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.