For the People, By the People: Cleveland State University's People's Art Show Gives Everyone Something to Love (And Hate)

In 21 incarnations since it began as a populist experiment at Cleveland State University's Art Gallery in 1983, the People's Art Show has become one of the region's largest, most eclectic exhibitions. Always unjuried and uncensored, it is free and open to anyone and everyone. With (almost) no rules, artists have earned national attention in the past for their outlandish works. Will this year's exhibition bring outrage? Controversy? Probably. At the very least, it usually manages to upset someone. This Thursday, Oct. 30, from 5 to 8 p.m., the Galleries at CSU host an opening reception for this year's show.

The People's Art Show originated based on two fundamental ideas — that everyone is naturally an artist and that people intuitively understand art without any assistance from "experts."

"The show was conceived to serve ordinary people free from snobbery, elitism, and pretension — no curators, no professionals, and no taste police," explains gallery director Robert Thurmer. "The people themselves would determine what is in the show — every participant an artist, every artist a curator — no questions asked, nothing refused."

Over the years, this open-door policy has inspired some very interesting works, as well as a New York Times article in 1992, and even earned Thurmer a phone call from radio host Howard Stern to discuss the controversy on air. Despite heavy pressure from the outside, as well as from the administration, Thurmer loyally defended the artists' freedom to express themselves. Some exceptions have been made however. Most notably, the show has become a biennial, and some rules have been put in place for works that are illegal or dangerous to visitors. Still, the gallery staff does its best to include everyone and everything that walks through the doors.

This year's show is the second People's Art Show since the gallery moved to its beautiful, new(-ish) location in the former home of the Cowell & Hubbard jewelry story next to Playhouse Square in downtown's Theater District. As usual, the exhibition is hung salon-style, with works covering nearly every inch of the gallery's walls. The entries span the full spectrum of traditional and non-traditional media in both two- and three-dimensions by artists of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels.

Sure, not every entry is a masterpiece, but the show itself is worth celebrating. The People's Art Show is an opportunity for our community to unite around art made by our talented, passionate residents. It's the only large-scale, community-centered exhibition in the region that is completely free and open to the public, as both participant and viewer. Sometimes money can become too much of a factor in the art world (and in life in general), and the People's Art Show isn't about money. It's about celebrating art, community, the dynamic human spirit and life itself.

As a 2013 graduate of Cleveland State's art program, as well as a former employee of the gallery, I can personally attest to the exhibition's educational benefits. As artists, the most important thing after making a lot of art is seeing a lot of art. Great art can be a transcendental experience. It doesn't matter who you are: The more art you make and see, the better artist and more balanced, well-rounded human being you'll become.

Even bad art can teach you something. If nothing else, it'll save you the trouble of doing that particular thing yourself. Even if you don't know what you like, you'll figure it out pretty quickly, as your eye is drawn to certain pieces more than others. With hundreds of works to see, you're sure to find something you love. Then, hopefully, you'll spend a little time contemplating why you like this, but don't like that. There is no right or wrong answer, it's all subjective, but the contemplation itself might just teach you something about yourself. And that's what great art is all about. Bring a friend with you, because it's always better to have someone to discuss the works with. Usually, they'll see or interpret something from a completely different perspective, and show you something you couldn't have seen on your own.

The 21st People's Art Show Through Thursday, Dec. 4.

Mondays and Tuesdays by appointment, Wednesdays and Thursdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fridays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays noon to 8 p.m. 1307 Euclid Ave., 216-687-2103,

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