Sean Watterson


2021 Martha Joseph Prize


As residents of Cleveland Heights, Sean Watterson’s parents ensured that he had abundant opportunities to benefit from the elite arts institutions just down the hill in University Circle. For example, he regularly attended children’s art classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He also studied coronet and cello. Just not enough to be very good, he laments. 


“I always had an appreciation for music and art, but it was something I was a fan of, not a purveyor of,” Sean says. 


Following closely in his father’s footsteps, he graduated from University School in 1987 and then attended Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where he majored in American studies, graduating in 1991. Unsure of what to do next, he returned to Cleveland and became a municipal bond trader, just like his father. During the two years he worked at Baker and Company, a small discount brokerage firm, he befriended Sean Kilbane, a musician who shared his love of live music and attending shows at the Beachland Ballroom, Euclid Tavern, Grog Shop, and Wilbert’s. 


Sean then broke away from that paternal path by attending Case Western Reserve University School of Law, specializing in international law and securities law. That opened the way for a position in international affairs for the Securities & Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. 


In 2008, Kilbane, who later died in an accidental fall in 2014, wrote to inform him that a bar in Gordon Square, The Happy Dog, was up for sale and he thought they should buy it. “I responded, ‘Sounds like fun,’ which will be the title of my book, if I ever write it.” 


They took over in August of that year, Sean moved back to Cleveland from New York into the upstairs space at the Happy Dog, where he would wheel his chair between two desks, one for Happy Dog business and one for his then employer, Bank of America. In 2009, he decided to commit to the Dog full-time. 


Now, Sean finally had a chance to let his liberal arts education and diversified portfolio of arts appreciation flourish. In addition to the rock, punk, and folk bands popular on The Happy Dog stage, he leveraged his friendship with college pal Griffin Mann, then chief curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, to initiate programs such as talks with a curator or Gordon Square Goes to the Orchestra or Gordon Square Goes to the Art Museum or Ensemble HD Orchestral Maneuvers at the Dog. 


“I felt like I had access here I never would have had if I owned a bar in New York,” he says. “I never would have known a curator at the Met or any of the musicians from the Philharmonic, but here, because we have such legacy cultural assets from the early 20th century that are much better than a city our size deserves, you can have this level of excellence and access that you can’t have in other cities.” 


As a passionate and seasoned arts advocate, Sean helped get the Save Our Stages bill passed for a total of $16.1 billion, roughly 100 times the NEA’s annual budget. He also served as the Ohio Precinct Captain for National Independent Venue Association and National Implementation Task Force Co-Chair. Thus far, that effort has brought $267 million to 368 applicants in Ohio, large and small. Northeast Ohio is up to $88 million to date, with supplemental grants that will go up to $115 million. 


The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program will benefit nearly 150 different NEO entities, bringing tens of millions of dollars to institutions such as Playhouse Square, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, The Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The program has also benefited small and mid-sized venues, including the Beachland Ballroom, the Grog Shop, Mahall’s, The Happy Dog, Cleveland Cinemas, the Beck Center, Cleveland Playhouse, Karamu House, Dobama Theater, and Cain Park. 


“Sean’s really shown incredible leadership,” says Cindy Barber, co-founder and owner of The Beachland Ballroom and Tavern in Collinwood. “He took on organizing all of the Ohio music clubs to email our Congressional representatives in order to get the Save Our Stages act passed in December and then helped negotiate with local levels of government for additional CARES act support and has kept all of us updated every step of the way. He has personally made sure there was enough funding for all of Northeast Ohio's independent venues to survive the extended shutdown.” 


Barber adds that, thanks to much of his tireless efforts, Cleveland has become a sample nationally for what can be done through organizations, and a lot of cities have created similar types of organizations like the Cleveland Music Club Coalition. 


“Winning the Cleveland Arts Prize means everything when the community you’re doing your work in recognizes you,” Sean concludes.































































































































































Cleveland Arts Prize