What Murals Can Tell Cleveland About Itself

Downtown Cleveland was in a state of upheaval in the 1970s. “It was a period of severe decline,” said Fred Bidwell, who was a college student in the city at time and now serves as the executive director of the Front Exhibition Company. Employers were deserting downtown. Retail was on the way out, too. “It was a really rough time in the history of the city, and the downtown was devastated by that,” Bidwell said.

In an effort to help combat blight, Cleveland created the City Canvases program in 1973. Through the program, a dozen murals by local artists appeared on the blank exteriors of downtown buildings. Most have since been painted over or razed.

Now, work based on the original program will be on display during FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. This triennial art show will launch in July, and the exhibit “Canvas City” will feature a re-creation of one of the original murals as well as works by new artists. Instead of combating blight, these murals will speak to a place experiencing what Bidwell sees as an urban revival.

“Rather than blight remediation, this is a way to take a city fabric that is changing—primarily in a positive way—and [ask] how can we make it more interesting, more intellectually challenging?” said Bidwell. Artistic Director Michelle Grabner, along with Bidwell, conceived Canvas City while visiting the home of Julian Stanczak, an artist who created one of the murals for the original Cleveland Canvases program. Stanczak was a Holocaust survivor who later immigrated to Cleveland, where he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He died in March 2017.

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