Q&A: Effie Tsengas Nunes, interim executive director of the Cleveland Arts Prize

This part April, the Cleveland Arts Prize (CAP) named Effie Tsengas Nunes its interim executive director.

Tsengas sat on the CAP board for 17 years, was director of marketing and communications for Kent State University’s College of the Arts for more than 20 years, served as director of marketing and public relations for KSU’s School of Theatre and Dance and its professional summer theater, Porthouse Theatre.

FreshWater Cleveland sat down with Nunes to find at more about her background and her vision for the Cleveland Arts Prize.

How has the role of interim executive director been different than being on the board?

I can finally move forward with some ideas and processes that as a board member I just didn’t have the management authority to pursue.

My ideas center around three important areas. One, engaging with our multitude of past winners.  I'd like to see more CAP awardees attending our events and supporting our organization that they admittedly acknowledged how impactful the award has been on their career.  

Secondly, CAP board chair Aseelah Shareef and I are working closely with the Cleveland Foundation and our internal support system to reintroduce our Verge Fellowship, which supports talented, young up-and-coming artists in an inclusive way through financial support but, equally as importantly, through mentorship and additional support from collaborative organizations.

Finally, it is critical to the future of our organization that we build our endowment to a level that can sustain our annual $50,000 in prizes every year.  To do this, we will admittedly need the help of our area's foundations and arts philanthropists. 

Grafton, Effie, Matthew and James NunesGrafton, Effie, Matthew and James NunesWhere do you live? Are you married, have children, pets?

I live in Willoughby Hills with my husband of 10 weeks, Grafton Nunes, former President of the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was a film producer earlier in his career and is a huge film and cinema buff who loves introducing films at Cinematheque.

We knew each other from social arts circles but were officially introduced on a blind date by our mutual friends Alenka and Alan Glazen.

I have two daughters and Grafton has six children. We are currently kitty-sitting my daughter’s cat, Davey. So far, married life feels very natural to both of us.

How did you get into the arts?

While I studied communications at Cleveland State, I had the good fortune of being assigned to an internship with the Cleveland Ballet in the late 1980s, when their offices were on Euclid Avenue above Ideastream.

Surprisingly, it set my career on an arts path that led me to the Willoughby School of the Arts and my 20-year tenure at Kent State University’s College of the Arts. In the 1990s, I was a partner in Sevastos & Tsengas Public Relations. One of our longtime clients was the Little Italy Art Association. We rebranded their annual Art Walk that up until three years ago they used to promote their weekends in June and December.

Effie Tsengas Nunes with her father Angelo Sikoutris in 1969Effie Tsengas Nunes with her father Angelo Sikoutris in 1969Have you always been interested in the arts?

As an only child, my parents felt it was important to keep me busy, so I took piano lessons, ballet class, drama class, flute and glockenspiel instruction in school and, not to mention, Greek folk dancing. Anyone who attended the Greek Festival in Cleveland Heights in the 1980s probably saw me perform with the Hellenic Dancers. These experiences always seemed to provide me with a foundation for promoting a variety of arts early in my career.

While I don't perform Greek dance, I certainly take every opportunity to dance at weddings, festivals and sometimes just at home.  Not only do Grafton and I attend the Greek Festival in Cleveland Heights, you can find us serving in the food line every year.

I’m assuming you are Greek. Have you ever been to Greece?

I've been to Greece three times. The most recent was this summer when Grafton and I went for our honeymoon to Santorini and Athens.  

What inspires you?

I’m constantly amazed and inspired at the dedication, perseverance, consistency, and resilience that it takes to hone one’s art or craft to achieve a certain level of success.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I enjoy attending a wide range of art events with my husband including exhibits, a variety of music performances, modern dance, theater performances, and fashion shows, when I’m able.

Effie Tsengas Nunes with husband Grafton Nunes, Emeritus President, CIAEffie Tsengas Nunes with husband Grafton Nunes, Emeritus President, CIAWho is your favorite artist, genre, or medium?

I don’t have just one favorite—perhaps [it’s] more like a favorite in each medium.

For instance, I’m a very big fan of classical guitar and small ensemble performances like ChamberFest, which I find very soothing to my soul.

I often find myself wandering through galleries and museums.

My favorite summer activity is packing a picnic and attending Porthouse Theatre, which is a professional theater on the grounds of Blossom Music Center. But of course I love to see shows at Cleveland Play House and Playhouse Square.

[This past weekend was] the BorderLight Fringe Festival, which was a well-oiled machine with a great variety of performances by local and national artists. We absolutely loved the LatinUs Theater Company's production of “Tropico Macbeth.”  We were so impressed by the presentation and are now looking forward to seeing their full presentation of the play in 2024, plus we learned so much about the actors themselves during the talk back. 

After the theatre production, we stumbled upon the Silent Disco that was going on in the US Bank Plaza and danced and enjoyed the entertainment provided by Whizzbang Variety Circus created by Cleveland Institute of Art alum Jason Tilk. 

I say, “Congratulations to Dale Heinen and her team for putting together a weekend of incredibly engaging and diverse theatre and dance.”

What was the first work of art that truly inspired you?

When my father was ill and in the hospital at UH Main Campus in 2010, I would sometimes meander around the hospital to engross myself in the incredible art. One day I came upon an amazing glass vessel by artist Toots Zynsky, made of threads of glass.

It was one of the most extraordinary and unique pieces of art I had ever seen. I continue to find incredibly unique visual art that inspires me.

Is there a local artist you really admire?

Definitely painter Julian Stanczak (1928-2917) who received a Cleveland Arts Prize in 1967 and was recognized again in 2016 alongside his wife Barbara, who is an incredible sculptor.

Julian’s use of optical effects and color variations are mesmerizing. The fact that the precision of his work was created with the use of only one hand, as his right hand was permanently damaged early in his life, makes his work and the amount of it even more extraordinary.

Effie Tsengas Nunes, center, with daughters Eva and Demetra Tsengas (l to r)Effie Tsengas Nunes, center, with daughters Eva and Demetra Tsengas (l to r)How would you describe Cleveland’s arts scene to someone who has never been here?  

Cleveland boasts a vibrant and diverse art scene that reflects the city's rich cultural heritage and creative spirit. The city's art scene has evolved over the years, with a focus on preserving tradition while embracing contemporary trends.

Cleveland's art scene continues to evolve and thrive, driven by the passion of its artists and the support of its community. The city's commitment to celebrating art and culture through our museums, performing arts, public art, arts festivals, art communities and initiatives makes it a destination for art enthusiasts and a nurturing environment for creative minds to flourish.

How did these Cleveland Arts Prize Tours come about?

It was an idea that came to me in the shower that seemed like an interesting concept since Cleveland is blessed with so much incredible public art. Once we decided on the list of locations and reached out to the curators, the planets aligned, and everyone was excited and very willing to participate. There were a total of six tours which have all been well received.

How does your public relations background help you in serving as interim executive director?

My background helps me to recognize that CAP is in dire need of some good publicity. Somehow, during Covid, CAP stagnated without an executive director for a year and a half and seemed to disappear into the wings (to use a theater term).

Even as we recognize notable artists from every genre and philanthropists, CAP does not receive the recognition for the support they provide to the comprehensive art community. No other city has such a magnanimous municipal award specifically directed at artistic and cultural accomplishment.

Who else gives $10,000 awards to artists, for that matter? For an organization that has celebrated excellence for 63 years, our name should be at the forefront of every northeast Ohio artist, art lover, and philanthropist’s mind. I hope to reignite our public awareness.

What are your goals for the Cleveland Arts Prize?

Our short-term goals are to increase visibility and recognition, as well as attendance at our Annual Awards Event at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Oct. 26. I like to think of the Awards Event as Cleveland’s Oscar Night with live entertainment, a who’s who of attendees, and presenters, and great fashion.

Our long-term goals concern building our endowment to ensure that we can continue awarding $50,000 a year to our winners. But beyond the financial efforts, it is absolutely imperative that we ensure that the arts community continues to grow as an equitable and inclusive place and that CAP provides opportunities for everyone.

Each year, CAP awards five $10,000 prizes to artists for exemplary work in arts disciplines that include Design, Literature, Theatre & Dance, Music, and Visual Arts, as well as three Special Prizes of honor for arts advocacy, community service, and leadership in the arts, and scholarships in Literature, Visual Arts, Dance, and Music.