FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art

by Tom Mullaney


You have heard of the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale. Well now, make way for the Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, otherwise known as FRONT International. It opens officially on Saturday, July 14th and will run through September 30th.

The organizers are saying that FRONT will partner with leading cultural and educational sites throughout Cleveland and elsewhere in the area (including in Akron and Oberlin, for example) “to explore artistic collaborations, intellectual exchanges and curatorial dialogues connecting the city and the Great Lakes region to broader global, political and economic networks.” Quite a mouthful there.

Leading this grand design are Fred Bidwell, FRONT’s executive director, and Michelle Grabner, its artistic director. Bidwell is an entrepreneur, art collector, and philanthropist. Grabner is a professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The theme of the triennial is “An American City.” It will spotlight Cleveland’s downtown as a backdrop for several architectural installations. “We are very much aware of putting the exhibition within the context of a cityscape,” says Bidwell. “It is about using Cleveland as a canvas for the artists in an urban context.”

Grabner has experience curating art biennials elsewhere. She was one of three curators for the Whitney Biennial 2014 in New York and the Portland Biennial in 2016.

As of early June, 114 artists were scheduled to participate in 28 venues across the city. Of this number, more than 45 are American artists while the rest are international.

Of this number, at least 11 artists are from Chicago: Dawoud Bey, Kerry James Marshall, Michael Rakowitz, Jennifer Reeder, Kay Rosen, Rebecca Shore, Diane Simpson, Jessica Stockholder, Tony Tasset, Jim Trainor and Anne Wilson.

Grabner has chosen 11 artists to create “Cultural Exercises” that will be displayed at sites throughout the city such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Clinic, St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

One of the most ambitious exercises is Canvas City, a mural program across nine downtown blocks that revives Cleveland’s 1973 City Canvases program and the iconic mural by artist Julian Stanczak.

FRONT itself serves as a “front” for the boon of cultural tourism, which many American cities have found to be a heretofore unlikely economic engine driving urban revitalization but much more critical as a means of replacing lost industrial production.

Bidwell says his idea for FRONT took shape over the 2014-15 period. He was inspired by his travels to other major European festivals, including the Venice Biennale, documenta and Monumenta. He is adamant that FRONT is the opposite of the ubiquitous art fair model: “FRONT is linked by a place, a space and stories. What makes us unique is the breadth of collaboration.”

Grabner echoes the power of that 13-letter word. “Collaboration is critical to FRONT’s overarching program,” she declares. “By facilitating connections among various distinct cultural voices and institutional frameworks, FRONT aims to … actively renew, redescribe and recontextualize contemporary aesthetic experiences.”

The goal of the Triennial, Bidwell claims, is to give Cleveland “a more complex and nuanced understanding of what the city is all about” as well as to showcase Cleveland as a vibrant Midwestern arts platform between the two coastal art centers.

Grabner echoes this sentiment when speaking of what she hopes to achieve: “I want to see what happens when you infuse artists from all over the world onto a Midwestern platform.”

“What art does,” says Bidwell, “is allow you to wrap your head around more complex ideas” such as identity, race and gender. FRONT has great potential as a new arts model that other cities may seek to emulate.


Tom Mullaney is the managing editor of the New Art Examiner.



Four of the 11 Cultural Exercises at FRONT Int’l Triennial


Michelle Grabner,
FRONT Artistic Director.

Fred Bidwell, FRONT
Executive Director.



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