying a powerful video installation by New York artist Alicia Grullon, who identifies as Afro-Taino, meaning she is partially descended from indigenous pre-Columbian people of the Caribbean.
In her videos, Grullon channels the words of Northeast Ohio residents she interviewed as part of a remote residency during the 2020 election season in which she focused on politics and race.
Grullon’s performances describe racial confrontations in restaurants, family rifts over politics, and the discomfort of an anonymous Black employee whose job at an undisclosed firm in Lake County required her to be silent around co-workers who sported MAGA hats.
Beyond such exhibitions, Spaces has shown other signs of striving for greater diversity.
Baldenebro was hired largely because of her track record on equity and inclusion. A 33-year-old Latinx native of Los Angeles, she is viewed as a participant in the growing movement to upend traditional art world hierarchies. — a trend intensified by recent Black Lives Matter protests over police killings of unarmed Black people and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on minority communities.
The movement is having an impact.
Before coming to Cleveland, Baldenebro resigned in July from her previous position as the Ford curatorial fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to protest allegations of racial insensitivity in the workplace under MOCAD’s then-chief curator and executive director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder. Borowy-Reeder was later fired by MOCAD’s board of trustees. She apologized for her conduct but later said she was treated unfairly, according to The Detroit News.
Race-related issues also led to the recent resignations of directors at the Akron Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. On Wednesday, President Charles Venable resigned as president of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields over a job posting seeking a director for the museum who could maintain the institution’s “traditional, core, white art audience” while adding diversity. (Venable was a curator and deputy director at the Cleveland Museum of Art from 2002 to 2007).
In addition to hiring Baldenebro last year, the Spaces board hired strategy and engagement consultant Monique Williams, who devised a “blueprint” to help the organization achieve greater diversity.
Rogers said the Spaces is implementing the blueprint. But measuring progress could be difficult. The gallery hasn’t kept demographic data on participation in its exhibitions. Should it? Would numbers alone determine whether the organization has met an acceptable standard? Who is to judge?
Artistic quality also matters. As noted above, the members’ show has its ups and downs. On the upside, it includes an unsettling, sepia-toned portrait by Leigh Brooklyn of a white woman armed with a military-style rifle. The image looks eerily prescient after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Yet the overall tenor of the works chosen by Ramsey, who was obviously limited by the membership format, creates a light, colorful, playful, and decorative mood that seems oddly out of touch with the Grullon exhibition. The flavor of the members’ show is typified by the imaginary forest scenes of Eileen Dorsey, painted in gooey palette knife textures and cake-icing colors.
The show includes works by two minority artists: Dale Goode, a maker of gold-painted assemblage sculptures, and Chi-Irena Wong, a 2020 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art who is represented by whimsical views of a shoe store and a glass blowing studio. It’s great that Wong is getting exposure, but Goode’s sculptures exhibit a certain sameness. Like some other participants in the show, he has become predictable.
The uneven nature of the show raises the question of whether Spaces should ditch the open-submission format, which by definition isn’t that competitive. That’s something the gallery is considering.
Beyond that question, how can Spaces, and all arts institutions, do a better job of providing great things to see, while ensuring broader inclusivity?
Spaces will be wrestling with those and other questions raised by the Ramsey incident. The gallery’s history, and its recent actions, show that it has the desire, ability, and creativity needed to come up with some very solid answers. And, given its evident commitment, there can be little doubt that it will.