Leonard Steinbach wears a folded triangle of saffron fabric on the lapel of his dark suit. It's a memento from his February trip to New York for the unveiling of "The Gates," the acclaimed public art exhibit by Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude. But for the Cleveland Museum of Art's chief technology officer, there's something more to it. "It's a symbol that I'm in mourning," says Steinbach, "for what's going on here in Cleveland."
Steinbach laments that Cleveland's relationship with the arts is slipping into a malaise. He's experienced it firsthand.
Steinbach loves the theater, dance, jazz and film. When he lived in New York and worked as CTO for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, he attended cultural events at least two nights a week. Most nights, it was just a "stop-off after work." He'd buy cheap tickets and the theater became his way to relax, to meditate and to think differently. For him, attending an artistic event was just a part of his life, hardly different from going to the gym.
"Art is the greatest intoxicant," he says.
When Steinbach moved to Cleveland in fall 1999 to join the museum, he loved what he found: a wealth of outstanding arts offerings and a lot more available tickets than in New York.
Despite everything he came to love about Cleveland, something started to wear him down. He wondered what it was that energized him in New York, but was missing here. What he'd lost in his move, Steinbach realized, was the group dynamic that accompanies the arts in New York.
"It's the topic of discussion there," he says. Try striking up a conversation at work about the play you attended last night in Cleveland, he says, and you'll likely draw "flatline expressions" from your co-workers. (This is coming from a man who works at the art museum.)
Here, off-season Browns news makes more waves around the water cooler than the latest performance at Cleveland Public Theatre.
Still, Steinbach hopes to change that mentality with a simple solution: "Late Out, Late In," a program that encourages people to attend arts events during the workweek by allowing them to come to work two hours late the next day.
It's meant to remove a common excuse for people not attending weekday cultural events. Companies that sign on to the program — now being pushed by the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland — spread the word about the initiative and exchange two hours of employee work-time for a qualifying ticket stub.
Steinbach's initial goals are small: maybe 1,000 to 2,000 people the first year attending an extra event per quarter. Double that the next year and, once some traction starts to build, the group dynamic will pull in others. Once businesses realize that the arts are a vital asset, he says, we'll witness "human creativity unleashed."
He wants Cleveland to be known throughout the country as a creative, world-class leader in business and the arts. "Cleveland is positioned better than any other city because it already has a core audience that supports these things," Steinbach says.
He knows expanding that audience won't be easy. Clevelanders are risk-averse. And a 15-minute drive for an event can seem like walking across Lake Erie to many. So he's resorting to "brute force." Otherwise, the malaise will set in.
Steinbach hopes the program can be an "accelerant" that burns at the core of why people don't go out more. Look at the turnout for the Spencer Tunick installation (in which he participated), Steinbach says. That event alone should teach us to never underestimate Clevelanders — especially given the proper catalyst.
On his flight back from New York in February, Steinbach met four other Clevelanders who'd made the trip. They shared the energy of the "Gates" experience. He wants to bring that same excitement here. He uses a home video of Central Park awash in saffron to make his point about art's transformative power.
"Everybody has to smile," a person on the video says. "Everybody else is."