Cleveland's Transformation: The View From CMA Curator Reto Thüring

Reto Thüring (Photo: Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art)
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

At West 29th and Detroit, Cleveland’s Hingetown neighborhood has blossomed in recent years.  Quirky shops and revitalized buildings continue to attract plans for tens of millions of dollars’ worth of property and development projects. 

The transformation of the neighborhood once plagued by drugs and crime has been spurred in part by the Transformer Station—which used to help power street cars, and was converted into a contemporary art space in 2013 by collectors Fred and Laura Bidwell and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

THÜRING: “I mean this is change I think that happens in small pockets.”

Reto Thüring has seen changes in Hingetown from close-up.  He’s CMA’s curator for contemporary art, who oversees programming exhibitions at the Transformer Station.

THÜRING: “You do have the gritty neighborhoods, you do have all of that and I believe it’s gonna take a very long time to bring Cleveland back to where it once was. I think it’s unrealistic to think just look at these pockets and think well everything’s fine, because it isn’t.  But at the same time, I think there’s a positive energy.”

The Transformer Station (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Thüring has been with the museum since 2012, hailing from Basel, Switzerland. Before joining CMA, he had to look up Cleveland on the map.

THÜRING: “You know I didn’t really know much, and I was very impressed by the city ever since I came, by its diversity, by its potential, by really the people that live here which I find are incredibly generous and welcoming.  Like, that wouldn’t happen in Switzerland, I know that.”

Thüring came into Cleveland with an open mind, and he says the change he’s noticed in the city has been quite substantial, especially in Hingetown.

THÜRING: “It’s really interesting what that small corner has become in just like three years and I think Transformer Station was certainly a very crucial part of that transformation. It wasn’t, absolutely not, the only reason.  I very much believe in art as a tool for transformation, and for change, but at the same time its limitations should be acknowledged. Sometimes it’s sort of a too one-dimensional view and belief, if you think you can just put a piece of sculpture on a corner and think it’s just going to transform itself just by that, that’s certainly not going to happen.  So I think this idea that art can fulfill a purpose that really drives change and transformation, something that needs to be very well thought-through and it needs to be something that sort of ties into other attempts to sort of make this a lasting and more diverse approach.”

Thüring says the Transformer Station doesn’t allow CMA to take more risks in exhibitions per se, but does let it paint with broader strokes in its programming.  It’s a space without the same baggage or historical background of the main museum, so it’s a different context in which to present works. 

Contemporary art will play large for CMA in December, though, as Thüring is planning an exhibit of contemporary works by German painter Albert Oehlen to conclude the museum’s centennial year.

THÜRING: “Albert Oehlen is an extremely important painter, one of the leading artists of his generation, certainly, who is very influential also for a younger generation of artists.  At the same time his work is very rooted in the tradition of painting, but he’s been pushing the boundaries of painting like very few other artists since the early 1980s.  I like the idea of the Albert Oehlen survey being at the end of the centennial year, which is really a grand gesture for the Cleveland Museum of Art.”

GANZER: “Looking forward?”

THÜRING: “Yeah, looking in both directions, really looking backwards and forwards at the very same time.”

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