Much has been made of the economic climate that sends Ohio college graduates elsewhere in search of a livelihood. In Cleveland, that "brain drain" has been accompanied by the flight of artists looking to find fame in New York or L.A. For the past decade, gallery owner William Busta has worked to stem this "art drain" by promoting local talent. But now, Busta says he's calling it quits. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett reports.
David C. Barnett: The big window on the William Busta Gallery frames a scene that tells a story about the Cleveland art scene. The white walls of the gallery feature a series of colorful doodles on canvas. The room is empty, save for a bespectacled man in a suit who sits at a table as he stares into a laptop computer. Across the top of the window are three neon letters in green, red, and blue.
William Busta: It's important to remember that I was one individual working on a shoestring... and sometimes that shoe string broke and fell out of the shoe.
DCB: The past decade, the William Busta Gallery has been a crossroads of the Cleveland arts scene. On a small budget, Busta has groomed many fledgling artists who've gone on to profitable local careers. And for Cleveland, that's unusual.
Christa Donner: I think the arts community that stuck around is pretty strong. It's just small. Almost everyone that I went to school with move to either New York or L.A. or San Francisco.
DCB: Christa Donner is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art.
CD: I think it's changing gradually... but in their minds, to be a successful artist, you have to go to a bigger city where there's a lot more choices as far as places to show.
DCB: The difficulty of earning a living as an artist in Cleveland is a longstanding issue. Perhaps first expressed by the late D.A. Levy - a local poet who now has a national reputation, but started out publishing verse on a mimeograph machine in his apartment. William Busta says Levy's commitment to Cleveland was an inspiration.
WB: Back in the 60s, one of the major senses was that there was a place where something was happening. And we all kind of knew that place wasn't here. And we thought that if we could only go to that place where it was happening... whether it was Berkeley or the East Village... that we could be part of historical forces. I may be mangling this Levy quote, but he once wrote, "The reason so many going to the Coast - it be more romantic to wreck in San Francisco, than to be a discrepancy in Cleveland"
DCB: Spaces Gallery is a non-profit venue for artists who may feel like discrepancies. Currently on display are works that have been created from everyday objects, such as exhaust pipes, colorful spools of thread, and huge pictures from billboards. Intriguing stuff, but not, perhaps, having the broader appeal that a Degas, Renoir, or even a Warhol has right now. Spaces director Susan Channing feels a close kinship to Bill Busta.
Susan Channing: I always used to tease him and say that he was a non-profit art gallery masquerading as a commercial gallery... and unfortunately, that turned out to be sort of true because he had the courage to exhibit work by artists that might not sell. And that's what we do here at Spaces - we show work that's not commercially viable. And Bill represented artists because he believed in them and he took chances on them. And I think it just didn't work in Cleveland for him.
DCB: This Saturday, the neon letters in Busta's front window will go dark. After a decade, he's decided to get out of the gallery business. The news that he was closing, surprised and saddened many in Cleveland's art community - community that he has helped create.
Don Harvey: I think I was one of the first artists to show with Bill.
DCB: Popular Cleveland artist Don Harvey says it isn't easy for a gallery owner to take on the representation of an artist. There's more to it than hanging pictures on a wall.
DH: [laughs] Well, it's a big task, not because I'm so busy, but I think that in a city like Cleveland where there isn't a real infrastructure of commercial galleries, then the gallery owner needs to build the artist's reputation to create a market for the work.
DCB: Busta says he's flattered by the attention he's gotten, but thinks its time for others to take-up the torch. Looking back, he admits he lost money on some shows, but the losses were relatively small and prove that, like his hero D.A. Levy, it's possible for good work to be done with minimal money.
WB: It's something that a lot of people can do. It's not out of reach. And I think that as the art life in my life has gone on, things happen... things close... but I think each decade we look back and we think we're a lot than we were culturally a decade ago. And I think that's going to continue to happen.
DCB: One of Greater Cleveland's newest galleries in the mold of Bill Busta is the Dead Horse Gallery in Lakewood, which was started by a trio of artists.
Kim Scholl: Basically the frustrations of knowing what it takes to be an artist and trying to get into galleries. It kind of piqued my curiosity in terms of trying to learn more about what it takes to do a gallery and to promote other artists I believe in as an artist.
DCB: New business ventures usually have to budget for 5 to 6 years of losses, but the Dead Horse got off to a decent start. Director Kim Scholl says that after opening in the fall of 2000 they actually were able to make back many of their expenses.
KS: Then in 2001, sales started to increase a little bit until the economy went really bad, and it hit home after September 11th. And then things really slowed down dramatically. But, they're starting to rebound a little bit.
DCB: The Dead Horse Gallery's Kim Scholl says that there needs to be broader efforts to educate the local audience to the pleasures of owning an original work of art. She thinks there are too many cliches floating around about crazy artists and their sometimes odd creations.
KS: I think a lot of people don't realize you can buy art work that's original for very, very reasonable prices. And then you can pride yourself in having supported an artist... supported the art community and having an original piece of art that hangs on your wall that will speak to you for years and years and years.
DCB: Walking around his small gallery space a week before closing for good, it's obvious that Bill Busta hasn't lost any of his enthusiasm. He comments on how the gallery lights have different effects on different paintings. It wasn't something the artist planned for a deep psychological effect says Busta - just a happy accident.
WB: And that's been one of the great things about being in the gallery. The art always changes. During the time that you have the show up, what you see in a piece... changes over time. And the favorites change. Because, that's one of the things that good art does - it changes the way you see. And it changes your capacity to see.
DCB: In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.