Robin VanLear Artistic Director of Community Arts
Colors in Motion 1996.Designed by Robin VanLear, produced with help from guest artists Ali Pretty (Great Britain), Murphy Winters (Trinidad and Tobago), Scott Heiser, Mark Jenks, and Scott Anderson—with guest stilt-dancers from Toronto’s Shadowland Theatre Company
As far back as I am aware, during the time mankind has been putting its artistic thumbprint upon this planet, some type of public spectacle has been part of the annual calendar. During our long cultural evolution, some of these spectacles evolved into “celebration art.” Over the last 150 years art historians have debated the validity of this expression as fine art. Before that, nobody cared about classifying it. Nonetheless, since the middle 1900s performance art, happenings, and celebration art have wormed their way into art consciousness.
Parade the Circle, skeptics might ask, isn’t it a children’s parade? Ironically this debate about the validity of art for children keeps us from admiring much brilliant artistry in animation, theater, and dance. At Trinidad Carnival where the most innovative costumes are frequently found in the children’s bands, the same prejudice is evident. Many artists in a variety of mediums have argued for decades that art can be appreciated on a variety of levels, and that much of the best art is appreciated, although perhaps for quite different reasons, by admirers of all ages.
Cone 8 1998. Mark Sugiuchi incorporated grasses taken from along highways.
What type of art is Parade the Circle? To me Parade is one of the best examples of celebration art, which I define as performance art presented in a community setting and created to celebrate some cyclical occurrence or landmark event. Parade is not for children, but then again it isn’t not for children either. It is for precisely this reason that it can be appreciated on so many levels.
As an art form, Parade follows in the footsteps of performance art pioneers. In recent art history this art has surged in popularity, inspired by performances and installations created and presented by artist collectives including the Futurists, Constructivists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and Bauhaus. Still, even the blue-chip artist Pablo Picasso, when he collaborated with Satie, Cocteau, and Massine to create the ballet Parade, found that this non-gallery performance art piece was not viewed with the same esteem as his gallery works.
More recently the collaborative performances of Merce Cunningham and John Cage and the happenings of Alan Kaprow have brought visibility to this more temporal, less gallery-oriented style of art. In the 1960s and ’70s, emboldened by these artists, artist collectives like Welfare State International and Horse and Bamboo in the United Kingdom and Bread and Puppet in the United States began to create community-inclusive performance art, bringing the “art” in celebration art to a new level. Contemporary artists trained in the visual arts, dance, and theater began combining talents as they looked for more egalitarian venues to exhibit and perform their art. They took many of their cues from Carnival traditions, which for centuries had been provoking and captivating spectators around the world.
Dynasty and Divinity 2010. With feature artist Rafael Valdivieso (now lives in Cleveland Heights; originally from Ecuador)
But even within the genre of celebration and performance art, Parade the Circle is unique. Most community-based performance art showcases art created by professionals that is performed in free, accessible spaces. The art of Parade the Circle is different too from Carnival. In Trinidad, themed costume ensembles, conceived by bandleaders, are fabricated by carnival artisans in large workshops and purchased by individuals who perform the masquerade. In Parade the Circle, professional artists and community members work side by side to create the art. The results of their collective endeavors are performed by dancers, puppeteers, and community members together and presented in a parade format.
The Cleveland Museum of Art was established 100 years ago with the mission to be free for all people for all time. How fitting that this institution, long at the forefront of the nation’s museums in valuing art education and community engagement, should embark upon its second century by leading the way in support of art for, with, and about the community. One role the museum can play—because it was built as a physical edifice expressly made for the preservation and presentation of art—is to open viewers’ eyes to the presence of art outside the museum walls in places where people wouldn’t necessarily have been looking for it.
Robin VanLear in a 2010 ensemble created with artists from Burkina Faso
Cleveland Art, May/June 2014