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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Leaders of Northeast Ohio’s top visual art institutions, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and the Cleveland Institute of Art, say they’re making solid progress on racial diversity, equity, and inclusion.
They cite percentages of increased diversity on their staff, in the art they’re buying and showing, and in the students they’re admitting, in the case of the Cleveland Institute of Art.
But that’s not good enough for some of Cleveland’s leading Black artists and cultural entrepreneurs, who say the powerful and influential institutions could do much more, immediately, to address longstanding racial inequities and injustices in Northeast Ohio.
In a daylong symposium on visual art institutions and diversity organized by the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, and the nonprofit Assembly for the Arts, held on Saturday, September 17, the Black creatives handed out the lowest possible grade for institutional efforts at improving racial diversity.
“If you ask us, it’s probably an F,’’ said Ismail Samad, an East Cleveland native and a chef and entrepreneur who moved back to his hometown from the Boston area to start a farm-to-jar food company to aid growers in East Cleveland and other communities.
Samad said that arts institutions would probably give themselves a B-plus for their efforts in diversity and equity because they can cite measurable percentages of improvement in hiring and other categories.
Such percentages are often used to convince trustees and funders to continue supporting arts institutions, he said. But he said those efforts aren’t changing life in the communities around the institutions that have suffered from decades of redlining and other forms of discrimination and segregation.
David Ramsey, an arts entrepreneur who founded Deep Roots Experience, which operates a gallery and conducts programs in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, gave the arts institutions an “F’’ because, in his estimation, they’ve failed to provide grants and exhibitions to some of the city’s best young Black artists.
“When you’re talking about what needs to happen, that’s it, right?’’ he said. “Empower the creatives to do what they do and empower them in ways that are significant and allows them to actually work.’’
Ramsey and Samad spoke in the afternoon session of the symposium, which was held in a glassy, light-washed lecture hall at the Samson Pavilion, home of the Health Education Campus of the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University, adjacent to the Clinic at East 93rd Street and Euclid Avenue.
Assertions of progress
The morning portion of the symposium focused on a self-evaluation by leaders of Northeast Ohio’s largest visual arts institutions about how well they think they’re performing on racial equity.
Participants included Fred Bidwell, FRONT’s founding CEO; Kathryn Heidemann, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art; Megan Lykins Reich, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland; William Griswold, director and president of the Cleveland Museum of Art; and Jon Fiume, director of the Akron Art Museum.
Jennifer Coleman, the Gund Foundation’s program director for Creative Culture & the Arts, moderated the morning discussion.
The institutional directors said they have participated in the broader reckoning on racial inequality that has swept the country in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the police murder in Minneapolis in 2020 of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
There was talk of “leaning in,’’ and trying to make change, even though the arts leaders said it can be difficult to find qualified applicants for positions requiring specialized skills in disciplines that have historically failed to diversify.
In some cases, the institutions were working on diversity prior to 2020. The Cleveland Museum of Art, for example, completed in 2018 what Griswold called the first diversity, equity, and inclusion plan devised by any major American art museum.
“There’s no more important conversation taking place in our field right now,’’ he said. “What we’re seeing is a trend, and it’s a really positive trend.”
Measures of change
Griswold said that between 2015 and 2021 the museum increased the number of employees in its curatorial department who self-identify as BIPOC from 16% to 35% and in the education department from 18% to 44%.
The museum’s new strategic plan, recently adopted by the museum’s board, outlines ongoing efforts including college graduate-level internships and fellowships for minorities, and programs encouraging high school students to consider careers in art history and museum management.
At the Cleveland Institute of Art, Grafton Nunes, Heidemann’s predecessor, oversaw the creation in 2015 of a full-ride scholarship for one high school graduate a year from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The Cleveland Institute of Art also recently joined other colleges and universities participating in the Say Yes scholarship program for CMSD students.
Reich and Fiume acknowledged that their institutions have faced local and national criticism over race-related controversies.
MOCA Cleveland’s former director, Jill Snyder, stepped down in 2020 following accusations of censorship by New York artist Shaun Leonardo after the museum canceled an exhibition of drawings by the artist depicting police violence against unarmed Black men and boys.
MOCA Cleveland has since refashioned itself with a more diverse staff and a board headed by three co-presidents, and with a new focus on uplifting minority and LGBTQ artists, particularly from Cleveland.
Fiume, the former chief operating officer of Mustard Seed Market in Akron, was appointed as the Akron Art Museum’s new director in February, after serving as the interim following the resignation of Mark Masuoka in 2020.
Masuoka left amid allegations that museum managers on his watch had bullied staff members and engaged in sexist and racist incidents. Masuoka denied the allegations. Fiume said the Akron museum has addressed criticisms and is trying to diversify its staff of 30 full-time and 20-part time employees.
While pointing to good intentions and progress, the arts leaders acknowledged the need for improvement.
Heidemann, for example, said that the percentage of students identifying as BIPOC at the Cleveland Institute of Art rose from 5% 10 years ago to 33% today. The college has created a new program to help those students succeed academically and artistically, but she said the college needs to work harder to diversify its faculty and board.
Despite evidence of progress on equity in the morning session, there was a disconnect with the afternoon session, when the four Black leaders took to the microphones.
Attendance in the room shifted. Reich, Coleman, and Bidwell stayed for the full discussion, but the other institutional leaders left. (A senior faculty member of the Cleveland Institute of Art was present for the afternoon session, Heidemann later said.)
Samad and Ramsey delivered their “F’’ grades in response to a question from Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. There was no response from the institutions.
The four Black leaders embodied a new movement in American culture in which artists of color are blending their skills with projects focused on community uplift and economic mobility. Nationally prominent examples of the trend include Chicago artist and social entrepreneur Theaster Gates.
Samad, 42, is the co-founder of The Gleanery, a restaurant in Putney, Vermont, and the co-owner of the Nubian Markets in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. He said he’s collaborating with former Trader Joe’s president Doug Rauch on opening three nonprofit healthy food groceries in the Boston area.
In East Cleveland, Samad said he’s assembling property for various projects under the banner of the nonprofit organization, LOITER, which stands for Love, Opportunity, Investment, Transformation, Equity, and Reparations.
Washington created the Museum of Creative Human Art, MOCHA, which promotes the work of Cleveland artists of color. His goal, he said, is to “work on tangible solutions, not complaints.” His own paintings of Black life earned him a berth as one of the first four winners of a $25,000 FRONT Art Futures fellowship earlier this year.
Patton’s Create Art Not Violence project connects children traumatized by crime and violence to licensed Black therapists through an initiative called Ghetto Therapy. Patton riveted the 50 attendees at the afternoon portion of the symposium with a poetry performance decrying criminal violence and unjust policing against Blacks.
Deidre McPherson, a cultural consultant who has worked at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, moderated the afternoon panel discussion, which she organized as the director of Artistic and Community Initiatives for FRONT.
A needed conversation
In an interview following the event, she said that, however critical they were, the comments by the Black arts leaders should not be understood as representing the entire Black community.
She said the comments raised the difficult question of who is to judge institutional performance on race and diversity, and which criteria should be considered.
She also said, however, that the institutional leaders who spoke in the morning session haven’t initiated a community dialogue over how well they’re performing on racial justice.
“University Circle has been touted as a top arts district in the country,’’ she said. “But how is the impact and power of it as an arts district bettering the lives of the people who live immediately around it? We were hoping to help initiate some of that conversation with this group.”
Bidwell, who persuaded the arts leaders to participate in the morning session, and who is also a trustee of the Cleveland Museum of Art, said he was pleased that the symposium revealed tensions over how the region’s arts and culture institutions could improve relations with minority audiences and communities.
“I hear the [F] grade loud and clear,’’ he said. What the symposium revealed was “wow, this is a discussion that needs to happen more often.’’
He went on to say that “the conversation of the morning and the afternoon were so very different, and it revealed that there’s a giant gap between the expectations and the mission of the two groups.”
He said: “we have progress to make, but we hit a milestone with this event, and we need to do it again.”
McPherson said she hopes that the FRONT symposium was the start of a conversation that, however difficult and potentially painful, needs to continue.
“I sense a hesitancy among the participants [in the morning session] to have any humility about what they can do better and that, I think, is what’s missing.’’
Note: An earlier version of this story omitted that the nonprofit Assembly for the Arts helped organize the diversity symposium.