i live here (now): thomas welsh, city stages director for cma

The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) acts as a repository for the great cultures of the world. The museum holds tens of thousands of pieces spanning millennia. Tom Welsh believes music is just as much an art form as any finely crafted sculpture or beautifully rendered painting. And like any art installation that flourishes outside the facility's expansive galleries, music does not need to be contained within the museum's four walls.
Welsh is director of the art museum's newly minted City Stages program, a concert series that this past summer brought global musical talents to a neighborhood stage outside the Transformer Station, a '20s-era railway substation in Ohio City that was recently converted into an airy 3,500-square-foot contemporary art gallery.
International musical acts from Peru, Romania, Honduras and Morocco hit the outdoor stage during the program's inaugural summer series. Each concert attracted roughly 4,000 music fans, bringing high-energy fun to an out-of-the-way pocket on the near West Side, Welsh says.
"They're basically supercharged block parties, and a catalyst for people to come out of their homes and meet their neighbors," he explains.
Though the warm-weather concert program is new, Welsh is no doe-eyed innocent when it comes to Cleveland or the music industry. He was hired on in 2007 as CMA's associate music director, charged with concert programming for the museum's performing arts department. Previously, Welsh had run a record label in San Francisco, managing a roster of talent that included a flutist and a double bass player.
Welsh, a Philadelphia native, brought his deep understanding of a millennium's worth of musical evolution to CMA during the early days of the museum's $350 million expansion project. The eight-year renovation, replete with refurbished galleries and a new central atrium, is nearly complete, and is part of what Welsh deems a citywide civic and cultural revival.
"This is a fascinating moment in the history of both the museum and the city of Cleveland," he says. "It's a renaissance happening before our very eyes. I'm thrilled to do my part in the [city's] rebirth."
CMA's expansion may be completed, but Welsh wants nothing more than to keep that energy going through new programming. With the summertime concerts in the rearview mirror -- and Cleveland facing down one of its patented five-month winters -- CMA will bring the noise inside the Transformer Station with an eclectic mix of programming, including a Norwegian vocalist and an Afghani percussionist.
When choosing a concert lineup, Welsh lives by the words of composer/pianist Duke Ellington, a self-described performer of "American music," who refused to put himself or his fellow musicians into a genre-specific box. Instead, Ellington depicted artists who impressed him as "beyond category."
To Welsh, this means adventurously cross-pollinating musical genres. For example, Maja Ratkje, the forthcoming Norwegian vocalist, combines her voice work with experimental electronic beats and sounds.
"Music is a fine art form," says Welsh. "There's a legacy of music at the museum that goes back 100 years."
Welsh jumped at the chance to be part of that harmonious heritage when offered the musical director position six years ago. Along with managing a successful record label, he has written extensively about music for print publications and online magazines. He also plays the saxophone, a skill gleaned from growing up in a music-centric family.
"I've had wide-ranging exposure to all types of music," says Welsh. "Over the years I've grown an enormous network of friends and colleagues from the industry who bring new ideas to the museum."
An "omnivore of music," Welsh is constantly keeping an ear out for new and interesting sounds. Cleveland, he's pleased to report, has a sophisticated music scene bolstered by an audience willing to try something new. Classical music is an obvious strongpoint, but the alternative/noise landscape is surprisingly robust as well, particularly for a smaller city.
What's been missing locally, Welsh believes, is the broader palate of international musicians that CMA has been hosting in recent years. Exposing Cleveland to a wide swath of sounds has a chance to do much more than simply give people new ideas for their iPod playlist, says Welsh.
"It can bring Cleveland into the realm of top-tier cosmopolitan cities," he says. "We can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles."
The overwhelming response to CMA's City Stage series proved to Welsh that Cleveland could use a central gathering place to experience new music -- something akin to SummerStage in New York or the bandshell that stands as the centerpiece of Chicago's Millennium Park.
"We don't have that urban space that gathers people together," Welsh says. "City Stages is a strong step in that direction."
Though Welsh might not be taking the stage himself, he's having fun watching CMA audiences connect with the innovative artists he helps to bring into town. "It's great to see people light up through these experiences," he says. "I find that very satisfying."   

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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