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It’s not unusual for us to hear first-time visitors of Cleveland walking through downtown, stopping dead in their tracks and saying, “Oh cool! What is that?!”
That, my friend, is public art and Cleveland’s got more of it than you can imagine.
Here are some of our faves:
Probably the most famous of public art in Cleveland, “Free Stamp” is one of those structures that consistently draws groups of visitors and clusters of bridal parties seeking quintessential Cleveland pictures. Located at the corner of Lakeside Ave. and East 9th Street near the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the iconic piece is a 50-foot-tall, 75,000-pound replica of a giant rubber stamp with the word “FREE” written backwards.
In 1982, artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen were commissioned by Standard Oil Company of Ohio to create a piece of outdoor art to enhance its company’s headquarters at 200 Public Square.
The artists chose the word “FREE” in an effort to create a contemporary take on the concept of liberty, which was juxtaposed with a more traditional take on that same ideal at the nearby Soldiers & Sailors Monument (dedicated to the veterans of the Civil War). However, the word “FREE” was to be placed upside down – in an attempt, perhaps, to make a statement to the oil-company big wigs who could read it correctly when they looked down from their skyscraper offices.
Shortly thereafter, however, Standard Oil of Ohio was acquired by BP America and, as it turned out, BP America didn’t care much for it (many believe the company thought the word “FREE” seen upside down was insulting to a large corporation) and opted not to display the huge stamp. A bit of a local controversy ensued while the piece sat in storage, so BP America gifted “Free Stamp” to the City of Cleveland.
As a result, “Free Stamp” now sits in Willard Park next to Cleveland City Hall. The stamp now rests on its side, creating the metaphor that the sculpture had been haphazardly flung across the city.
There are many Instagram-worthy scenes in The Land, but the Fountain of Eternal Life takes the cake. Located adjacent to the Cleveland Convention Center and Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Center, the fountain features a 35-foot-tall bronze statue depicting a man reaching to the sky from a fury of flames.
Put on display in 1964, the monument was created by Cleveland Institute of Art grad Marshall Fredericks to honor local veterans of the Korean War and World War II.
Like many pieces of Cleveland public art, the Fountain of Eternal Life saw its share of controversy. Many people at the time opposed the idea of the statue being nude. That said, Fredericks ensured that the flame elements surrounding the statue were strategically placed around the figure’s body.
Make your way to the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge (pass Progressive Field heading west) to see another of the most iconic pieces of public art in Cleveland - eight 43-foot-tall “Guardians of Transportation.” These Art Deco stone sculptures towering above the bridge depict the “spirit of progress in transportation” through the different modes each holds in their hands.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, which offers free admission to its permanent collection, should be on every CLE visitor’s itinerary. Head to the 1916 building of the museum (the white marble entrance toward the back steps) to get your picture next to Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Just down the steps sits Chester Beach’s beautiful “Fountain of the Waters” in Wade Oval.
Here are some other pieces of public art we think you ought to check out:
The City of Cleveland is deeply committed to the creation of public art. In 2004, the city enacted legislation requiring that capital improvement projects within city limits with budgets over $350,000 must designate at least 1.5% of the total budget toward the creation of new public art.
Cleveland is also home to ICA Art Conservation, which provides art conservation services to worldwide clients. They know the public art scene because they’ve helped to maintain hundreds of pieces to their original beauty and, as a result, keeping them in existence.
Graffiti HeArt Gallery is a local nonprofit organization that supports talented graffiti and street artists by matching them with local donors in the community looking to commission a work of art for canvases throughout the community. Not only do these projects help up-and-coming artists make a living but proceeds also go to fund art scholarships and other educational opportunities for underserved youth as well as urban development projects.