Cleveland's Industry and Art History

Learn more about The Federal Art Project and its impact on Cleveland's art scene today

By Destination Cleveland

by Kathleen DiDomenico

Downtown Cleveland (21st Century) by Wil LindseyDestination Cleveland

Sophisticated Grit

Industrial grit and cultural refinement. Although they might seem to be at odds, these are two qualities that have come to define the city of Cleveland. 

Continue reading to learn more about the intersections between Cleveland’s industrial history and its vibrant arts scene, with a special focus on the Great Depression-era Federal Art Project.

Lake Erie (21st Century) by Aerial AgentsDestination Cleveland

Cleveland is situated where the mouth of the Cuyahoga River empties into Lake Erie, making it an ideal location for industry and a fulcrum for materials sourced from the North and the West destined for Eastern markets.

By the end of the 19th century, Cleveland was a hub of manufacturing, commerce, shipping and transportation. The city ranked as the fifth largest industrial city in the country.

Bull Ladle Pouring Ingots (1935) by unknownCleveland Public Library

The steel industry had the greatest economic impact on the region, with local factories pumping out almost one million tons at the start of the 20th century. Steel was Cleveland’s life blood and came to be a defining feature of its identity.

Landscape with Barn (ca. 1935-1939) by Fousek, Frank DanielCleveland Public Library

Alongside this thriving industrial economy also arose a vibrant arts and culture scene. In fact, it was many of the tycoons of industry, like John D. Rockefeller and Jeptha Wade, who bequeathed their fortunes onto the city by way of arts benefactions. 

The blossoming fine arts scene became wide ranging -- from painting to sculpture. However, Cleveland developed strengths in the commercial and decorative arts -- lithography, furniture and textiles in particular.

The Thinker (cont.) (21st Century) by Nathan MigalDestination Cleveland

In support of the growing art scene, a number of cultural institutions were founded, including the Cleveland School of the Arts in 1882 and the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1913.

Flats by Frank Wilcox (American, 1887-1964)The Cleveland Museum of Art

While Cleveland artists of this period engaged a range of subject matter and styles, the city’s industrial landscape always figured prominently. 

This print by Frank Wilcox depicts the area on the northwest side of Downtown Cleveland known as "The Flats." Located at the floodplain of the Cuyahoga River, The Flats was an ideal place for docks, boatyards and warehouses to assist the bustling Great Lakes shipping industry.

The Furnace (1924) by Carl Gaertner (American, 1898-1952)The Cleveland Museum of Art

Similarly, in this 1924 painting by Frank Wilcox’s student Carl Gaertner, it is easy to see just how integrated the site of factories and the smell of billowing smoke was in the city’s urban fabric.

[First Days of Unemployment Compensation in California: Waiting to File Claims] (January 1938) by Dorothea LangeThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The first three decades of the 20th century brought booming prosperity to Cleveland and the surrounding region. But, the stock market crash of 1929 put an abrupt halt to Cleveland’s -- and much of the country's -- success, forcing thousands out of work.

Poverty (ca. 1935-1939) by Rutka, DorothyCleveland Public Library

Artists were hit especially hard by the economic downturn. Not only were many of them let go from their day jobs, but they also lost many patrons who could no longer afford such a luxury as art. 

Franklin Roosevelt (1940-01-01) by Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt enacted his New Deal to get Americans working again. 

Train to be a nurse's aide Phone your boro Civilian Defense Volunteer Office. (1941) by Federal Art ProjectNational Women’s History Museum

As part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Roosevelt’s government established a special program called the Federal Art Project (FAP) to give artists, arts educators and craftspeople opportunities for work.

Calla Lily (ca. 1936-1937) by Kubinyi, KalmanCleveland Public Library

Due to the strength of Cleveland’s art scene prior to the Depression and the support of institutions such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland was chosen as one of the 16 nationwide Federal Art Project (FAP) centers. 

Industrial Ruins (ca. 1936) by Jacobs, AbrahamCleveland Public Library

From 1933 to 1943, the Federal Art Project employed around 350 Cleveland artists, with especially active programs in printmaking, ceramic sculpture and murals.

Winter Quarters (ca. 1935-1939) by Kubinyi, KalmanCleveland Public Library

Much like their predecessors, Cleveland’s FAP artists looked locally for inspiration and found it in the region’s industrial history and identity. Many of the artworks produced under the FAP include themes such as steel production, rail transportation, commerce and shipping.

Dominance of the City (1933/1934) by Coltman, OraCleveland Public Library

The sentiment was perhaps best encapsulated by Ora Coltman’s mural The Dominance of the City, created for the Cleveland Public Library and still visible there today. 

The mural, which Coltman described as a “glorification of the genius of Cleveland,” celebrates Cleveland’s industrial ingenuity by depicting the city’s waterways, smokestacks and lift bridges.

Structural Steel Workers on the Cleveland Post Office During Construction (1934) by Russell T. LimbachAkron Art Museum

Russell T. Limbach’s series of prints depicting construction in Downtown Cleveland inspired hope that the material that once brought booming prosperity to the region could also help lift it from the grips of the Depression.

Although the FAP came to a close in June of 1943, it was instrumental in keeping the arts alive in Cleveland -- an industry that was suffering elsewhere in the country. 

The project also instilled pride among Clevelanders in the city’s industrial character and cultivated a public that appreciated the civic value of art, qualities that survive in many Clevelanders today.

Judy's Hand Pavilion by Tony TassetFRONT International

In addition to the many Cleveland-based artists that continue to derive inspiration from the region’s industrial landscape, a number of arts institutions have expanded the city’s international reach while still honoring its local history. 

Installation view: Rainer Prohaska: Parking Violation by Rainer ProhaskaTransformer Station

Transformer Station, for example, stages global contemporary art installations in a former electrical substation of the Cleveland Railway Station, a physical reminder of the city’s glory days as a transportation hub. 

The American Library by Yinka Shonibare MBEFRONT International

Cleveland even has its own international art fair. Inaugurated in 2018, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art brings artists from all over the world to Northeast Ohio to explore what artmaking means for audiences today. 

Installation viewFRONT International

One of the goals of FRONT 2022 was to explore “the region’s past and present scars” as a result of, among other things, its industrial history.

DIVISIBILITY by Kay RosenFRONT International

Cleveland has had its fair share of ups and downs, but its unique combination of industry and the arts has remained a constant through the years, forming part of a distinct identity for the city and its residents.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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