By Michael C. Butz

Cutting-edge. Envelope-pushing. World-renowned. All are terms that describe the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, a leading purveyor of modern art in Northeast Ohio. Soon, as the venerable institution marks its 50th anniversary, another descriptor will apply: completely free.

Free admission to moCa Cleveland will begin March 16, when the museum reopens with its 50th anniversary exhibitions installed. The move is part of a larger initiative called OPEN HOUSE, a five-point plan designed to get more people through the museum’s doors, and once they’re there, better connect with them – and better connect them with the art they’re experiencing.

The other components – an updated brand identity and the creation of a diversity curatorial fellowship, an education fellowship and an engagement guide apprenticeship program – are no less noteworthy. Each aims to reinforce the other as part of the overall initiative, and ultimately enhance the visitor experience, something moCa Cleveland executive director Jill Snyder said is especially relevant in light of the museum’s milestone anniversary.

“Fifty is a big year. It feels both exciting and momentous – and serious. It’s no small feat for this institution to get to 50 years, and we want it to live a good long time after this,” Snyder told Canvas. “On the one hand, the 50th is very celebratory – it’s an opportunity to pause and make everyone feel really rewarded for getting to this place – but what we talk about as a team is this incredible responsibility to make an institution relevant, to respond to our community, to diversity, inclusion, accessibility.”

In its totality, the OPEN HOUSE initiative may be as pioneering and forward-thinking as the art moCa Cleveland is known for showing.

“I’m not aware of any museum that has approached this as a comprehensive platform and seen it as an intentional, strategic, reinforcing set of initiatives that all get launched at the same time,” Snyder said. “Why does that matter? Because I think it expresses a fairly sophisticated strategic approach that understands it is looking holistically at the visitor experience. For me, that’s exciting.”

OPEN HOUSE opens moCa’s front door

The political, societal and technological turmoil of any given generation fuels much of contemporary art, which in turn helps make sense of and better understand the world around it. It’s a critical dynamic, particularly in complex times. 

“Art has this unique opportunity to engage complexity and not be looked at one way or another. It invites multiple perspectives,” Snyder said. “If one thinks about that as a way of thinking, we need more of that at this moment in time – not to come up with simplistic or reductivist views or partisan views, but rather to have open-ended perspectives and invite conversation.

“Artists are the seers of our time,” she continued. “If you look at the artists who are emerging as the leaders of our artistic generation, they’re posing questions and engaging in the urgency of our time. Whether they be environmental issues or issues of racial inequity or inclusion, you see artists grappling with these topics.” 

moCa Cleveland grapples with them, too, whether through programming like its partnership with artist-led For Freedoms on a series of Town Hall discussions covering topics such as political agency and activism, food insecurity, and teens and gun violence, or through exhibitions like “Alexis Rockman: The Great Lakes,” a show that celebrated the importance of the Great Lakes while exploring the ways in which they’re threatened.

Snyder feels engaging audiences in such ways – working in concert with artists – is moCa Cleveland’s responsibility as a museum. The role of OPEN HOUSE will be to facilitate those engagements. It starts with getting people in the door, which is where implementing a more welcoming brand identity, as the museum started to do in 2018, and eliminating the price of admission come in.

Free admission isn’t entirely new to moCa Cleveland. Since its striking Farshid Moussavi-designed building opened in 2012, the museum had held monthly Free First Saturdays, days on which its number of visitors quadrupled. Also, in October 2017, daily admission became free for visitors aged 18 and under, resulting in a 178 percent increase in attendance among that audience.

Gifts from The Kelvin & Eleanor Smith Foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, The Char and Chuck Fowler Foundation and The Conner Foundation enabled the move to free admission for all.

“That’s very important because we’re lowering an economic barrier,” Snyder said. “But it’s also a passive action. (We’ve) lowered the economic barrier, but does that necessarily make you feel welcomed?”

Jammal Lemy of March For Our Lives at a moCa For Freedoms Town Hall. Photo by David Williams.

Curating an inviting experience

Making visitors feel welcomed at the museum will be the focus of the diversity curatorial fellowship, education fellowship and engagement guide apprenticeship program. Some changes will be visible, others more behind-the-scenes. The diversity curatorial fellowship, a position supported by a George Gund Foundation gift, is likely to be the latter. 

Snyder doesn’t think visitors will see radical changes in part because she feels moCa Cleveland’s programming already has been – and will continue to be – “exemplary” in terms of diversity. But, she expects the nature of such programming to be enhanced. Snyder said it would’ve been interesting had the diversity curatorial fellowship been in place for the museum’s 2017 presentation of “Adam Pendleton: Becoming Imperceptible,” which in part featured pieces related to Black Lives Matter, with someone there from the outset to inform programming choices. 

“This is a way of bringing in more expertise,” she said. “In our case, the curatorial team is all white. I think we’ve had broad exhibition programming, diversity-wise, but in terms of the thought process and generation of ideas, having someone who represents, authentically, a diverse perspective at the concept stage could influence us to be thinking about it differently – in perspectives we just personally don’t have access to.”

The position has already been filled. LaTanya S. Autry, who has experience in curatorial work from the Yale University Art Gallery and Mississippi Museum of Art, will work with artists and the community to develop projects and exhibitions. 

The education fellowship position, which hasn’t been filled yet, will help expand moCa Cleveland’s educational efforts. Complementing the education fellowship will be a grant from PNC aimed at enhancing Saturday programming geared toward intergenerational families – a demographic Snyder has observed is increasingly utilizing the museum. 

The engagement guide apprenticeship program will likely be the most noticeable change to visitors. All of the museum’s frontline staff – greeters, guards and tour guides, among others – will become “engagement guides” who will rotate from station to station and be trained to handle any of those positions. Notably, those who guard the art will now also be on-the-floor educators. 

“It’s meaningful because say you’ve done your job and you’ve lowered the (economic) barrier and people come in and there are friendly faces on the ground floor – like, it’s all going swimmingly well – and then they get up to the main gallery and are like, ‘I don’t get it,’ Snyder said. “If you have someone trained for what I call the ‘just-in-time engagement’ – who can walk over and say, ‘You know, a lot of visitors aren’t sure what to make of this work. Would you like me to give you some insight?’ or ‘You know, what the artist said about this piece was …’ – (you) help support that moment.”

Engagement guides will also be paired with a moCa Cleveland board member mentor for professional guidance. All told, Snyder points out, the apprenticeship program will train participants to work in what the Ohio Citizens for the Arts recently reported is a $41 billion industry in Ohio. 

Both the engagement guide apprenticeship program and education fellowship are supported by the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation, which provided the lead investment for OPEN HOUSE. The Cleveland Foundation is the OPEN HOUSE supporting sponsor.

“The Thoma Foundation grant is really exceptional,” Snyder said. “(The foundation) could’ve selected other museums and (it) selected us as being one of the most compelling, high-performing mid-sized art museums to launch this new program. We’re very proud of that.”

Lee Mingwei, The Mending Project, 2009/2015, mixed media interactive installation, dimensions variable. Collection of Amy & Leo Shih, Installation view at Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

50th exhibitions connect, reflect

The centerpiece of moCa Cleveland’s 50th anniversary lineup of exhibitions will be Lee Mingwei’s “You Are Not A Stranger,” a suite of exhibitions from the New York- and Paris-based artist that marks yet another anniversary. The Taiwanese artist’s first solo exhibition at a U.S. museum – ”Lee Mingwei: 1994-1999” – was staged at moCa Cleveland 20 years ago, from May 21 to Aug. 1, 1999. 

That symmetry aside, Snyder selected Mingwei for this momentous occasion because she feels his art – and the participation it elicits – go hand-in-hand with the interaction and connectivity moCa Cleveland hopes to foster through OPEN HOUSE.

“(With) all this work we’ve been doing reflective of inclusion, diversity, welcoming and accessibly, there’s this underlying notion of kindness,” she said. “Mingwei is Buddhist-trained, (and) his work is underlying the premise of this exchange of kindness between strangers. …  The exchange of kindness between strangers invites a vulnerability, and that resonated with me.”

“You Are Not A Stranger” will include four of Mingwei’s best-known works: 

• “Sonic Blossom” (2013) is an interactive performance that imparts the gift of song to visitors. On designated days in May, a locally trained soloist wearing an elaborate costume will select and sing one of Franz Schubert’s lieder (German poems set to music) to a museum guest seated in a specially designed chair. For this work, the museum partnered with the Cleveland Institute of Music to identify student singers to perform. After moCa Cleveland’s performances on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in May, the Cleveland Museum of Art will present the work in its European painting galleries in July.

• “The Moving Garden” (2009) is a participatory artwork that features a 45-foot granite table with a central, meandering channel that holds 100 fresh flowers. Visitors are invited to take a flower, which they must give to a stranger upon leaving the museum. The cycle restarts each day as the table is replenished with new flowers.

• “The Mending Project” (2009), a third interactive and participatory installation, invites community members to bring a garment or textile in need of repair to the museum. Visitors will encounter a volunteer mender seated at a long table before a wall ornamented with spools of colorful thread. The visitor will present his or her garment and the mender will invite them to sit and talk while their garment is mended. The mended items will remain on the table, attached to its thread, until the show’s conclusion. 

• “100 Days of Lily” (1995) is a photographic portrait of a project in which Lee cultivated and raised a single lily from seed to death.

“I’ve seen (‘Sonic Blossom’) performed at The Met, so it’s really thrilling to bring it here,” said Snyder, referring to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “It’s really intense; it’s this charged moment. For me, that’s an emotional anchor of this season (of exhibitions).”

In addition, moCa Cleveland will present “Sunrise,” a legacy exhibition designed to honor the museum’s founders – Marjorie Talalay, Nina Sundell and Agnes Gund – by inviting their daughters to select contemporary artworks that represent their mothers personally and professionally. 

The works chosen by Catherine Gund, Margaret Sundell, and Kathy, Nina and Lauren Talalay represent a who’s who of 20th century artists, including Lynda Benglis, Merce Cunningham, Red Grooms, Roy Lichtenstein, Judy Pfaff, Andy Warhol and Jackie Winsor. 

“We struggled with, ‘What is the right way to do a historical (exhibition)?’ What we knew we did not want to do is ‘Let’s do a 50-year best of (exhibition).’ That seems so self-congratulatory – and maybe also difficult to pull off,” Snyder said. “Megan (Lykins Reich, moCa deputy director) came up with the idea of the ‘Sunrise’ exhibition and inviting the daughters. Then, it became so much more personal.”

The third 50th anniversary exhibition will be “Abe Frajndlich: Portraits of our Early Years,” a special collection of portraits by a Cleveland-based artist known for his work portraying artists, celebrities and cultural icons. This exhibition will feature portraits of figures from the moCa Cleveland’s early years, including Christo, who wrapped moCa’s The New Gallery; Robert Rauschenberg, whose work has been presented at the museum more than a dozen times; and Laurie Anderson, who showed at moCa Cleveland early in her career. 

A free opening night celebration for the 50th anniversary exhibitions is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. March 15 with an artist talk by Mingwei. Following the talk, the exhibitions will be open to attendees until 10 p.m. Each show will remain on view through July 28. CV

Roy Lichtenstein,The New Gallery of Contemporary Art Tenth Anniversary, 1978.Screenprint.19 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches (image).© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

Lead image: ClaudiaComte: Exhibition at MOCA, Cleveland 2018
Photo by Jerry Birchfield for Field Studio, 2018