Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Divine Ms. Barber,
A Women With a Past,
Wins Clev Arts Prize

Sometimes, it's hard even for us hyperarticulate types to really convey how deeply we admire certain folks. I try my best, here and in other venues, to describe why certain of these special people move me so, and why I think they deserve ever-wider recognition than they get. But sometimes the world does catch up to them, as it finally has to Cindy Barber.

Cindy, whom I previously wrote about here, here and here (the latter was actually the second blog entry I wrote, more than four years ago), was honored recently with a Cleveland Arts Prize. While in years past, the prizes have often seemed a little snooty and elitist, I credit the formidable Diana Tittle with systematically democratizing them, by her efforts to widen the nomination process in her years as head of the prize (Judy Mansour, the new executive director of the Poets and Writers League of Greater Cleveland, nicely explained it all in Angle Magazine). The fruits of that work were evident in this year's group of winners, my favorite yet (besides Cindy, longtime city planning icon Norm Krumholz, whom I wrote about here, were among the winners). Anyway, here's a brief piece (alas, not online) I wrote about her in the current issue of Northern Ohio Live. I especially loved the quote about how Cindy has a past in the community.

Few comments by prominent people are more widely (or rightly) ridiculed than the infamous observation by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Sometimes it seems there are only second, third and fourth acts in American lives. For proof, you need look no further than Cindy Barber.

For years, she was the long-suffering, overworked and underpaid den mother of Cleveland’s progressive journalism scene. She was the force behind everything from a Coventry neighborhood paper to editor of the Cleveland Free Times during a particularly difficult period, when then-Cleveland mayor Mike White was boldly snatching the alt-weekly paper’s distribution boxes off the street. She even put in the requisite multiple stints at this magazine, including several years as production manager and later as editor. Now, in her latest act, she’s part owner of an increasingly legendary nightclub, the Beachland Ballroom in North Collinwood.

Before its attractive neon signage and the plentiful car and foot traffic it attracts began breathing life back into this neighborhood beginning in 2000, the Beachland was a dilapidated former Croatian dance hall/tavern. Cindy took the eyesore personally, because it was in her neighborhood. When she decided to do something about it, some of her friends (including me, I must admit, so consider this a disclaimer), shuddered on her behalf, hoping she wasn’t about to flush her life savings down the toilet.

As is generally the case, she saw something others couldn’t. Along with her partner Mark Leddy, she soon turned it into the leading regional venue for the most eclectic punk, pop or blues acts. Fodor’s Guides notes that “it's not uncommon to hear jazz, Afro-beat, punk and folk all in one weekend.” And yet it’s a place so down to earth (a Cindy Barber hallmark) that it actually has free pinball machines and juke boxes, and serves working-class beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz as well as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Her efforts haven’t gone unrecognized. This year, the Cleveland Arts Prize awarded
her with a special citation. The prize, or shall we say prizes (there are at least a half dozen awardees each year) date to 1960, when they were established by the Women’s City Club. The sponsoring group calls it the oldest arts prize of its type in the country.

But just what exactly was her prize for--her lifetime support of the arts, as both editor and activist, or her more recent efforts with the nightclub? “You know, I have no idea,” says Barber herself. “I just got this phone call that said, you won the Cleveland Arts Prize.” She did learn at a cocktail party subsequently held for the winners that the vote on her behalf was unanimous.

“Here’s my take on it,” says one person who’s close to the prize. “Cindy has had a past in this community, in terms of her support of the arts, for 25 years.” And it’s this larger
contribution that’s being celebrated.

Hardened Cindy Barber fans seem pleased. Says current Arts Prize executive director Marcie Bergman, widow of the late Robert Bergman (for which one of the prizes is named): “I have gotten more comments about Cindy Barber and Brendan Ring (owner of Cleveland Heights jazz spot Nighttown, who was also recognized with a special citation this year) than anyone we gave awards to.”

While that piece isn't online, my friend Miles Budimir's (aka Milenko Budimir) splendid piece on the greening of the North Coast is. Do please read it when you have a moment. You can also read a little more about Cindy's innovation in this interview with a researcher from the CWRU Weatherhead School's Center for Business As An Agent of World Change (more of those innovator profiles here).

Congratulations Cindy, Norm and all the other winners. And a special tip of the hat to the Arts Prize organization, for being increasingly on the ball with their selections.


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