Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dana Depew shows Ingenuity Fest how it’s done

Dana Depew shows Ingenuity Fest how it’s done
by Tim Russo -

I was not going to attend Ingenuity Festival this year. Like most things deemed “important” or “cool” by the well-heeled powers in Cleveland who fund such things with scraps from their billion dollar tables, each year Ingenuity Fest has taken on the increasing hue of an idea chasing money, not the other way around.

Ingenuity gets more underwhelming each year - as you walk through, you can almost see in your mind’s eye the grant application being filled out months ago, check this box, check that one, Gund happy, Cleveland Foundation happy, this billionaire might like that, such and such millionaire will go for that, ok….open!

So I’d given up. But this year, founder James Levin approached Dana Depew, owner & curator of Asterisk Gallery in Tremont looking for more local artists. Asterisk At Ingenuity was born, and unbeknownst to me, my video of Loren Naji’s “Portrait of Obama in Gunsmoke” was included in Dana’s exhibit, next to Loren’s Obama portrait. Loren kept calling me, telling me to come down, and finally I relented, because Asterisk At Ingenuity was outside the admissions gate, so I didn’t have to pay any money.

From the first few minutes inside Asterisk At Ingenuity, it was clear that nothing inside the admissions gate would even come close to what Dana had put together. Over 60 artists, all volunteering their work, all local, packed into the two floors of the dilapidated and abandoned former Christian Science Reading Room and 107.9 WENZ offices on Euclid Ave., across from the State Theatre. Every room was different - from interactive exhibits, to electronic, computer, video, sound, neon lights, smelly stuff, textured stuff, girly stuff, guy stuff, kid stuff, paintings, sculptures - you name it, it was in Dana’s space.

And it all had a very “Cleveland” feel to it, from the moment you walked in. You could have spent an entire afternoon wandering between rooms, staring into paintings, watching films, becoming part of installations…it was deeply Cleveland art done by the curator of the finest gallery in Tremont, and it screamed for attention around every corner. There has been nothing at Ingenuity, ever, in its short history, to even compare. And I did walk through the admissions gate (with my free “artist” badge) to confirm that yet again, Ingenuity itself was a big dud.

I asked Dana how on earth he pulled this together. He had no budget except to bring the rotting space up to code. He was given the keys to the space about 2 weeks before the festival began, and in that time, had to clean out the tons of debris, wire it, paint it, make it safe, and fill it with the most diverse and quality art I have ever seen in one space at Ingenuity, or for that matter, almost anywhere in Cleveland at any time. Dana looked exhausted, and with good reason.

Because Dana Depew’s Asterisk At Ingenuity was nothing short of a triumph.

Sitting with Dana on the roof talking, I was struck at how perfectly his experience represents a microcosm of everything wrong, and all that is right, about Cleveland. A space in the Hanna Building sits and rots, in full view of every single person in downtown Cleveland, at the heart of Playhouse Square, and for the lack of anyone in power with the slightest vision, will do so until it gets torn down. But in 2 weeks, one person is given the keys, and with no money, runs rings around the entire Ingenuity Festival itself, merely because that one person has the drive, the heart, and the vision to make something incredible happen in a snap of his fingers.

All while inside the admissions gate, steps from Dana’s momentary flourish of brilliance in record time, people pay $10 to enter a corporate and foundation funded fizzle that looks more like an excuse to sell beer and pizza than an art festival. It was like the fireworks at an Indians game - why pay for a ticket to the game, which is going to suck anyway, when you can watch the real show for free?

James Levin deserves the credit for thinking of including Dana Depew at this year’s Ingenuity, even if Levin put the best he had outside the admissions gate. If Levin hasn’t lost his soul tailoring his festival to every grant application that he’s ever hunched over, perhaps he’ll learn from this. Let’s hope so.