The Cleveland School Artists

It doesn’t take long in the Northeast Ohio art scene to hear about the “Cleveland School”. In some ways, it’s a straightforward classification: The Cleveland School artists were students or faculty members of the Cleveland School of Art in the first part of the twentieth century, which later became the Cleveland Institute of Art. Beyond that, the label encompasses a wide range of artistic endeavors at a period when Cleveland and the rest of the country were buzzing with activity and change. While there’s a slew of area contemporary art on display all around the city every week, chances to learn about Cleveland’s artistic output a century ago are few and far between.

The Cleveland History Center’s exhibition, Golden Age of Cleveland Art, 1900–1945, ran from December 4, 2021 to April 3, 2022.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a large collection of art created during what Clevelanders still regard as the city’s golden age. The show was the result of a collaboration between the Western Reserve Historical Society and the Department of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University. 

It also linked to the Cleveland Past Masters project. This acknowledges some of Cleveland’s most well-known artists who never won the medal because their lives and careers transpired before the prize was established in 1960. When the city needs a boost, people are more likely to become civic boosters. The Cleveland Arts Prize began decades after the city’s cultural and economic apex. However the show provided some evidence that the city’s struggle to connect with, relate to, and impact culture has a long history.

The exhibition explored regional cultural identity at a time when Cleveland was the sixth-largest city in the United States.

It covered a wide range of subjects, from fine art to commercial art and design; demonstring how Cleveland fitted into the national story. It aimed to show what was going on here and across the country as conservative nineteenth-century tastes persisted. Art practice developed from impressionism to modernism. Meanwhile jobs and money were drawing people away from rural areas and into cities. Many African Americans at this time migrated north during the Great Migration. Cleveland’s role as an industrial, commercial, and printing hub supported 6,000 professional artists.

Autumn Glory, a vibrant, floral impressionist landscape by Abel Warshawsky, is one of the first paintings a visitor encounters. It was far from innovative when painted in 1911 and couldn’t be more different from the remainder of the exhibit. Most features deeper colours, more drama and an exaltation of the city. But it does illustrates Warshawsky’s color theories, which he supposedly taught to a large number of eager and accomplished students. These included William Sommer and Henry Keller. However, based on the remainder of the show, they rejected his ideas.

Two years later the Armory Show debuted cubism and modernism to the American public. Henry Keller’s 1913 Portrait of Henry Gottwald seemed to mock its subject. Keller’s more conservative friend at the Cleveland School, Gottwald, had strongly rejected cubism as a new creative trend.

The Cleveland School of Art’s fine art faculty appeared to be torn between emerging movements for artists.

The city’s commercial artists were not, however. They appeared to have fully embraced the art deco aesthetic. This is evidenced by the large collection of lithographs created as posters for the Kokoon Arts Klub. Particularly by Joseph Jicha, who included words by Cleveland modernist poet Hart Crane in one poster. The painters of the Kokoon Klub were at the core of commercial art in the 1920s. It’s those art deco lithographs, with their bold lines and stylized characters, which are prominently featured in the show.

The art deco style demonstrated Cleveland’s awareness of the time’s more commercial art. However, the content of some of the other works reflected national trends. People, particularly African Americans, moved away from rural living in the early twentieth century. They moved into cities like Cleveland which offered work. A group of African American men unloading a river boat is depicted in Frank Nelson Wilcox’s 1920 watercolor Stevedores, Ohio River. Although it is a rural landscape, it recognises the mobility of people at this time. The Scarlet Creeper by Elmer Ladislaw Novotny created just fourteen years later, depicts something completely different. African-Americans moved from a rural to an urban environment within a decade. Novotny’s metropolitan ‘flaneur’ is a strikingly different type of person than the stevedores depicted in Frank Wilcox’s painting.

Art by African American artists from that period are scarce.

However the exhibition included pieces by Hughie Lee Smith and Beni Kosh, as well as two prints by Charles Sallee. Smith was arguably Cleveland’s most well-known Black artist at the time. He has pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Museum of American Art, among others. He was also a Karamu House teacher.

Several outstanding cityscapes loaned from the Union Club collection highlight Cleveland’s urbanization. The Terminal Tower was the highest skyscraper in the country outside of New York City at that time. It looms in the distance in George Gustav Adomeit’s 1928 image from the standpoint of the Erie Street Cemetery. The 1946 Tremont Cityscape by Paul Joseph Ockert depicts the pre-highway skyline of church steeples and residential rooftops. Set against a backdrop of industrial smokestacks – the majority of these structures are still standing.

Carl Gaertner’s paintings depict a gritty city, but via more intimate views. The exuberance of the subjects radiates light. This can be seen in The Popcorn Man, where a crowd is drawn to a luminous cart pushed by a vendor. It’s a bright spot in the urban landscape, similar to Gaertner’s The Pie Wagon, which is in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection.

The Cleveland History Center is definitely not on many people’s radar when it comes to Cleveland art.

There’s a high possibility many missed this show. However, if you want to be considered knowledgeable about the region’s art, or if you want a crash course in the Cleveland School and its artists, the museum itself is well worth a visit. 

Who is William Busta?

William Busta, like most kids, didn’t know what he wanted to be when he was in third grade. He did however have a strong interest in museums. At home he would display small exhibits along with labels he constructed on shelves at his house.  

Early life

When he was in sixth grade he needed to see his orthodontist on a regular basis. His mother taught him how to take the bus from Brecksville to downtown Cleveland. There he would walk around and observe the beautifully crafted displays in the early 1960s retail store windows. During the summers when his mother was at Case Western Reserve University for graduate school, he would explore the the museums while she was in class.

Higher Education

He took an Arts and Humanities course in his final year of high school. This introduced him to the evolution of culture throughout history. He studied how the relationship worked between arts disciplines and their functions in society. That class made him realize that culture was very important.  That all of the many arts were responding to what was going on in those civilizations; and that they were sometimes furthering an argument or a discourse about those events.

He then used his undergraduate education to expand his understanding of all of the arts. Baldwin-Wallace College awarded him a bachelor’s degree in English, and Case Western Reserve University awarded him a master’s degree in history and museum studies in 1976. William then used his professional expertise to further his understanding of art and how it should be displayed.

Work in Galleries

He worked for two years as the director of the Dacotah Prairie Museum in Aberdeen, SD. After that he spent a year as the assistant director of the Plains Art Museum in Moorhead, MN. Here he developed his philosophy that the most articulate things people create are our arts. He believed that we are create a dialogue with the past and use our voice for the future. 

He returned to Cleveland in 1980 to take over as director of the New Organization for the Visual Arts, which he held until 1982. While at NOVA, he saw what artists required from galleries. He also felt compelled to have a purpose in his life that was both social and moral.

His philosophy

He founded the William Busta gallery because he believed that one of the things that could benefit Cleveland was for it to have a stronger cultural identity as a center for the arts.

Bill knew that when an artist was represented by a gallery they could be more productive. They knew when their next show would open, and they could connect more with an audience if they knew where their work was over time.

The William Busta Gallery was founded in this way, with the goal of representing artists who live and work in Northeast Ohio. Bill moved the gallery from Murray Hill Road in Little Italy to Detroit Avenue in the Detroit-Shoreway district, and then to Prospect Avenue near Cleveland State University, where he moved in 2007.

Bill likes to point out that his gallery hosted the first Cleveland shows for a long list of artists who have gone on to tremendous success; many of whom have won Cleveland Arts Prizes.

“I love Bill’s basic honesty and his genuine appreciation for the artists he showcases,” one of those artists, Don Harvey, adds. His ability to not let his own viewpoint get in the way of the creative process and his readiness to support artists as their work evolves over time without placing pressure on them to develop things that sell are exceptional.”

Bill also acknowledges his wife’s contribution to the gallery’s success. “Though Joan’s name wasn’t on the window, she was an integral part of what the gallery was. Without her backing, everything would have been very, very different, or it might not have occurred at all.