Cleveland Museum of Art Lays Out Plan for Equity and Inclusion

The Cleveland Museum of Art is pondering ways to embrace a wider audience by being more equitable and inclusive (David C. Barnett / ideastream)
The Cleveland Museum of Art is pondering ways to embrace a wider audience by being more equitable and inclusive (David C. Barnett / ideastream)
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One of the founding documents for the Cleveland Museum of Art proclaims that the museum will be: “For the benefit of all the people forever.”  But, some area residents don’t feel welcome. 

Phil Brown and Robert Williams were concentrating on an after-school game of chess on a recent afternoon at the Martin Luther King branch of the Cleveland Public Library.  Across the street, the art museum sat in the distance at the end of a beautifully-landscaped lagoon.  That is about as close as Brown has ever been to the place.

“I never went there before, even on a field trip,” he said.  “I really don’t hear about the Cleveland art museum or anything like that.”

He doesn’t really have any desire to visit either.  Williams said he was there once.  That was enough for him.

“There’s nothing really about my culture in there, so I don’t really go,” he said.

The sentiments of these African-American teens are among the reasons the museum created its diversity, equity and inclusion plan, which includes adding works by women and artists of color to the collection, requiring a diverse pool of candidates for every position on the staff and creating art classes and gallery tours in Spanish.

Deputy Director Cyra Levenson said the museum has pondered ways to correct historic inequities for the past three years. 

"The Mellon Foundation commissioned a report in 2015 about issues of diversity and equity in art museums," she said.  "Across the field, leadership - as in curatorial professional staff, administrators - are predominantly white.  I think the publishing of that report, while it wasn't a surprise, really set out an agenda for our field to try to address those issues.  That's where the impetus comes for us to think about this work."

That was the starting point for a wide-ranging look at all the ways that the museum connects, and sometimes doesn't connect, with the public.

"We recognize that there are reasons why our staff and our audience are less diverse than they could be," Levenson said.  "We recognize that we are not serving all audiences in our city and in our region, and we needed to create a plan of action to make sure that that happens."

Cyra Levenson (photo/ Cleveland Museum of Art)

More details on the Cleveland museum's plan from Cyra Levenson:

 

“It is one of the most comprehensive plans that I’ve seen.  And actually, there aren't many plans that exist,” said Porchia Moore, a professor in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University.  She’s part of a growing pool of scholars trying to foster inclusion in cultural institutions across the country.  Moore’s main concern is that there needs to be what she calls a “deep investment” in racial equity training for museum staff.

 

Porchia Moore (photo / Johns Hopkins University)

“I often wonder about the sustainability of these initiatives if the reality of race and racist ideologies are not actually addressed,” she said.  “We use terms like “diversity” without calling a thing a thing.”

In the past, the Cleveland museum has tried different ways to attract a younger, more diverse crowd, including Friday night mixers featuring food and music.  That strategy brought Bessie Coleman from Warrensville Heights to the museum a couple of times. 

“That’s the reason I started going,” she said.  “It was just like, 'okay, let me go in and look at this artwork.'"

Coleman said it was a fun experience, but admited there wasn’t much art on display that moved her. 

“The Egyptian exhibit that they had up there, that’s the only one that I could really relate to,” she said.

For Porchia Moore, the focus should be on building a relationship with the community.  What does the community want from the art museum?

“It’s not just about bodies in the building, counting heads, counting numbers,” she said.  “Once you get people in the door, that’s cool, but how are you going to keep them coming back, over and over and over again?” 

Moore cites Atlanta’s High Museum of Art as a role model in this regard. Since arriving three years ago, executive director  Randall Suffolk and his staff have staged a series of exhibitions with this in mind.

Through a combination of special exhibitions featuring female artists and artists of color along with a revamp of the museum’s permanent collection, executive director Randall Suffolk and his staff have dramatically changed visitor demographics.

“Until about 2015, the High Museum of Art averaged about 15% non-white participation at the museum,” Suffolk said.  “But, Metro Atlanta is 51% minority majority.  We felt that was unconscionable, so we worked our tails off over the first two years, and we were able to triple that participation to 45%.  Last year, that increased to 50%.” 

Randall Suffolk (photo / CatMax Photography)

Suffolk said he has fielded many questions asking what he did to change his audience.

“The truth of the matter is we haven’t really done that.  We’ve changed ourselves in an effort to be a very different magnet within our community.”

Porchia Moore said the goal is to move away from the idea that museums are about objects. 

“We now know that museums really are about people,” she said.

Cyra Levenson said that's the focus of the Cleveland Museum of Art's new plan. 

"We want people to see themselves here.  Diversity, equity and inclusion all require different actions, but it's the combination of the three that will address both the historical and structural challenges, and the social challenges that have made us a less equitable, less inclusive institution than we want to be and we will be," Levenson said. 

Back at the Martin Luther King branch library, teenager Isaiah Jenkins took a break from some homework to consider the Cleveland art museum across the street.  He said he’s been there a few times on school field trips and once with his family.  He said he had a good time, though he felt the place was a little too formal for him.

“It’s not really a place for me, but I liked the art," he said.  “I liked the paintings and some of the sculptures, because you could see the emotions in the people’s faces.”

Now the museum is trying to increase the variety of faces who come for a visit and leave with the feeling that it’s their place, too.  

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