In living color: YARDS Projects kicks off an exciting year for the Cleveland art scene

It’s Liz Maugans’ first official day as Director of YARDS Projects at Worthington Yards—a bold new space in the Warehouse District that combines four apartment buildings with public art and an art gallery. Her to-do list is long, and it ends with making Cleveland the global arts destination. By her own admission, it’s a tall order, but after the first five minutes of conversation, it’s clear that if anyone can do it, Maugans is the person for the job.

For the past few weeks, Maugans has been simultaneously racing to ready YARDS Projects for its grand opening while wrapping up her final days at Zygote Press, where she was co-founder and Executive Director for 20 years.

<span class="content-image-text">Liz Maugans, Director of Yards Projects at Worthington Yards</span>Liz Maugans, Director of Yards Projects at Worthington YardsBut now, there’s no looking back. Maugans is laser-focused on the opportunities ahead, and how YARDS Projects fits into the bigger picture. In addition to curating exhibits, Maugans will be giving tours and meeting with developers. 

“I really want them to kind of see this [as a] recipe for potential other projects that are happening in Cleveland,” says Maugans. “I believe in artists, I am an artist. I see what art can do in terms of economic development, tourism, education, quality of life—and I’m like a kid in a candy store with this proposition.”

A bold new idea

Maugans sees YARDS Projects as a bit of an “art experiment.” The Worthington Yards complex is designed to achieve maximum interaction among its residents with courtyards and fire pits, a dog park, a bar, a yet-to-open restaurant, community events, and art. Lots and lots of art—like an "amazing" 40-foot digital weaving by Michael Loderstedt, or a series of photographs by Lauren Yeager that so captivated Maugans she’s already purchased one of the artist’s pieces.

The space is the brainchild of developer Neil Viny, whom Maugans calls a visionary for his idea of allowing apartment dwellers to “live in a breathing art gallery.” 

It’s a concept Maugans says can be seen in hotels and hospitals, but not residential spaces. “I think this one is very, very special," says Maugans. "That there’s this investment in our regional treasures [and] our artists here, [one] that is quite different and dynamic.”

<span class="content-image-text">Detail of Proposition for the Uninvited by Michael Loderstedt</span>Detail of Proposition for the Uninvited by Michael Loderstedt

All these elements are intended to foster a mini-community of diverse and engaged tenants, says Maugans. “It’s racially diverse, [and] you have young people in there with families, boomers that are downsizing, and a lot of millennials.”

And it’s working.

Cleveland transplant Heidi Quicksilver was the first tenant to move in. According to Maugans, Quicksilver "works all the time, so having a place that has art openings and receptions…has been a little bit of a beautiful spark.”

For Quicksilver, the appeal is even simpler. “We get to live in a real art gallery," says Quicksilver, who acts as Interim Vice President of Technology for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "YARDS directly connects residents to the stories of Cleveland through the artists of Cleveland every single day right where they live. That's powerful. It nurtures conversations. It creates community."

Because of this connection, Maugans says tenants take pride and ownership in the space, and more importantly, they become invested in its artists. To further foster this blossoming relationship, Maugans will help the residents plan and curate one exhibition of their choosing each year.

<span class="content-image-text">New Growth & Seeing Above - Be by Michelle Murphy</span>New Growth & Seeing Above - Be by Michelle Murphy

Taking the world stage

YARDS Projects is just the beginning of Maugans realizing her vision. If she reaches the high bar she’s set for herself, Cleveland will become a premier arts destination for tourists and artists alike.

So how do you turn what Maugans calls a "meat-and-potatoes town" into a global arts hotspot? For Maugans, everything is about connection.

“She is really a fearless networker, and I think that that’s the kind of person you need to have to accomplish something like that,” says Bellamy Printz, long-time friend, Zygote Press co-founder, and curator at Cleveland Clinic Arts & Medicine Institute. “She is someone who is really able to see outside the box."

When asked what else Clevelanders should know about Maugans, Printz laughs and responds, “Take her call.”

Maugans will likely be making a lot of calls in the months ahead. The global art world will shift its focus to Cleveland this July for the FRONT Triennial, an international event that will see activations at many of Cleveland’s major institutions. FRONT is expected to bring more than 300,000 visitors to the city to celebrate dozens of national and international artists, as well as six local artists.

July also brings the inaugural CAN triennial, which anticipates the arrival of an additional 30,000 arts tourists. Maugans was instrumental in creating CAN (Creative Artists Network), a non-profit with a quarterly publication now in its fifth year.

These events will create a major opportunity to show off the city, its creative spaces, its growing artist communities, and its emerging arts market. Maugans wants the community to be ready. She needs them to be ready.

She’s heading a community advisory committee with the goal of bringing more people on board—calling on her contacts at community development corporations, civic projects, local art spaces and galleries that she made while developing CAN. Says Maugans, "I think I’m in a really great position to expand these networks an make Cleveland a much more hospitable place for artists to come, make a living, be celebrated and be utilized.”

<span class="content-image-text">Insufficient Ink by Amber N. Ford</span>Insufficient Ink by Amber N. Ford

Harnessing the momentum 

The momentum of two Triennials could help Maugans recruit more artists to the area—as will her passion for championing unknown and underserved artists. For the current exhibit, she has paired the works of Eric Rippert, Corrie Slawson, Amber Ford, and Lauren Yeager.

“In every show, I’ll be representing an emerging artist, an artist of color, with an artist that is already established," shares Maugans. "And that will be core to this type of work.”

Cleveland’s affordability will also be a strong selling point, but no matter how cheap the cost of living, artists can’t survive without patrons and paying clientele, so Maugans feels strongly that "we need to start developing new conversations and new ways of getting people engaged.”

<span class="content-image-text">Rembrandt's Skyscraper by Michael Loderstedt</span>Rembrandt's Skyscraper by Michael LoderstedtMaugans clearly sees YARDS Projects as part of the conversation; that’s why she feels it’s so important to host events like this weekend’s Art Venture—a progressive conversation that begins with an artist talk in the YARDS space, then moves to another nearby gallery or studio to explore other works. The first edition will feature a talk by Loderstedt, followed by a visit to the Cleveland Print Room.

“[Art Venture] takes people directly to the artist, to their studios, to the nooks and crannies of these great neighborhoods that people don’t know exist, [or] they don’t know how to get there, and they don’t feel comfortable there.”

For Maugans, this is a vital part of the equation, one in which she plays an integral role: “To have somebody that’s your hostess with the mostest with a cocktail in hand, or a good cup of coffee…[who can] make people feel more comfortable and make that engagement for people who will support these organizations, the artists that show there, and the arts initiatives that are happening in Cleveland.”

It circles back to the running theme of Maugans’ life: connection and the ingenuity of her simple but powerful idea that “the way to connect people is through the artists themselves.”

YARDS Projects is destined to facilitate this process. People can come in, tour, have a drink, and mingle in a relaxed environment; they can talk to artists and follow their work. And though it may take time, when they’re ready, they’ll come back to that artist to invest in a piece they love.

It's all part of a long-term vision that Maugans feels is within reach, thanks to Cleveland's evolving potential as an art mecca: “I want artists to be able to make a living, and I want Cleveland to be put on the map as an arts destination because you can actually make artwork here.”