Story by Jane Kaufman

Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland executive director Jill Snyder has led the cutting-edge arts institution for more than 22 of its 50-year history. | Photo by Michael C. Butz

In 1978, Jill Sands walked into The New Gallery, a purveyor of cutting-edge contemporary art in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood, to see a photography show and was so impressed by what she saw that she asked whether there might be a job opening. She walked out as a newly hired gallery assistant, and soon thereafter, became the gallery’s photography curator.

At that time, there were just five staff at the gallery, including Marjorie Talalay, one of its three founders. Leading solo, Talalay gave her tiny staff room to grow.

“She just let us do our jobs. It was really magnificent,” says Sands, who during her tenure oversaw a seven-week photography lecture series that included Ansel Adams. “She nurtured us that way. She inspired and trusted by giving us this gift of autonomy.”

That dynamic is but one example of the visionary, driven and empowering leadership that’s helped the institution – The New Gallery is now known as the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary – define and ascend to its premier place in the international arts scene.

And – headed by Talalay for its first 25 years and by current executive director Jill Snyder for the last 22-plus years – nearly all of its leaders, including curators and programming directors, have been women.

Marjorie Talalay, left, and Nina Castelli Sundell when The New Gallery opened. Plain Dealer photo, Mitchael J. Zaremba. Image courtesy of moCa Cleveland.

Laying the groundwork 

Snyder points out it wasn’t uncommon for women to pioneer contemporary arts institutions.  

“If you look at the origins of the Whitney Museum (of American Art) and The Guggenheim Museum – museums we’d think of as more established (today) – they were at one point radical, maverick institutions, and invariably, it was women who founded them because the men were more establishment figures,” she says, referring to two prominent New York museums. “(Dating) back to the late 1960s, the majority of those institutions were founded by women because they didn’t have a place in the establishment museum field.”

Talalay, Nina Castelli Sundell and Agnes Gund founded The New Gallery in 1968. While Gund was a silent partner, Sundell and Talalay – who both trailed their husbands to Cleveland and were introduced by a mutual friend – worked closely in leading the gallery until Sundell left Cleveland in 1973. Talalay then led solo, though in close collaboration with husband Anselm, until she retired in 1993.

“Nina was more the academic, and Marjorie was more the sales-entrepreneur type, so they were probably a very good complement to one another. Both of them were extraordinary,” Snyder says. “Marjorie had that grit and determination and didn’t accept ‘no,’ and Nina, who was brilliant and trained as an art historian, came from art royalty. Her parents were Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend, who were the pioneers of SoHo (in New York City).”

Marjorie Talalay and Nina Sundell cut the cake at The New Gallery’s 10th anniversary party. Image courtesy of moCa Cleveland.

Talalay and Sundell’s collaboration resulted in shows that were groundbreaking for Cleveland at the time, Synder says. In those early years, when Sherman Lee was director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, The New Gallery offered a radical counterpoint to the venerable museum within walking distance. 

“In the first decade of The New Gallery, it was a direct portal from New York, and they got all of these vanguard artists who were to become world-renowned icons: Christo, (Andy) Warhol, (Robert) Rauschenberg, (Jasper) Johns, (Roy) Lichtenstein. That was amazing,” she says. “And we weren’t just showing them. Lichtenstein did our first logo. Christo … wrapped the storefront (of The New Gallery’s original location). These are incredibly iconic moments that quietly happened here in Cleveland, Ohio.”

None of which is to say there weren’t also challenges, particularly with finding a suitable home. 

The gallery first occupied a former dry-cleaning business on the corner of Euclid Avenue and Ford Drive in Cleveland. From there, it moved to a ramshackle former fraternity house on nearby Bellflower Road. In the 1980s, plans to buy a nearby site from Case Western Reserve University fell through, leading to a short-term lease at the Galleria in downtown Cleveland while maintaining the Bellflower gallery. 

Finally, in 1990, the institution – which by then had won nonprofit status and was known as Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art – moved to what was at the time the Cleveland Play House campus at East 86th Street and Carnegie Avenue.

“There were many, many meetings that we had to build a self-standing gallery,” recalls Joanne Lewis, who was on the board of trustees of The New Gallery when it was on Bellflower. 

Red Grooms working on “Welcome To Cleveland” at The New Gallery. Image courtesy of moCa Cleveland.

Talalay enlisted Lewis to put together education programs and to host artists, including Adams and Red Grooms. Lewis also held parties for The New Gallery in the spacious ballroom of her Cleveland Heights home. With a small budget, the Talalays also hosted artists, including Claes Oldenburg, in their Ludlow Road home in Shaker Heights.

Through all of those moves and near-constant bootstrapping, Talalay and her team persevered. In fact, there were actually many celebrations along the way.

“Anything was an excuse to have a celebration, to have a party,” Sands recalls. “We went full tilt to have fun. So although we were extremely serious about our work, she encouraged us to have fun – so we did.”

She also says that while Talalay was a “demanding” and “tough” leader, Sands says she and her colleagues “adored” her.  

“I think the most profoundly impactful aspect of Marjorie’s leadership was that she gave her small staff complete autonomy to do our jobs with independence and self-expression, and so that left room for us to grow and realize our potential,” she says.

Christo at The New Gallery. Image courtesy of moCa Cleveland.

Reaching new heights

After Talalay retired, Gary Sangster was hired to replace her. He left after two years. 

Enter Snyder, who prior to joining moCa in 1996 was director at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. While in graduate school at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts a few years earlier, Snyder worked at the Guggenheim as executive assistant to director Tom Messer, where she met the art world – including Sundell and Gund, who were both living in New York. 

Sundell, who was then doing curatorial work, told Snyder about the opening in Cleveland.

“She kind of tapped me,” recalls Snyder, adding that Gund was then chair of the Museum of Modern Art. “Then Aggie also kind of reinforced that.”

When she took the job, she thought she might stay for three to five years. The evolving challenges of the job have kept her in Cleveland. 

“I’d like to say that the greatest challenges are those that have energized me the most to overcome them,” she says. “And anyone who knows me knows persistence is part of my nature.”

One of Snyder’s crowning achievements has been to conquer the challenge that has beleaguered the institution from the beginning: location. In 2012, she led the effort to relocate moCa from the Cleveland Play House campus to University Circle’s Uptown district. The museum’s Farshid Moussavi-designed building resembles a cut onyx, and upon opening, instantly became one of Cleveland’s architectural jewels. It cost $27 million to build, but moCa raised $35 million, partly to fund a $5 million endowment for the non-collecting museum. Coming full circle, the museum, at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road, stands diagonally across the street from The New Gallery’s original location.

Another challenge Snyder has faced over the years has been to build moCa’s audience. 

“Cleveland has slowly grown in its awareness of contemporary art,” says Snyder, noting that’s not the case for cities of comparable size across the country. “There’s not a large gallery presence here. There weren’t a lot of collectors. And there aren’t any graduate schools within the art schools here. So, the support systems around contemporary art were pretty shallow, and that just meant that we had to do a lot of heavy lifting to both educate and build an audience. Fortunately, I’d say in the last five years we’ve seen more of that sharing.”

In what Snyder calls “leaning in” to the issues, two years ago, in partnership with artist-run initiative For Freedoms, moCa launched a series of conversations with artists and civic leaders about social issues called Town Halls.

“We’ve done six Town Halls already,” Snyder says, “and the conversations and the topics have revolved around things such as racial inequity, food deserts, immigration, faith and mass incarceration, teens and gun violence, and civil disobedience.”

While much of its programming was already free, in March, moCa began offering free admission to visitors. In the first weekend, 1,000 people walked through moCa, two-thirds of them first-time visitors. Free admission is part of a larger initiative called OPEN HOUSE, an ambitious and comprehensive five-point plan designed to get more people through the museum’s doors and better connect with them – and better connect them with the art they’re experiencing.

While Snyder has led these efforts, she acknowledges she’s had help along the way. She credits Gund and longtime moCa board member Toby Devan Lewis with guidance along the way, saying the “icons” have “opened a lot of doors.” Snyder considers moCa’s current deputy director, Megan Lykins Reich, “a phenom.”

“She is my partner in the strategic vision for the museum,” she says.

Snyder is also mindful of the legacy of leadership she’s carrying on. 

“I do feel like I’m carrying the mantle – in my own way” she says. “I don’t feel as if I’m carrying Marjorie’s mantle, I feel like I’m carrying this institution forward – and it feels like a privilege.” C

On View

50th anniversary

Gala & art auction

moCa Cleveland will mark its milestone anniversary from 6 p.m. to midnight April 27 at 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Programming will include cocktails and a silent auction hosted by Artsy at 6 p.m.; dinner and a program at 7:30 p.m.; a live art auction hosted by Sotheby’s at 9 p.m.; and music and dancing at 10 p.m.


On view through Aug. 11 is a suite of 50th anniversary exhibitions: “Lee Mingwei: You Are Not a Stranger,” a centerpiece exhibition comprised of four seminal works; “Sunrise,” which honors the vision of moCa’s three founders – Agnes Gund, Marjorie Talalay and Nina Castelli Sundell – by showcasing contemporary works by seminal artists as selected by the founders’ daughters; “Abe Frajndlich: Portraits of Our Early Years,” a photography show comprised of portraits of iconic artists and figures who are part of moCa’s history; and “Sondra Perry: A Terrible Thing,” a video and installation-based work. “Catherine Opie: The Outside-Inside,”
an installation, will be on view through Jan. 20, 2020.


Story by Carlo Wolff

“Nick Cave: Feat.,” the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Akron Art Museum, remains on view there through June 2. Shown here, Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2013, mixed media including mannequin, ceramic birds and metal flowers, 96½ x 37 x 43 in., private collection, © Nick Cave, installation photo: Mike Crupi Photography.

Pick one: An art show is a hit when a) tickets are immediately impossible to get; b) you have to stand in line to get into the museum; c) once inside, you’re in a long queue to check out an installation; d) the museum is wall-to-wall crowded at an opening reception bursting with people taking selfies; or e) it’s the talk of the town or trending on social media.

Pick any or all, because at least one characterizes a blockbuster show like “Feat.,” a mind-bending show by Chicago imagineer Nick Cave running through June 2 at the Akron Art Museum, or “Infinity Mirrors,” the immersive exhibition by Japanese visionary Yayoi Kusama mounted last summer at the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage hopes all of those markers come into play for “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music,” a September 2019 to February 2020 show coming to the Beachwood institution from the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where it was organized.

While CMA and the Akron museum are more broadly based than the Maltz Museum, which is dedicated to Jewish culture, spokespeople for all three want their shows to have the broadest appeal possible. 

Reaching audiences

How to effect that varies by institution, but planning years out is not only key, it’s the norm. Other variables include show availability, cost, community impact, whether the originating museum is willing to loan out the show and whether the art is sturdy enough to travel.

“We want to do shows that have broad audience appeal, shows that will be popular,” says Emily Liebert, contemporary art curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Such shows typically feature artists “who are well-known or household names or have themes with a lot of relevance to what people are thinking about, to the zeitgeist.”

Costs of a show, “blockbuster” or lesser, involves securing the loan, research, travel associated with acquiring it, programming and marketing. The process starts with a suggestion. 

“Each curator in the museum has a specialty, so they propose exhibitions that fall within their specialty,” Liebert says. The museum director, the exhibition department and the curator ultimately determine the positioning of the show in the museum.

Yayoi Kusama with recent works in Tokyo, 2016. Photo by Tomoaki Makino. Courtesy of the artist; provided by the Cleveland Museum of Art. © Yayoi Kusama.

Was the success of the Kusama show a surprise? “I didn’t think at the beginning of the Kusama tour it was anticipated how popular it would be,” Liebert says. 

But she also notes that the show, which attracted more than 120,000 visitors from all over the United States and 23 other countries, “was very popular” when it opened where it originated: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The only Midwestern museum to host the Kusama show, CMA featured seven of the artist’s “infinity mirror rooms,” including the Cleveland exclusive, “Where the Lights in My Heart Go.”

Capturing imaginations

At the Maltz Museum, David Schafer, managing director, and Lindsay Miller, manager of collections & exhibitions, regularly bat around ideas for exhibitions they learn about online, through friends of the museum who act as “informal scouts,” and as Miller says, by “keeping an eye out for anything that sounds like it fits in with our mission.”

Is there an audience? Can we afford it? Those are the bottom-line questions, Miller says. Among other considerations: travel, installation, insurance and marketing. Whether originating at the Maltz Museum or not, show costs range from $100,000 for something smaller to $2 million for an ambitious show the Maltz creates, she says.

“Leonard Bernstein: The Power Of Music,” shown here at National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where it originated, will be on view this fall at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. | Jessi Melcer / Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage

She and Schafer both hope “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music” is a smash hit like the massively collaborative “Violins of Hope” in late 2015, the ecumenical “A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People” (most of summer 2012) and the internationally planned “Operation Finale: The Capture & Trial of Adolf Eichmann” (late February to late July 2016). “Violins” drew more than 15,000, the Eichmann show drew 15,000, and the pope exhibit drew 11,000.

“‘Violins of Hope’ captured the imagination of Northeast Ohio,” Schafer says. “We knew it was going to be a successful show, but it exceeded our expectations, with people coming back two and three times to see it.” A first for the Maltz Museum, it originated there and involved collaboration among the museum, Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Another totally unexpected blockbuster, says Schafer, was “Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People,” a show originating from Xavier University in Cincinnati. It had been traveling for seven years and the Maltz Museum was contacted to be the last U.S. venue to host it; it’s now in Poland, “gifted to the people of Poland.” It had broad appeal, drawing from all over the Northeast.

Like “Violins,” “Operation Finale,” which focused on the capture of key Nazi mechanic Adolf Eichmann, joined various parties, including the Maltz Museum; Beit Hatfusot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, where it originated; and the Mossad, Israel’s security force. The Maltz Museum customized it.

There is no in-house curator at the Maltz, so it turns to different ones depending on the project, Schafer says. The National Museum of American Jewish History is curating the Bernstein exhibition, which was on view there last year. The Maltz will be its third showing. Miller says the installation will require the construction of interior walls, something that also had to be done for the Eichmann exhibit.

Serving communities

Like CMA’s Liebert, Ellen Rudolph, chief curator at the Akron Art Museum, wants to present shows with broad appeal, but that also speak to social issues. 

“While potential attendance numbers are an important measure in considering an exhibition, we don’t differentiate between blockbuster and non-blockbuster exhibitions,” says Rudolph, who joined the Akron museum in 2017 from the Maltz Museum, where she had been executive director. “We always seek to present the most relevant, interesting and high-quality work for the community we serve.”

A long-time fan of Cave, Rudolph learned his show was available while discussing the possibility of another one with the chief curator of the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, where “Feat.” was on exhibit for nearly eight months starting in late November 2017. 

“We felt Nick Cave’s work was the right fit for the Akron Art Museum because it combines visual wonder, found objects that are familiar and personal to many people, and an immersive experience for viewers. And the social justice aspect of the work offers the opportunity to utilize the art as a catalyst for conversation, so it’s visually exciting, speaks to Akron as a maker community and has deep meaning that relates to our world today.”

Viewers take in “Nick Cave: Feat.” at the Akron Art Museum. | Shane Wynn Photography / Akron Art Museum

Cost is always a major factor, and Akron “can’t show three very expensive shows in one year, so we have to spread out that resource investment,” says Rudolph, who worked with the museum director and the design and marketing departments to position the Cave show within the museum’s overall program. 

“We tease out themes of the work, identify potential stakeholders and look at how we can best engage our community through a variety of programs including talks, performances and hands-on activities.”

All these executives suggest locale also influences the decision to mount a show, and they hope an exhibition plays well to the hometown crowd – and beyond. Still, as places vary, so do the marketing and programming of art.

“A blockbuster for The Met (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) is very different for the Akron Art Museum,” Rudolph says. “Blockbusters are typically associated with household-name artists that have worldwide appeal and are expected to bring in masses of audiences, and in turn, profits from admission fees, memberships purchased, store merchandise (sold), and food and beverage sales. 

“Publicity certainly goes along with that – both in the media and in social media. Today, it’s the cachet of posting selfies in front of – or inside – certain artworks. Attendance and publicity go hand-in-hand and are key to defining the success of an exhibition for sure, but so are other variables, such as the imprint an exhibition leaves on the community.” C

On View

Buzz-generating blockbusters

Ongoing exhibitions attracting large audiences and upcoming exhibitions expected to make a big splash include: 

Akron Art Museum

  • “Nick Cave: Feat.,” on view through June 2
  • “Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World,” opening June 29

Cleveland Museum of Art

  • “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art,” on view through June 30
  • “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders,” opening July 7
  • “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master,” opening Sept. 22

Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage

  • “Israel: Then & Now,” on view through May 12
  • “Leonard Bernstein: The Power Of Music,” opening in September