EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF FRONT INTERNATIONAL: CLEVELAND TRIENNIAL FOR CONTEMPORARY ART, FRED BIDWELL. PHOTO BY NICK FANCHER.
Fred Bidwell and his wife Laura Ruth are putting Cleveland back on the cultural map with some big – and innovative – ideas.
According to longtime Ohio resident Fred Bidwell, many people in the international art world view the city of Cleveland, Ohio, as “flyover territory.” Yet its heritage as one of America’s great, historic centres of industry and transportation means the city is home to some of the most eminent cultural institutions in the country, including the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art.
Bidwell and his wife Laura Ruth have tasked themselves with changing people’s perceptions, and have launched the inaugural edition of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, taking place between 14 July and 30 September. It will showcase the work of some 70 local, national and international artists at sites throughout Cleveland and its environs, and is generating much excitement.
"One of my goals was to do something for the art-loving public, but also for people who are not museum-goers or who don’t know about art."
“One of my goals was to do something for the art-loving public, but also for people who are not museum-goers or who don’t know about art,” Bidwell explains. “Part of how we are doing that is utilizing spaces outside the traditional museum and gallery environments. The fun of this is leading people into different, unexpected spaces.” For example, “inside the magnificent, Beaux-Arts lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Philip Vanderhyden will be doing a 24-channel video animation piece; in the very grand card catalogue room of the Cleveland Public Library, Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) will be creating an installation with 6,000 books – each one stamped with the name of a first- or second-generation immigrant to the United States; and on the William G Mather, a giant iron-ore steamship launched in 1925 [now a museum and part of the Great Lakes Science Center], there’s going to be an installation of film and photography by Allan Sekula about maritime life.” Other venues include the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Akron Art Museum, the Cleveland Clinic and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College.
It speaks volumes that one of FRONT’s – and Bidwell’s – most enthusiastic supporters is Agnes Gund, the consummate arts patron, collector and hometown girl. “I love Cleveland, it’s where I grew up. Art was built into the city but Fred is the visionary it needs now,” she says. “FRONT will locate art in Cleveland but it will go much further. It will inhabit the city, explore it, use it. It will enlarge and challenge the urban setting and all Clevelanders. Like Fred himself, FRONT will be unique. It can make growing up there now even better.”
All this, and Bidwell isn’t even a native of the Buckeye State. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he has been an Ohio citizen since the 1970s, when he enrolled at Oberlin College to study art history and follow his dreams of becoming an artist.
For a few years after college, he pursued a career as a photographer. “Eventually, I got tired of being a starving artist and threw in the towel and went into advertising,” he recalls during a recent chat. The decision certainly ended up being a sound one. Malone Advertising, the Ohio-based agency he joined, thrived under his eventual ownership, and it was there that he met his wife, a native Ohioan then working in the graphics department.
"The Transformer has been an incredible catalyst for change. Since we opened, many millions have been invested in the neighbourhood and there has been unbelievably rapid change. It has become the ‘it’ place."
Since their marriage in 1991, the Bidwells have been assembling an outstanding collection of photo-based art by North American and international artists, from Lee Friedlander, Chuck Close and Hiroshi Sugimoto to Matthew Brandt, Richard Renaldi and Jess T Dugan.
With the sale of Malone to the firm J. Walter Thompson and Fred’s eventual retirement from the business in 2012, the Bidwells found themselves with the time and the resources to take on significant projects. They established the Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell Foundation as a means to share their collection and foster creativity and innovation through the arts.
Around the same time, they discovered and purchased the ideal engine to accomplish these goals: a 1920s-era power station on Cleveland’s west side. Following a meticulous two-year-long restoration, the Transformer Station, as the couple christened the facility, opened in 2013. The building was aptly named, not least as it has helped to invigorate the surrounding areas. The Bidwells themselves, meanwhile, have found that it has significantly expanded their own horizons as collectors.
On top of all that, the Transformer Station operates as a public-private partnership in an arrangement that is probably unique in America. “It began with the idea that this would be a place for us to show our collection,” recalls Bidwell. “It started off a private thing – then became a very public thing.” The director of the Cleveland Museum of Art approached them, he explains, and asked if they would be open to some sort of collaboration.
“We eventually decided that, while we would own and operate the Transformer, the museum’s curatorial department would organize the shows in the galleries for six months a year. The only string we attached was that the shows they did here had to be a bit more daring and cutting-edge than what they were doing in the museum.” It has been a win-win situation.
“In the beginning, Laura and I were a bit naive – we didn’t comprehend how much it takes to put on four shows a year. So it’s great that they took on two of those.”
At the same time, the Transformer became a boon to its neighbourhood, economically and socially. “This was a relatively poor area, with a lot of crime, when we bought the building,” Bidwell recalls. “The Transformer has been an incredible catalyst for change. Since we opened, many millions have been invested in the neighbourhood and there has been unbelievably rapid change. It has become the ‘it’ place.”
"Our idea with FRONT was to create collaborations between Cleveland’s institutions and to leverage this wealth of institutional knowledge and put the whole city on the world stage. "
The success of the Transformer Station inspired the couple to forge ahead with the even bigger project: FRONT. “We came up with this idea of a triennial to contrast with art fairs, which are very efficient ways to see a lot of art but are commercial enterprises,” says Bidwell. “This was an attempt to do something more thoughtful, and something outside of the hub cities. There is distortion in the art market created by the concentration in those places and we thought this would be a very interesting time to bring art into the heart of the country. Our idea with FRONT was to create collaborations between Cleveland’s institutions and to leverage this wealth of institutional knowledge and put the whole city on the world stage. I think it is going to change the branding of the city and bring cultural tourism to Cleveland.
“The town is very excited, and we have also been getting great interest in FRONT internationally,” Bidwell enthuses. “We are expecting people to come from around the world. It’s going to be pretty cool to have all these people in Cleveland.” It also stands to be pretty hot in Cleveland this summer.
James Reginato is writer-at-large for Vanity Fair and author of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli).
FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, 14 July–30 September.