Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ingenuity Fest, or Why the Cleveland Foundation Should Seriously Consider Reallocating Their Funds

As promised, here is my post on Ingenuity Fest. As I started thinking this morning about how I wanted to write this, it occurred to me how strange it is that I'm even spending this much time thinking about my own opinion and, even more to the point, why I have a critical perspective that is worth sharing. Honestly, I probably don't (have one worth sharing, that is), but I'm typing away anyway.

When I moved up here late last summer I had missed 2007 Ingenuity Fest by a couple of weeks. At least three of my new colleagues mentioned it to me, how it was a great thing downtown and that it was too bad I missed it and that I should definitely check it out next time.

All this to say, my expectations were high.

When the pre-festival journalistic coverage started to appear, I noted an interesting sub-theme: that folks seemed to be getting impatient with the perceived discrepancy between what was being invested and what the public was taking home (in no small part concerned with who/how many were showing up). Folks were speculating that this was the year that large turnout or something tremendous needed to happen, or the high-dollar donors would turn elsewhere.

I found this tone of coverage unusual and compelling, and it certainly influenced the way I approached the festival when it started.

Before I get to that, note to high-dollar donors: you should turn elsewhere.

I went to Ingenuity Fest on two separate days, spending 2-3 hours there each time. The first visit was on Friday night, to the Cool Cleveland party, which didn't exactly exceed expectations. As other bloggers have noted, the food ran out super quick, the beer lines were long, and everything felt cramped. Still, for $16 I wasn't expecting much, and really looked at my purchase of the ticket as a way to support worthwhile community efforts.

After the party ended, we walked around a bit, checking out everything from the robots in the basement of the Halle building to the Revival fair trade store, to the Iraq war protest exhibit, to the cool alley to the Bazaar Bizarre (which, at least on Friday, was the saving grace for me). We tried to check out the rooftop cocktail thing, but were informed it would cost $40 for the two of us and that we would both get two cocktails. I didn't want to spend an hour up there, nor did I want to slam two cocktails, and the lady at the desk was frigid and inflexible: No, sir, you cannot both go upstairs and have one cocktail apiece.

So, my $20 and I went elsewhere. Fortunately (or not), there were innumerable other places to spend money. Actually, everywhere you could spend money. That seems like the one thing that was clear about the festival: folks could set up booths to sell you stuff, whether lemonade or ice cream bars or t-shirts or (delicious) pork sandwiches from Hot Sauce Williams.

To be clear, I'm not complaining about the vendors. That's part and parcel for a festival.

My primary complaint about Ingenuity Fest is that it is a festival in search of a constituency.

I really don't know who is the beneficiary of the festival.

For example, I am highly educated and also quite interested in the arts and particularly the linkage between arts and economic issues. I should be the perfect visitor, yet I came away with incredible feelings of alienation.

There were events allegedly designed to be kid-friendly, but my Sunday visit was with a woman and five kids. These kids are regular kids, but they are also raised in a house-hold that doesn't have television, but instead has a huge dining room table constantly accommodating ongoing art projects. These kids go to chess camp and nature camp and like to construct those elementary engineering models. These kids aren't nintendo junkies or sponge-bob freaks. If there was a type of child that should really dig Ingenuity Fest, it was this group.

Yet they also came away alienated, unable to engage with the kid-friendly events because either there were too many other folks crowded in or because they just couldn't grasp what was going on. For example, there was a cool interactive robot from Case Western (I think) that could talk to kids, but when it was going on there was a crowd of at least 50 people around, not exactly facilitating the kind of one-on-one interaction necessary for any legitimate sense of discovery.

Another "kid-friendly" exhibit was a 3-d mock-up of those old-school labyrinth marble games where you tilt the playing board and try to get the marble to the other end of the maze without it falling in a hole. Many older readers probably recall what I'm talking about ... because you are older. No offense, but I've seen one of those exactly once, at my great-grandmother's house, before she died ... a quarter-century ago.

These kids had no clue what to do, no cultural frame of reference to tell them how to interact, yet because of the crowd and long line of kids waiting, they got exactly one chance to try, one that guaranteed failure and frustration.

In the same building there were a pair of guys set up helping kids make art. Basically the kids picked colors, wheels were spun, those colors were mixed, and a short time later the kid was handed an art project they had made. But not really. Really they had just picked colors. There was hardly any interactive component.

In other words, kids who would ordinarily enjoy any or all of the components of the festival found themselves systematically excluded, not by rude people but by the alienating forces of the exhibits. If anything, the lesson they learned was that science and art was about watching experts do it.

At the same time, I think folks interested in the arts were also let down by the festival organizers. The gallery exhibits were of tremendously poor quality, from the amateur-ish quality of the aforementioned Iraq protest installation to the series of paintings included in the Revival fair trade room, to the ridiculously poor and tasteless "Haunted House" exhibit.

My friend's daughter asked me, in that room, if what we were looking at was art. I thought for a moment, not wanting to be a philistine, before responding: No. This is not art. This is garbage. You can say I don't get it, that I'm out of touch, whatever. You'd be wrong. It was a redundant, non-creative, intellect-free exhibit.

So back to my primary point, that Ingenuity Fest is a festival in search of a core constituency. Who is it for? Not really for folks interested in the arts, not really for kids looking to engage in science and culture, not really for a family-event.

At the same time, I've had the pleasure of checking out the Coventry Festivals and, this weekend look forward to the Waterloo Arts Festival. Both of these festivals are trying to accomplish much less, making do with a tremendously smaller amount of resources, yet people come away more gratified and engaged.

If I had my say, I'd tell the Cleveland Foundation folks to spend their money elsewhere. Ingenuity Fest just isn't getting it done, especially not when you consider the extraordinary amount of money being spent.

What would be cool, though, is to give that guy from the All Go Signs, the guy who was apparently in charge of the alley off Huron, 1/5 of the money James Levin, the current festival director, has been receiving and let him go with it. Walking down that alley, spending time at the various things going on there, I felt something, there was a concise ethos at work. The moment you emerged back into the general festival grounds, though, that moment vanished.


Kerry said...

"As I started thinking this morning about how I wanted to write this, it occurred to me how strange it is that I'm even spending this much time thinking about my own opinion and, even more to the point, why I have a critical perspective that is worth sharing. Honestly, I probably don't (have one worth sharing, that is), but I'm typing away anyway."

Ok, I am filled with rage today, but I'm not picking on you in a mean way: why should that ever stop you, especially since you have a firm grasp of the English language and analytical thinking skills? Really, when smart people don't feel it's right they have opinions, idiots win.

Matt said...

Agree on this totally....I can't really buy into the hype on this, yet I want to.

It seems to be going backwards, and not forward..

I am baffled by the fact that they don't have things happening close to Public Square, which would make sense, and generate foot traffic from people that are in the area, and see that something is going on.

Instead, it was in and around the Playhouse Square area. Unless you're in that area, you have no idea that something cool is happening.

This is year four, right? If they had kept it near Public Square, we might be watching an ongoing success story in the making.

Or perhaps not.

But I am impressed that James Levin has hung in there, after the initial group that was working with him bailed out. I'd just like to see him be smarter about the organization of this whole thing.

Example - are all of the separate admission fees necessary?

Sell me a badge that will get me into everything, and split the profits with whoever you need to.

I'd much rather shell out "X" amount for a badge, compared to 20 bucks here, 15 bucks there, etc.

CB said...

Thanks, Kerry, for the comment. I agree with you 100%.

Matt, you said it perfectly: "It seems to be going backwards, and not forward..." Seems to me that the organization (and, thus, the organizer(s)) are sort of out of touch.

Christine said...

This was my favorite part:

"My friend's daughter asked me, in that room, if what we were looking at was art. I thought for a moment, not wanting to be a philistine, before responding: No. This is not art. This is garbage."

Stephanie said...

I was interested to read your take on this because years previous have been consistently underwhelming (with the blazing exception of Grandmaster Flash last year, but I would consider him a phenomenon of himself completely separate from the festival.)

I think the problem is an utter lack of curatorial ability - I don't get the sense that the people in charge of the programming have a consistent vision of what the festival should be, or that they have anything more than a superficial understanding of art or technology (look - an artist with video cameras - that's art AND technology!) That lack results in an unfocused, shoddy, dilettante product that sadly has been over-hyped due to a dearth of other ideas.

It's a shame, because there was a grain of potential there.

CB said...

Good point about the curatorial ability, Stephanie. I don't personally know the folks in charge, but that's definitely the vibe I got, too. Problem is, I haven't been to a well-curated event in NEO yet (other than some of Dana Depew's efforts at Asterisk), so where does one turn to find the talent?

Stephanie said...

They are rare and elusive and unexpected, like a white rhinoceros, and they take a great deal of tracking to find. They are often small and specific, like the art/craft open house, the MOCA sale that Heidi Lingg puts together during the holidays, or some of the shows that Zygote Press puts up. It's part of why I miss the art museum being up at full steam - they used to have smaller ancillary exhibits on contemporary stuff that were often quite wonderful.

maybelle's mom said...

I have never understood this event. it has always been underwhelming and slightly embarassing.

Anonymous said...

I read your review last week, went to the 2009 Ingenuity, and have to say that I completely agree with you.

guv said...

"So back to my primary point, that Ingenuity Fest is a festival in search of a core constituency."

I wholeheartedly believe you are missing the point of Ingenuity completely.

Matt said...

Alright Guv - perhaps you'd like to explain the point of Ingenuity to all of us?