Peggy Spaeth, Executive Director Heights Arts
2013 MARTHA JOSEPH PRIZE
“Just growing up in Cleveland, you absorb arts and culture,” observes Peggy Spaeth, founding executive director of Heights Arts. The arts have always been integral to her life, starting with school field trips from Shaker Heights down the hill to the Cleveland Museum of Art and Cleveland Orchestra concerts. Later she earned an arts education degree jointly from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Case Western Reserve University. Instead of teaching she worked part time as a picture framer to spend time on her own art. As a visual artist Peggy explored color and pattern in paintings and hand-dyed quilts during the 1970s. Despite showing her work in The Cleveland Museum of Art May Show several times, national juried and invitational shows, and having her quilts featured in books, she found the life of a visual artist inhibited by sparse support of local artists by local galleries.
By then a resident of Cleveland Heights with a young family, her focus shifted to art education when she discovered, as a kindergarten parent, that her local elementary school did not have an art teacher. She attended the first PTA meeting of the year to inquire why that was so. Thanks to the collaboration of the PTA, teachers, and administrators there was a certified art teacher hired the following year. The next year all eight Cleveland Heights elementary schools employed certified art teachers.
“I became very interested in how the arts can impact education and community life,” she says. Peggy saw opportunities to incorporate art into daily life everywhere. She initiated an art project for the playground being built at Canterbury Elementary School, and learned how to fund public art projects. She then convened a broad group of stakeholders to help the Coventry Elementary School neighborhood incorporate public art in the Peace Park on the corner of Coventry and Euclid Heights Blvd, resulting in the Coventry Peace Arch by Barry Gunderson.
By 2000, her experiences and relationships with people who shared her vision left her poised to do more, just as Cleveland Heights embarked on a visioning process that surveyed all 50,000 residents via questionnaires and town meetings regarding the future of the city. Peggy and her collaborators served as arts advocates, asking citizens about their interest in the arts and how it could enliven their uniquely creative community. They demonstrated how the arts positively impact all aspects of community life, from economic development to education to community-building. Within a year, the group landed start-up funding from the Cleveland and Gund foundations to launch Heights Arts, with Peggy serving as the founding executive director. “We are a multidisciplinary arts organization, providing opportunities for a variety of creative people to express themselves both for their sake and for the sake of the community,” she explains. Today, through Heights Arts public art and design initiatives, there are murals, fences, signage, and benches throughout the city designed by local artists. Unlike the years when no local gallery would show a critically acclaimed local artist, Heights Arts gallery near the Cedar-Lee Theatre shows and sells the work of hundreds of regional artists. Heights Arts also appoints the city’s poet laureate, presents chamber music concerts in intimate settings performed by world-class local musicians, and facilitates community-building temporary public art and design projects such as Fencepiration, which covered a construction fence with a whimsical garden made from recycled materials.
“Peggy sees the whole landscape and identifies opportunities to raise awareness of the arts through all of the talents that we have in our own community,” says Andrea Joki, a visual artist who is Heights Arts’ Program Director.
After deftly guiding her beloved arts endeavor through its first decade, including a major expansion of the gallery, Peggy recently announced that she will retire in July. Ask her what her plans are, she’ll tell you she has none. Then she will tick off a list of possible projects she sees in the community. After all, you never retire from your lifelong passion.