The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Fred and Laura Bidwell Foundation join forces to create the Transformer Station gallery in Ohio City
Fred and Laura Bidwell of Akron, shown inside their Transformer Station building, are changing the terms of cultural philanthropy in Cleveland through an innovative gallery project in the building in partnership with the Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo: Lynn Ischay, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio — For the first time in its 95-year history, the Cleveland Museum of Art is creating a permanent artistic presence on the city’s West Side.
In collaboration with the nationally recognized Akron art collectors Fred and Laura Bidwell, the museum will announce today at a news conference that it plans to open a 3,500-square-foot gallery in the former Cleveland Railway Co. transformer station at 1460 West 29th St. in Ohio City, a block south of Detroit Avenue.
In a deal valued by the museum at $5.5 million to $7.5 million, the Bidwells will renovate the building at their expense and pay for operations and maintenance while jointly programming it with the museum for 15 years. At the end of the period, they’ll donate the structure to the museum outright. As part of the arrangement, the Bidwells have also pledged $1 million to the museum’s ongoing $350 million expansion and renovation plus $2 million to create an endowed curatorial chair in contemporary art.
On top of that – exclusive of the West Side project – the Bidwells said that they plan eventually to donate their entire collection to the Cleveland and Akron museums.
The Ohio City project is the first major new venture for museum Director David Franklin, who moved here last year after having served as chief curator and deputy director of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
He said in an interview last week that he sees the Transformer Station, as it will be called, as a way to demonstrate his forceful commitment to contemporary art, a new step for the traditionally conservative Cleveland museum – and its traditionally conservative hometown.
“I want the Cleveland Museum of Art to be the glue for the contemporary scene in Cleveland, which feels ready to burst,” he said.
Fred and Laura Bidwell, 59 and 57, respectively, said they want to express their pride in Northeast Ohio, plus their conviction that Cleveland is a natural center of gravity for innovation and creative energy in all its forms, because of its high concentration of cultural institutions, enthusiastic audiences and low cost of living.
“It’s a real opportunity for people like us to make a difference,” said Fred Bidwell, executive chairman at JWT Action, an Akron advertising firm. “We’d never be able to buy a building like this and at a reasonable price and partner with an institution like the Cleveland Museum of Art and do this in San Francisco or Boston or Atlanta or any of the hot cities.”
August Napoli Jr., the museum’s deputy director and chief advancement officer, said the Bidwells’ initiative exemplifies a new kind of activist cultural largesse in Cleveland.
“They represent the new breed of philanthropists,” Napoli said. “They don’t want to leave it [their wealth] in their estate, they want to engage. We’re seeing a generational change.”
The Transformer Station is an imposing brick cube built in 1924 and detailed to resemble a diminutive Renaissance palazzo. It boasts a sturdy concrete floor, 22-foot ceilings and clerestory windows that wash the interior with cool, even light. It also houses a two-story, horizontal crane capable of lifting 15 tons.
Sold by the city in 1949, the building served from the 1980s to 2010 as a private, fine art bronze- casting foundry. The crane – with its imposing steel framework and chain-and-hook assembly – will remain as a visual centerpiece of the building, which will be expanded and renovated by Cleveland architect John Williams. A rear wing faced in polished, dark gray concrete block, will bring the enlarged facility to 7.944 square feet, which will include an elevator and upstairs offices for the Bidwell’s private art foundation.
The joint gallery, which should open by late 2012 with free admission and full wheelchair accessibility, will have numerous agendas. The Bidwells, who will lead programming six months of the year, want to share their collection of more than 500 contemporary, photo-based artworks and other projects, which ranges from a small Polaroid portrait of Fred Bidwell snapped by the legendary photographer Walker Evans, to a mural-sized photogram by artist Adam Fuss, who placed wriggling anacondas on a giant sheet of photo paper and exposed it to light.
Art & Antiques magazine ranked the Bidwell collection as one of the top 100 in America in 2006.
“It’s an addiction,” Laura Bidwell, a graphic designer and video artist, said of the couple’s collection. “It’s growing out of control,” her husband added. “So much is in crates and storage, and we’re anxious to have it see the light of day.”
The museum, which will run the gallery the other six months, will use the Transformer Station as a laboratory for experimental exhibitions in painting, sculpture, photography, video and digital media that it couldn’t mount at its home base in University Circle. It also wants to stimulate economic development in Ohio City and the emerging Gordon Square arts district, to break down the city’s East-West cultural divide and to expand its audience.
An expansion designed by architect John Williams of Process Creative Studios in Cleveland will bring total gallery square footage inside to 3,500. The addition will be cladded in polished concrete block, which will contrast with the red brick of the older building.
For most of its history, the museum has snubbed or downplayed contemporary art, particularly the most aggressively innovative movements of the 20th century. As of 1958, for example, it only had a single abstraction in its collection, a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi. The museum collected modern and contemporary art fitfully and cautiously from the 1960s to the 1980s, leaving gaps and weaknesses it may never be able to erase because prices for 20th century art have skyrocketed.
From 1919 to the early 1990s, the museum celebrated art from Northeast Ohio in its annual May Show. But it has devoted minimal scholarly attention to the field and has only done two individual exhibitions on local artists, both coming very late in the lives of their subjects.
A retrospective exhibition on the late Viktor Schreckengost, held in 2000 when the artist and industrial designer was 94, was the first major solo show on a living Cleveland artist in the museum’s history. The second such exhibition, a retrospective last year on the internationally recognized goldsmith John Paul Miller, then 92, didn’t include a catalog.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which will move into a new, $26.7 million building in University Circle in 2012, has long picked up the slack left by the far larger and wealthier Cleveland museum.
Franklin said, “one thing I want to achieve [with the Transformer Station] is settling this question of contemporary art and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and maybe of contemporary art and Cleveland. I have my own answer. It’s time to take advantage of all the energies of MOCA [the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland] the Cleveland Institute of Art and Gordon Square.”
Franklin said he wants the museum to have “the courage to be an equal to these other institutions.”