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Talking Shop: Five Conversations on the State of Cleveland's Art Scene 

More than anything, even beer and cased meats, Cleveland is a city built on creativity — everything from the quirky to the fine. The headlines, fixated steadily on the artless worlds of sports and politics, assure us all that Cleveland's renaissance of awesomeness is now totally under way. Economic development is peaking. Think pieces are thinking. We're feeling really good. And that's terrific.

Much of that success burrowed down in the heart of the city, especially in those cool neighborhoods we know and love, has come from the yearning souls of the creative class who were making those neighborhoods cool in the first place. Like any big city, Cleveland doesn't earn its cultural cred without the elbow grease and genuine love of its artists.

In 2014, we've seen some headlines both good and bad in the Cleveland art world, and with coverage of the art scene still lacking for the most part (and we'd admit our role in that gap), it's not often you get to hear from the artists themselves on their struggles, hopes, successes and worries. Where are we now? How did we get here? What can the city do better? How can the public help? What's lacking? What's flourishing?

To get some answers to those questions and others, we sat down with a handful of men and women working the front lines of Cleveland's art world for a series of wide-ranging conversations. We think you'll be interested in what they had to say.

Hilary Gent, HEDGE Gallery - On Investments

What brought you to Cleveland originally?

I was heavily influenced by a number of incredible Cleveland artists, one of them being Craig Lucas, who was my painting adviser. I moved to Cleveland after I graduated from college because I had a design job with a local event planning company. I still continued making art through that job; I worked there for almost six years after college. It was very hands-on and creative, and it definitely inspired my business. I had this dream of having a painting studio — somewhere I could work and leave a mess behind. I bumped into 78th Street Studios and fell in love with it. What a great working opportunity for local artists! Third Fridays have grown into this massive networking event for the arts. I opened HEDGE Gallery almost five years ago with the goal to give emerging artists an opportunity to get their name out there and experience what it's like to be in front of a huge group of people and express themselves through their artwork to the general public.

What kind of community comes out to those events? Is it mostly artists or, say, art "fans"?

It's currently all of the above. We have everything from families with their young children to pet owners coming out with their dogs to art aficionados and collectors. We'd love for more collectors to come out. We have a great support system built in here — a lot of us are collectors, too — and we're trying to educate the public more on what that investment means and the importance of it.

A lot of artists come out here to explore and be inspired by what's going on in the scene here. But we also have a lot of people who are just curious, like they've never — I've talked with people who say they've never been to an art gallery in their entire lives, and they come here and they're like, "Thank God it's not pretentious." Well, you're not going to get this feeling in every art gallery, but that is an importance that we try to focus on here. We make people feel comfortable around art. One of the main problems is I think the general public thinks of it as museum-quality, and that they have to be quiet and not touch anything. I think I try to stress here that the space is open to you to explore, to be inspired, to be a little bit scared sometimes. Whatever it is you're feeling about the art, I want people to feel it openly.

I've profiled artists this year who discussed the importance of art in the evolution of neighborhoods and Cleveland as a whole. What's needed from the public in order to shepherd that growth forward?

That's a really good question. I think spending money locally is going to be the beginning of that education. Instead of going online to buy a pair of shoes, think about going somewhere here. The importance of shopping locally — your food, your clothing, your decor — just think about it first before you make that kind of conscious decision to Google it and buy it. I think that's going to be the first step: thinking locally and wrapping your head around what's here. And, yeah, it might take an extra 10 minutes, but it's worth it in the long run because it's actually what's going to help this community be self-sufficient.

In the art world, it's the same answer. If you walk into a gallery and you see something gorgeous and you think, "Man, that would just resonate in my home," then consider how you could possibly invest in it.

When I found out I could purchase a piece of art from another artist, I got giddy about it! And, yeah, it took four months of putting payments down. But now that this piece is mine, I'm so proud to talk about it. People are drawn to it, like "Who is that artist?" It's a conversation starter. It's an exciting thing. And it's different than buying a car. Artwork will never fail you. It will always be there and it will always speak to you. It will always speak to others. It's a whole different level of investment.

To someone who might not be plugged in, where might you point them to show off the real growth of Cleveland's arts scene?

Not to be biased, but I would tell them to come to 78th Street Studios! (laughs) There's so much diversity here. Even if I wasn't a part of this, I would tell people to come here. It's accessible. And if you come here on a Third Friday, there's a bit of everything. You'll see local artisans and you'll actually be able to walk into studios where artists are creating artwork. You'll be able to witness more than one contemporary art gallery.

I would also say explore arts districts. If they go out to the Waterloo Arts District, they're going to get a taste of the local shopping — there's records stores, great little boutiques, great restaurants and art galleries. Start with the districts. I think we're trying to create focal points for people to explore and experience artwork in different ways. Gordon Square... 78th Street Studios... Then go east. It's definitely not something you can do in one day, but that's the beauty of it.

I hear a lot of optimism in your voice. How would you describe the state of Cleveland art?

I'm very hopeful that people will begin understanding what it means to invest in local work. I've had some success with my own paintings and artwork selling, and that means the world to me. I think it's growing. I think it's going to be an educational thing. It's going to take time.

It's sometimes hard not to get bummed out when you have a great show up and nobody shows interest. But you've got to keep moving forward and knowing that it is going to take a little bit of time. We aren't Manhattan. Who knows if we ever will be — and actually I hope we won't. I hope we continue to be Cleveland, because there are so many people who are just down to earth here. They're so full of compassion and interest. It's a genuine city. So I do hope we're never Manhattan, but I do hope people begin to think about art the way communities in other metropolitan cities think about art. Not just something pretty on the wall. This is something that could be in my life forever.

Other cities do tend to treat art differently. In fact, some cities have instituted some sort of public role at City Hall. An "arts commissioner" or something. Of course, that kind of talk was going around town pretty intensely earlier this summer in Cleveland. Should the city be more involved on a legislative or public level?

Oh, yeah. Most definitely. If you look historically at the districts that have grown — even over the past five to 10 years, like this district here at 78th Street Studios — the development is extremely amazing and out of this world. But the arts have a lot to do with it. That's not something I'm saying just because I'm an artist. If you look around, artists will move into one of the most dangerous areas and bring new life to it. I do believe the city needs to pay more attention to this. Honestly, you can put the "sports town" theme on this town as much as you want, but look at Playhouse Square, look at the development there. That's an amazing theater community. And that even needs more respect and focus. A lot of people come to Cleveland and they don't realize we have Broadway productions going on downtown almost every night of the week. It's insane! It's so freaking cool!

And our museums are free and open to the public with international exhibits. It's like "pay attention to that, city of Cleveland!" There are so many things that money is just getting dumped into, but I just wish a small percentage of that would be coming back into the arts.

Everyone seems to be coalescing more and more around artists in this town. I do see that. But there's this weird disconnect between that growth and City Hall. It's really come to light this year.

It'd be great to see those people come out to one of the openings. Come out and show support. We're not even really asking for money, necessarily. We just want them to understand what we're doing here and the effects that it's having on the public.

When we have 1,500 people walk through the studios here on a given night — and we're talking age 5 to 85 — that's huge.

Bottom line, I just feel like if we could get people from the city to just attend an event, it'd be blast.

Hilary Gent operates HEDGE Gallery and Hilary Gent Studio, 78th Street Studios. Visit hedgeartgallery.com for more information.

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