In this 2006 interview, Nina Gibans, an author and Cleveland arts advocate, discusses some of her memories of working and living in the city and shares her opinions on art and architecture in Cleveland. As the head of the Cleveland Arts Council from 1972-1979, Gibans became familiar with arts advocacy and the struggle to secure public funding for the arts. More recently, she has written a book on community arts councils and created two websites focusing on Cleveland art and architecture. Gibans discusses her memories of downtown Cleveland as a child in the 1930s and 40s and laments the city's decline. Also discussed are her favorite buildings in the city. Near the end of the interview, Gibans mentions some of her favorite Cleveland poets and elaborates on the difficulty in securing both private and public funding for the arts in Cleveland.
Gibans, Nina (interviewee)
Tobey, Addie (interviewer); Hons, Justin (participant)
American Institute of Architects
"Nina Gibans Interview, 18 July 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 951002.
Transcription sponsored by Leonard & Betty Boesger
Addie Tobey [00:00:01] Well, first, Nina, I want to thank you for coming today. We've had the opportunity to meet a couple of times. I appreciate the chance to record you. Conversations about your journey to begin your work in the arts, and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about that journey, how your interest started since you have such a passion for the arts.
Nina Gibans [00:00:22] Well, as I think about it, it really started a long time ago, but it really took off, took flight when I was in college and when I had the opportunity at Sarah Lawrence College, having decided to go there because of their arts programing, to really go into art, music, and literature. I really wanted to be a music critic. I had come from Wellesley, where I'd gone for two years and had decided on my own to transfer. So it was a small school. It was very, very fine in the arts and so I could delve into writing, I could work with art historians and art curator types who later worked at the Museum of Modern Art, I could participate in Joseph Campbell's courses. He was a guru in the field of mythology and literature, and I could just sink my teeth into what I wanted to do. One of the things I did do as editor of the newspaper there, having decided that it was close enough to New York, that I did not want to emulate any papers that would be in New York City or around New York but to do something special that was absolutely the college. So I sent reporters into classrooms to understand how the teaching was done, why they were exploring different ideas, how, what the results were. And that was very exciting. So we were allowed, I was allowed, to explore things in a way that I felt I might not have been at another school. At that time, we used New York as our arts museum, arts museum, in all ways, so we'd go to the Museum of Modern Art, and there it was on the wall and that was our discussion. So that was exciting. I would be able to, you know, go into any art form and use New York City in the same way. It was... That was a very exciting time. It was also a very challenging time. And if I was gonna go into the arts, I was going to be a writer, I was going to be a poet, I was gonna write, as I said, be a critic and so forth. There were people to work with at Sarah Lawrence that were very, very, they were they were called your dons. So your don was in the field that you were very interested in, mostly. It would be called a, I suppose a major. But you really gave equal time to your three subjects and you had tutorials and you had discussions and you had large group discussions. So the method was wonderful. I think I told you probably the most challenging thing was that it was the McCarthy era and that small school had been picked out by McCarthy himself for, as a target for testimony in front of Congress. So as newspaper editor, it was a very challenging time and therefore thinking about what we needed to in the realm of academic freedom, freedom of the press, all of our freedoms, we needed to be very articulate and we needed to have something that really gave us values and gave us hope. And guess what? It was the arts. Arthur Miller was one of the first people that came to campus. He had just written The Crucible and other... His other plays were daunting, as you know, but very, very poignant. So it was things like that that set me loose, that set me on a path of inquiry and implementation, because I also worked for Young Audiences then. Young Audiences was just beginning in a living room in New York City. So I went to Mrs. [Rosalie J.] Leventritt's living room, and I wrote their first brochure and brought... The idea of Young Audiences, which was a little more... It was a little fuller than just giving a concert. It was... It was that you educated with concerts, that you had people critiquing what was going on, that you had, that you tried to carve for the audience you were presenting for. And that was a challenge itself. I brought that back to Cleveland. So that was one of the things I worked on when I came back to Cleveland.
Addie Tobey [00:05:39] So when you were back here in Cleveland, what were, other than Young Audiences, some of the programs or groups that you started working with?
Nina Gibans [00:05:47] Well, I decided that I needed an M.A., first of all. And Cleveland was one of the first and only or it was one of the only places where you could get a masters in aesthetics and art education, or art history, excuse me, aesthetics and art history. And it was given through the Museum of Art at Case, one of three in the country. Such degrees. So that you could work under Dr. Thomas Monroe, who was a guru in the field and who wrote, actually wrote his books on, you know, as we were taking our courses. But that was, that was very stimulating. And that degree was also an impetus for everything else I did. But teaching at the museum, and in those days, early days, this is now the sixties I'm talking about, I was teaching creative writing in the museum. All the things that later became simply done were innovative in those days. And so there's a famous moment when Sherman Lee, who was very, very, I would say he was the conservative of the range of museum directors. And he believed that your eyes should do the viewing, that you should not rely on all of the machinery that we know we use today, the tapes and everything, and that you should do that. Well, there was a famous moment where we asked him if he would mind getting on stage with a work of art, a piece of sculpture. This was for teachers, this workshop. And he then could walk all around it and talk about that work of art. That was new stuff in those days. It really was. So creative writing, teaching, the arts, that's how that began. I have to say that I have a husband who's an architect and our interests have been very mutual interests. We hardly disagree on what we should do. We may have wonderful discussions on what it is we've just seen and a playwright or this or that, a disagreement with a critic, and all along the way that was... It's been a 50-year marriage, so it's been a long trek. After the art museum, the Arts Council was the next thing that happened in my life. I headed the Cleveland Area Arts Council for seven years, and we were actually in a building where it was heavily programmatic. We had very little support from the public sector. What's new? We're still struggling in Cleveland about public sector support for the arts and how to bring it about. We are one of the few cities that's had such struggle, but it's because our private sector support was so strong for so long and we needed to break through that. I did things like as the Arts Council developed, we commissioned artists, we commissioned artists at large in the community. We had events at the Ohio Theater for poetry, and we had fairs and festivals every Sunday on the Mall. Nothing as brilliant as Ingenuity. There was not the same kind of ambiance, not the same kind of context in Cleveland at that time. If I describe my Euclid Avenue experience, my office actually was on the third floor of the building that Ideastream is in. At one time it was also in the old Arcade, the kitchen of the restaurant there was my office. These are Arts Council offices. And Euclid Avenue, we would come out at 6:00 at night and it was empty. So we would gather, a group of us would gather. We could not walk without company to Public Square. We... There were no busses that ran beyond a certain time. We would share a cab if we could, and it was that kind of atmosphere in Cleveland. It was the downtime for Euclid Avenue, truly. But we loved being on Euclid Avenue, and we had the memories that we always had of the wonderful things that we did as kids. If we lived here, we did everything that people talk about. We remember the Christmas windows. We remember the butterscotch sundaes at Halle's. We remember, you know, the frosties at Higbee's, all about food and all about all of our wonderful things and the wonderful buildings, the shops that look so special as you would walk down and see the jewelry. or see the windows that changed all the time. That was glorious stuff for kids. Or went to the movies at Playhouse Square actually. Bonfoey's has been there forever. So these are part of our memory of Euclid Avenue. Wonderful street. I took dancing lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music, which is actually the Cleveland State University's building for conferences. That was a building that before that time. You know, the one on Euclid?
Addie Tobey [00:12:14] Right.
Nina Gibans [00:12:15] Was two things. It was a Cleveland Institute of Music, and it was also the AAA later. So there were many memories of all the mansions that stood. And we've watched them be torn down. So history keeps disappearing.
Addie Tobey [00:12:35] Did you realize at the time that Euclid Avenue was deteriorating? Did you see that begin to happen? And did you discuss it ever or talk about how it was changing?
Nina Gibans [00:12:44] I think we did, but there wasn't there was no anchor organization to think about that truly until much, much later. We had thought of subways. We had, I mean, transit has always been something that we talked about and gave away. It's like the lakefront. We've had a lot of plans for the lakefront. More than I can... I mean, at one time people used to joke that there were 34 plans for the lakefront, but they were all on shelves. Well, we still have a lakefront to visualize and be visionary about. So did we talk about it? We talked about it, and they would disappear one by one and then something else... Well, which isn't particularly aesthetic would crop up and there is a building. I don't know how I got there. I do know how it got there. But I am angry that we allowed it to happen. Right? It's like an industrial building right in the middle of downtown Cleveland and it should be somewhere else. It's not even that beautiful, but it should not be down here. So there are opinions that you gather and, obviously... But there was no central focus on Euclid Avenue until recently. And this new venture looks like it should come out bright and beautiful. Let's hope.
Addie Tobey [00:14:20] What would you like to see happen now? They talk a lot about Public Square. Do you think that's essential to revitalizing, you know, Euclid Avenue or what will it be...
Nina Gibans [00:14:28] Well...
Addie Tobey [00:14:28] To help the future of Cleveland?
Nina Gibans [00:14:31] I think people don't like to give away history. And so changing the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, again, it was changed a lot when it first came into being, or changing our best mayor's, you know, sculpture isn't my favorite way of going about it. But if there is a traffic pattern, if we should do something that looks like it's right, if we should leave it as a pedestrian and then anchor the bus routes and whatever else about that, around that, that's, that might be something to consider. But I think we've got to do it in a context and know why we want to do it. I just want it to have a vitality that downtowns need to have to be essential to a city. Otherwise you're always centering around it or you're circling around it, rather.
Addie Tobey [00:15:40] You mentioned about the Arts Council of Cleveland is privately funded. How important do you think it is to have it publicly funded? What could that do differently?
Nina Gibans [00:15:49] Well, I think there's a mixture that has to be part of the picture. And that Arts Council existed for seven years, but it was like it was organized much like any other arts organization in that time. And therefore it was not publicly... We didn't have the elements that could increase the knowledge about the arts, the accessibility to the arts, that's a public function. And we really, I mean, I worked with City Council on a new city logo for the City of Cleveland. It was passed unanimously, and then the mayor put the kibosh on it. So we've had experiences like that. That's a minor example of the interest level of the public sector at that time. So I think what is being attempted, and certainly we're trying many different things. Actually, I wrote a book called the Community Arts Council Movement and it's in a reprint to right now and it will have Parade the Circle on the cover, but it's like the national, should I say bible? Because it is. The bible... It's the only book that's been written on that subject of community arts councils. It's being reprinted right now. So that's how I got my arms around what could happen, what should happen. But it couldn't happen in the context of those days here. It was Dennis Kucinich time. Need I say more?
Addie Tobey [00:17:43] Can you tell me a little bit... You started a website about architecture of Cleveland that, how that formed and it started for you. Is that a recent endeavor and how it's...
Nina Gibans [00:17:53] Right. One of the things that I have learned through the years, and I did work for the Children's Museum of Cleveland part of the organization of it, and then worked there. And one of the things that I think we learned, if I learned anything about learning, it was that people learn in so many different ways. That was Howard Gardner's first book or one of his first books, The Many Ways of Learning. And so it was powerful. It was powerful for teachers, powerful for us at children's museums. We had him here and he was thinking about that. And so interpreting that, in a way, meant that what you needed to do whenever you did anything was to do it in several languages. Languages being in a book, in a video, in an experience to allow people who learn in different ways to get their arms around what you're trying to do. So that really was a guiding principle for me from the eighties on. And so every project I ever did after that had a video and a publication. And so that's why you have four or five videos on museums and communities, museums and schools, and you have a video on the impact of prejudice on kids because the exhibit at the museum couldn't possibly get its message to everyone unless we did it that way. So WVIZ and I worked on that in a form that allowed discussion in 11 different sites 1,100 people trained to talk about prejudice and their impact on kids. So the projects I've worked on have had an element of that kind of principle. Well, so we come to the website. Well, it isn't that long ago that there were no websites or no interest in them. And so the websites on architecture, how did that come about? First of all, the book Creative Essence: Cleveland's Sense of Place is from a project that took its shape from the community, it took its shape from community discussion, took its shape from working with WCPN and allowing the community in on discussions on Cleveland's roots, Cleveland's manmade environment, the artists past and present, future, and so forth. So coming off of that, in order to complete the circle, it seemed to me that after you had a publication that that would only reach so many people. But if you had a website to connect so that teachers could do what they have such a difficult time creating curriculum because they just don't have time to do it and there never money to do it, all that kind of thing that plays into the creation of new material. I decided that, and I got a Jennings grant, two Jennings grants actually, to create websites that take off from the book, actually, and create the possibility for teachers to use curriculum material straight from the website and give you the name of artists, architects, tours, experiences in the community that children could have. And, you know, children and parents can do it together. They can be assigned it if teachers would do it. There's a glossary. There's all sorts of ideas on both the website which is Cleveland Art and History dot org or Architecture of Cleveland dot com, and those two... I'm very proud of the fact that the whole thing makes a totality but it comes, stems from that honest opinion that people learn in so many different ways and also that education is far more than just schools. It really goes, you know, to the community at large that needs to know what they see when they see it and what happened before something else and what is history. Lots of people weren't around. They weren't born [laughs], you know, a long time ago, so they experience it newly. There's always a new generation of lookers or inquirers or people who need information. So that's how those websites are meant to be used and to print off the tours and take the walking, go walk by the buildings, experience a building. And the way the teachers, and they were piloted by teachers and advised by teachers and architects and artists. I didn't do it alone. Nobody does those things alone.
Addie Tobey [00:23:38] When you hear the word architecture, how do you define that in your own words of what architecture is, if you were going to describe it to a student?
Nina Gibans [00:23:47] Well, architecture is complex. First of all, it's the manmade environment. Secondly, it has to meet the needs of people who are going to use it. If it's a house, it has to meet the needs of people. They're going to buy the house or live in the house or want certain things. And so it's a social... It's a social art. It's an aesthetic. There is aesthetics involved. There is also the idea that the client and the architect have to work together. Nobody is solo in this. Nobody does a building that just pleases them, meaning the architect. So there is that mix of skills that architecture involves and it certainly involves... We only know with something falling down in Boston recently, we only know how important it is to also understand engineering, mathematics, and the whole nine yards.
Addie Tobey [00:25:01] When you think of... My ultimate goal is to bring students down, like you said, and show them buildings along Euclid Avenue. And there are so many. But what are two or three buildings that you'd want me for sure to stop and have my students look at or pay attention to?
Nina Gibans [00:25:18] Well, I want them to see elevator doors. I want them to see the Higbee elevator doors and the Silver Grille, starting at the Square. The interior is special. I want them... Oh, well, they could go to the Terminal complex and look at the interior, the marble that was saved, the bronze pieces that were saved, the embellishments that that period, Beaux Arts, really makes us look again and again and again. The old Arcade... I could go on and on, but the old Arcade is very special in the same way. It's only one or two or three in the whole country or maybe in the world by now. But there was one in Milan and one in England and one in... on the East Coast of the United States. But our Arcade, 1890, very special. And the skylight was... All this was repaired when it was created into a hotel. But it is a very special environment. So they should look at details. They should look at what these buildings represent. I think that the Federal Reserve Bank is just beautiful. It's not easy to get into it, but it is a beautiful, beautiful building all the way throughout. The courthouse is a beautiful building. You know, I could really go on and on. But there are at least a dozen buildings. The Key Bank building downtown on the Square is the most beautiful banking hall. And some of these have been lovingly restored by architects that you're going to be interviewing, I think Peter Van Dijk and others. The Union Club is a beautiful building. It was just restored. Schweinfurth was a major architect here, did buildings throughout our, throughout our city, including the bridges over Rockefeller Park. Those bridges are Schweinfurth bridges. He also had his home on 75th Street that was lovingly restored by architects and is lived in today by someone who really intends to keep that building. It's on 75th between Chester and Euclid. So Euclid Avenue, I mean, I love Dunham Tavern. I love to think about what went on there. And I love the fact that the garden, botanical garden does the gardens there and that children learn from those gardens.
Addie Tobey [00:28:20] With thinking of those buildings and Euclid Avenue, and you touched a little bit on some brief memories that you have of Euclid Avenue, but could you share a special memory you have as a young girl, a teenager, of Euclid Avenue or going to Higbee's or a bookstore down there?
Nina Gibans [00:28:34] Well, they were they were special. I mean, this was white glove special. You dressed up to go downtown. Come on. You did not look like we all look today. But it was... It was that you dressed to go, you... I could tell you what was on every floor of Halle's. I can tell you what was on some of the floors at Higbee's. Because that's where you went to get something special. And so those trips downtown, and I kid you not, the food, of course, was always very important, but something like, I mean, you know, girls and women like jewelry but Beattie's always had a design in their window of diamonds and any other, you know, wonderful precious jewels, and they were always fascinating. So you always stopped. But the store windows were also wonderful... I think our window shopping is done by catalog today. Those are our window shop... That's our window. [laughs] You leaf through it and it's our window. But in those days, you passed these windows and they were really carefully crafted, carefully designed. I know some of the people who did design them, and they were thought through and they had themes and they changed. And you looked forward to the changes. Going down on the rapid has always been, I mean, the rapid is our is one of the oldest transports of that kind in the country, that rapid from the Square out east. And then it had a west... I mean, it extended to the west and extended, you know, further east on Euclid Avenue to East Cleveland. But the original rapid and extended the idea of coming downtown in a way that was public and it made it easy. So those are memories that are wonderful. No one can forget the Christmas tree. I'm not... I'm not... I am Jewish. So the Christmas tree at Lindner Davis took the whole height of the building. It was the biggest tree. It was the biggest tree. And it was always magnificently decorated. I'll talk about that elevator in Sterling Lindner Davis. It was the old kind with the grille in front, and it was, I think it was bronze. So it's a pity that those things are gone. The jewelry store at 14th. Well, you know, on the corner, Cowell & Hubbard, Cowell & Hubbard, wonderful jewelry store, big store. Pair of shoes... I can tell you everything that, I mean, a pair of shoes at the next shoe store and so forth.
Addie Tobey [00:31:43] As you had your family and you and your husband moved back to Cleveland, did you continue to bring your kids down to Euclid Avenue or to places, or was that not an opportunity for them?
Nina Gibans [00:31:57] Thinking back to their childhood, Cleveland's downtown was not the same. They might come down to Higbee's. Playhouse Square was under redevelopment, if not under its time when nothing was going on there a lot, and so coming downtown was not the same even then. That generation, they went to Coventry. [laughs] That was their hangout. They went... But coming downtown was not to go to the movies, to go, that... It was, it was past its prime for that, at that time when they were growing up. So Shaker Square was, was still okay. It had later its downs and ups. But Shaker Square reflected some of what I'm talking about downtown. That was part of the experience. People talk about coming into Cleveland, coming in, parking at Shaker Square, and then going down on the rapid and then coming back out too. I mean, but that was the experience of people who came into Cleveland and wanted the whole experience, the public transportation experience, the experience of both Shaker Square and the downtown.
Addie Tobey [00:33:30] How important do you think it is now in 2006 to bring people back down to Public Square and Euclid Avenue? Is it essential to the city?
Nina Gibans [00:33:39] I would like to hope that the 100,000 people that just went to Ingenuity would be the new clients for everything that we could manage to develop in a community sense downtown. But we have a long way to go. In other words, if what's bringing them down are the events that people plan and so, meaning groups plan, for them, and that's why they're there. I mean, within the last two weeks, we've had the orchestra and we've had Ingenuity and we've had the boats on the harbor. And it's easy to get around to those things once the orange barrels are gone. But I want them... There have to be restaurants. I mean, that was another pleasure on Euclid Avenue was dating and going to different restaurants as downtown presented them. And they came and went, and and during the time I was growing up, that wasn't particularly where we went. But I think that the mix of things to do at all times that are not only those that are highly organized and, you know, developed for the community is what's going to need shaking out in the view of today's world.
Addie Tobey [00:35:25] Do you think it's important for people to get more people to live downtown or it's okay people are living in the suburbs and just coming in back and forth?
Nina Gibans [00:35:33] I think living downtown is important. And so that brings us to school systems. It brings us to the fact that only in the last fifteen years or so have we really developed some living. But I would not say it's yet family living. It's really for singles and empty nesters and people whose grocery stores can be, you know, small and so forth. But I think that would be wonderful if we could. Toronto has that mix that we, I've always thought would be terrific, or what other cities? San Francisco has that. And that isn't present here. I think that's a problem.
Addie Tobey [00:36:25] You mentioned coming down and seeing the Christmas tree even though you were Jewish. And you've mentioned in our past interviews about your father working at Mt. Sinai. Did you feel that there were any barriers for your family since your family was Jewish that were obstacles or struggles for your family? Just to go?
Nina Gibans [00:36:44] Well, I think you want me to go into my experience at Laurel School maybe?
Addie Tobey [00:36:49] Okay, that would be... Yeah.
Nina Gibans [00:36:50] I, at the time I went to Laurel School, and it is vastly different today, I was the only Democrat and the only Jew in my class. And so that was true. And I think that I probably got stronger because I struggled with that. I taught my classmates Hebrew, and we obviously, they could like it or leave it that we were for Roosevelt or whatever. And so there's number one. My father's own struggle at Case Western Reserve, where he was not allowed to be a full professor because he was Jewish, was a different kind of struggle. He was a thoracic surgeon, had... Was the head of surgery at Mount Sinai and had developed the surgery for tuberculosis. So that was one of his main contributions. It was written up. Those things are true. And he was not allowed... He taught at the university, but he was never allowed to be a professor, full professor. I remember that. That was true. Later, and this is kind of the rebellious side of all of us, I guess, he developed Kaiser. He wrote the legislation for the HMO which later became Kaiser. And most of his fellow physicians did not come along with that necessarily at that time. But he did it with the Meat Cutters Union, and he did it with the folks who developed Kaiser Permanente, the health system. And that turned out to be just fine. And he believed that it was that you should be able to get healthcare in one place, go to one facility and get health care. What happened after that in health care, I have no idea what he would think of it today. I have a son who is a doctor and he manages an emergency room in Aspen or Rifle, Colorado. He enjoys his life in Colorado. But my father, I wish I could imagine the conversation the two of them might have about medicine today.
Addie Tobey [00:39:27] And you mentioned your son, and you've done so many things with artists locally and as you traveled with your husband when you're in San Francisco, how was it balancing family and your artistic endeavors? And what challenges did that pose?
Nina Gibans [00:39:44] It's interesting because in the days of the Arts Council, I was one of the few women that was heading up a large city arts council. So on the national level, I would join my peers and that would be true. So that was one thing that is true. It's no longer true at all. But women have come a long way. So when I describe the situation of working downtown, I was also one of the few people I knew that worked downtown, women that worked downtown. And so I came from a generation where you were expected to get married, have kids and stay at home and so forth. But I think that my father's philosophy was that you should take your wings and fly wherever it took you. And he allowed that to happen. And so I'm pleased by that. But that was a middle generation of folks. My kids are all involved in different things, and I have four children and they are doctors and lawyers and educators and organic farmers all over the country. So I learn from them. I really do. They have learned one thing that my father told me, told us, and that was that whenever you pursued something, you should go for the best and get counseling from the best. Get advice from the best. Go for it. And so they have done that in each in their different fields. And they've had wonderful experiences. And we've learned from them. It was great. Keeps us on our toes.
Addie Tobey [00:41:45] Do you think they have a love for the arts like you and your husband do?
Nina Gibans [00:41:48] Well, they do, but in a very, very different way. The Vermont... Vermont is full of artists. I tell you, every time I go, we are visiting potters and ceramists, and the last time I went, I started talking with a potter. And she said, Oh, from Cleveland. The woman down the street worked in Cleveland. She worked for a jewelry store. She worked for the best jewelry store. And it was Potter and Mellen. So, and the head of University School just retired. Where? To Ripton, Vermont. That's where my daughter is. So that family looks at the arts in a very... They... It's part of their daily lives. They know people in the arts and, you know, they may not get organized to go to a lot of museums because it's not that close. But when they go to a city, they... We've had them here. We know. We milk the arts. In the case of everyone else, they all enjoy different things. My son was a jazz musician and is always listening to music in his house. And our daughter in Portland loves to... She's a clog dancer. And she also, you know, loves all kinds of music and things. So they're fine in the arts. They aren't in the same way I am, but that's fine.
Addie Tobey [00:43:33] Neat. We kind of, just going back, I wanted to pick up some things that I, as I took notes... Locally, when you think of artists, could you tell me a couple of your favorite local poets that you enjoy reading or would make mention of maybe that I might incorporate into a classroom?
Nina Gibans [00:43:54] Well. Mary Williams and I are very good friends, and we did a project where she was the workshop leader in ten different libraries for getting poetry and art connected. And then we ended t
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