The mission of the Cleveland Museum of Art sounds simple: "to fulfill its dual roles as one of the world's most distinguished comprehensive art museums and one of northeastern Ohio's principal civic and cultural institutions." Accomplish the first and the second part should follow, right?
But like the massive Chuck Close portrait that greets you at the entry to the museum's Gallery One, what you see from a distance is not always what's evident with a closer examination. Approach Close's painting and the nose, eyes, cheeks and lips of its subject, artist Paul Cadmus, disappear. What you see instead is a grid of colorful, Kandinsky-like circles and swirls that are each abstract paintings of their own.
That is the tension the Cleveland Museum of Art faces right now. This month, the museum celebrates the completion of its eight-year-plus, $350 million expansion by renowned international architect Rafael Vinoly. By Vinoly's own account, the CMA collection is masterful. And a visit to the 1916 Building, Gallery One or new glass atrium will likely produce the same assessment of the reimagined space.
Yet all that was trumped in late October, when museum director David Franklin resigned after lying to the board about an affair with a former employee who committed suicide in April. The original announcement said Franklin was leaving for personal reasons, which only served to make the personal tragedy grimmer in its telling.
The board had multiple opportunities to do the right thing. Tipped off twice to the affair, it was unable to uncover the truth by asking Franklin or through an independent investigation. Only when the affair became evident in the fall did the board acknowledge it — and even then, not fully. That's a far cry from the organization's quest to act in "accordance with the highest aesthetic, intellectual, and professional standards."
Those competing views of the museum play out in our pages as well, with our preview of the glorious new CMA and in
Michael D. Roberts' critique of the deceit and mishandling of the David Franklin affair.
Like Close's work, you can choose to look at the museum as complete and inspiring or deeply flawed and challenged. Or you can wrestle with the picture in all of its complexity and do your best to make sense of a place that should be celebrated for its place in the art world, but failed in its duty as a civic leader.