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Evolution of moCa includes making space for Cleveland artists to decide what's on the walls

Antwoine Washington gives moCa's board co-president Audra T. Jones a tour of his MOCHA gallery [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media]
Antwoine Washington gives moCa's board co-president Audra T. Jones a tour of his MOCHA gallery [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media]

Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art, also known as moCa, has had a reputation for going against the grain for more than a half century. 

When a racial reckoning spread across the country in the spring of 2020, moCa faced its own sort of reckoning.

“We had various things that happened in moCa that were problematic,” said Joanne Cohen, board co-president at moCa. 

Questions were raised about the museum’s past openness to its non-white staff and visitors. The museum canceled an exhibition depicting police violence against people of color. And its longtime director Jill Snyder resigned to make way for cultural change at moCa. Many museums are facing similar issues, here and across the country. 

“Art institutions, it goes without saying, they've had a reputation,” said Stephen Sokany, board co-president at moCa. 

The museum is rolling out several changes to evolve its reputation. 

Audra T. Jones, the moCa board’s third co-president, said that the museum needs to promote a feeling of diversity and inclusion.

“It's important for people to feel welcome in coming into these doors,” she said. “And how is that? What do we do? We make certain that people that are being exhibited in this space are representational of that in the community.”

Criticism of moCa even hung from gallery walls, as part of an exhibition by former curatorial fellow La Tanya Autry, called “Imagine Otherwise.” Alongside a collection of paintings, film loops and other images were signs that read, in part:

“Autry envisions possibilities beyond moCa Cleveland’s consistent antiBlack practices…”

and

Imagine Otherwise is a limited, yet hopefully, significant prodding for an authentic, community-led institutional reckoning of moCa Cleveland…”

Curator La Tanya Autry's "Imagine Otherwise" exhibition statement [David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media]

“That critique was part of the concept of the show,” said Megan Lykins Reich, executive director at moCa. “And so to not have shared it would have been to not have offered the curator’s full vision.”

Reich took on interim moCa director duties in the wake of Snyder’s departure and has since been officially named executive director.

She's such a quick study, super smart,” said Joanne Cohen. “She understands what it takes to be a leader. I mean, she had been doing that and illustrating that so well in the past 18 months.”

Joanne Cohen, moCa board co-president [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media]

Reich actually started at the museum as an intern in 2001, and she worked her way up through a variety of positions, culminating in her new appointment.

“There was a fair degree of soul searching, to use a kind of cliched term, but also a lot of very hard, honest conversation among a variety of individuals to understand where we needed to go and how we might approach getting there,” Reich said.

Antwoine Washington was one of the artists in the exhibition La Tanya Autry curated last year. He called his installation “And Yeah, About That Seat at the Table.”

“LaTanya first believed in the work that I was doing as an artist,” Washington said.

Washington’s piece was installed in an offsite gallery on Cleveland’s West Side. As it turns out, the work was the victim of a bit of controversy itself.

The piece explored the struggle of underrepresented artists to have a voice in the mainstream art world. The work was installed in a room painted white, with illustrations and personal objects from Washington’s life hanging on the walls. The centerpiece was a table with a single seat. That seat was covered with scattered $100 bills, carrying the message that only those with privilege get to sit down.

Antwoine's installation 'And Yeah, About That Seat at the Table.' [Field Studio]

“I wanted to tell a story about exactly what's going on,” Washington said. “It was me telling that story from such a personal standpoint and also just me like bearing the history of how Black folks have been able to, still, through all of these different roadblocks, we are still able to rise through it all. It doesn't matter if they don't let you in, go build your own damn table .

The exhibit was displayed in an apartment space that was occasionally used as an Airbnb. As the show was about to open, Washington stopped by to check on the installation and was shocked by what he saw.

“Literally, it was socks, underwear, clothes, equipment, crumbs, napkins and just like someone ate at the table. And also, just threw the stuff all over the place.”

The show was quickly relocated to an East Side gallery, where the exhibition finished its run.

After being vandalized, Antwoine Washington's exhibition was moved to Vince Robinson's East Side gallery [Antwoine Washington]

When Megan Reich heard about the incident, she reached out to Washington.

“And so, we began talking about what it might look like to consider a partnership where they could program within our building,” she said. “And then we could collaborate on joint programing and learn from one another about the ways in which we approach making exhibitions, working with the community, supporting youth. So, it was it was a really organic process.”

Megan Lykins Reich, moCa Cleveland executive director, and Antwoine Washington, MOCHA co-director, discuss their collaboration [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media]

And it certainly was a new experience for Washington. He said he’d only stepped inside the museum a few times.

“Nothing against the people who were curating shows before, but there was nothing to draw me as a Black person to come,” he said.

In fact, that was one of the reasons he created his own arts organization, the Museum of Creative Human Art (MOCHA). He started the non-profit two years ago with longtime friend Michael Russell in order to give voice to underrepresented local artists and to mentor a new generation.

He said there has been some confusion over the “MOCHA” nickname of his organization and moCa Cleveland.

"We've always called it MOCHA for short," he said. "It was a coincidence.”

Michael Russell and Antwoine Washington are co-directors of MOCHA [Antwoine Washington]

Washington and Russell were given full autonomy of their own space at the museum. They are curating the gallery with the work of other local artists and providing art education workshops for young people.

In addition to MOCHA’s institutional stay on moCa's second floor and further residencies offered to individual artists around town, moCa is working to diversify the museum’s board of directors, including splitting the board presidency among three people. Development expert Stephen Sokany from greater Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ community is one of them.

Stephen Sokany, moCa board co-president [Jean-Marie Papoi / Ideastream Public Media]

“We're in this very critical time right now,” he said. “So, how do we develop programs that engage those historically overlooked constituencies to come in and feel welcome? With Megan's leadership, with the board’s crystal focus on that, I think our best days are ahead of us.”

The museum is focused on operating in a new world, Reich said. 

A new world that’s looking for more than a seat at the table. Board co-president Audra Jones said, for her, there’s a lot more to diversity, equity and inclusion than rearranging furniture.

“Just having a seat at the table doesn't always mean that you have the opportunity to make decisions and to have input into decision-making,” Jones said. “We find that in many areas, not just in the arts. And so just having a seat at the table doesn't mean you get to pick up the spoon and eat, okay? Being in a leadership role helps you get to the dessert phase.”

Washington said his goal is to pay the residency experience forward and exhibit the work of other local artists in his gallery. For Megan Reich, this MOCHA-in-moCa experience is part of a larger lesson that her 54-year-old museum is learning.

"Sometimes an institution needs to figure out how to get out of the way or back off, or step down or step away or get quieter, so that we can be realizing our mission and delivering on our values as best as possible," she said.

david.barnett@ideastream.org | 216-916-6242