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Thursday, 2 May 2013

Comprehend This

Cleveland Museum Gets it Right
By Richard Carreño
The author and a new friend
Photo: Joan T. Kane/Writers Clearinghouse News Service
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Now, there are two.
I arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art, thinking that its well-respected core collections in Egyptology, Greco-Roman classics, armour--and, you know, the other stuff from the Old Masters to Impressionism and beyond--would reaffirm its status as one of a dwindling, few 'encyclopedic' museums in the United States. Three, in fact, along with Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (The Boston Museum of Fine Arts lost its 'encyclopedic' title when fire ravaged its Egyptian holdings many years ago).
'No,' I was told by my Cleveland guide, Richard. 'We don't call ourselves that (encyclopedic) anymore. We're now what we call "comprehensive."' Why the coy turn in terminology? Something to do with a competition thing, Richard added vaguely. Competition? Surely a losing battle with the Met; even the Philadelphia Museum.'What we're focusing is quality. The best of its kind--that we can acquire and afford .'

I was impressed. The Cleveland may no longer aspire to be one of the big boys on the block. But, as a second tier big city museum, it's in top form, sidelining such other premier repositories of the Detroit Institute of Arts and, even in some respects, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. And, yes, comprehensive, something even two of the nation's finest museums, the Chicago Institute of Art and the National Gallery can't claim. (Not that they ever said they wanted to, of course).
Cleveland's real hallmark its quality and breath. (A new wing of Asian art will open shortly). Depth, not so much.
Virtually every Western and eastern art form and its major proponents are represented. But there's only one Valazquez, a limited palette by Picasso, no British sporting art (a Stubbs would have been nice), only two (minor) Rembrandts. (Joe Duveen didn't wave his magic wand here).
It's understandable, then, that Timothy Rub skipped town, in 2011, to head the Philadelphia Museum in the big leagues after a short stint as Cleveland's director. Understandable to Rub. And you and me perhaps. But not Richard, who muttered something on the order of betrayal. The Cleveland community was not pleased, he said.
Though Rub's move was understandable, it wasn't without its, ahem, challenges. The Cleveland remains today what it was under Rub--a sleek well-backed racehorse. The PMA also remains what it was, a lumbering giant housed in an early 20th century plant and with none of the big bucks to expand into much-needed new galleries for modern art.
Yes, understandable for Rub. But I suspect frustrating as well.
While in Cleveland, Rub oversaw the construction of a brilliant new atrium and galleries connecting the original 1913 Beaux Arts building to a 60s addition, which now serves as the museum's main entrance.The project's architect was Rafael Viñoly, who had earlier designed Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Viñoly must of learnt a thing or two on his way west. The interior fiasco he created in Philadelphia is nowhere in evidence here. (This was in part because of proper community oversight. Lots in Cleveland. The same-old same-old hacks at work in Philly).
If you have a chance,  walk out onto colonnaded front of the legacy building for the view and the familiarity of Rodin's The Thinker. (This version, like the one in front of the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, is an authentic original casting).
In Philadelphia, it's all been about belt-tightening, lay-offs, and the semi-permanent shelving of the Frank Gehry-designed expansion plan for the modern galleries. A recently-announced development plan hopes to turn that around.
And, Rub announced recently, as well, the museum's commitment to another expansion--that of its base audience. What you don't see at the PMA is in plentiful presence at the CMA. Namely, youths and young families.
A reason for that is that the Cleveland proudly proclaims itself as 'Always Free.' This no-charge admission policy is a result of the Cleveland's corporate structure whereby the museum building is owned by the city of Cleveland, which declared free admission from the get-go. This structure, in a somewhat modified form, also governs the Met's admission policy, whereby only a donation is required. A dollar will do.
In line with the positive aspects of free admission (increased attendance; a new demographic; a boost in shop sales, and the like), Rub recently instituted free Wednesday evenings at the PMA. I suspect that, if he could, he'd adopt a totally-free full Cleveland. Interestingly enough, legally he could pull it off quite handily, though it's doubtful that the PMA's antediluvian trustees would support the move. The Philadelphia Museum's corporate charter also mirrors the Cleveland's. The city of Philadelphia owns the building, and, thus, it ought to be free to enter. (A lawsuit, anyone?)
'A lot of people think that Rub was behind the museum being free,' Richard said. 'Not so!' He intoned the museum's motto, 'Always free!' And added, 'Always has been.'
Sometimes a big leaguer can learn a trick or two from a division team.