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Performing Arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Performing Arts series is robust and wide-ranging, spanning classical and contemporary music, global music traditions, as well as dance and film. The series is recognized internationally, and stands out in the Northeast Ohio region, for its vitality and the excitement it brings to a crowded musical landscape. Renowned composer-performers and ensembles, composer residencies, sound installations, summer festivals, music for film, chamber music in the galleries, and more comprise the annual calendar. The museum regularly presents internationally renowned musical artists from a boundless variety of traditions, at the height of their powers and presenting major work. These performances regularly complement special exhibitions, illuminate the permanent collection, and take unique advantage of the museum’s performance spaces and architecture—often arranged in collaboration or interdisciplinary fashion with fellow curators.

Music at the Cleveland Museum of Art has a history nearly as long as the institution itself. In 1918, only two years after the museum’s dedication, the board of trustees decided to include music programs among museum activities, likely the first inclusion of a performance department equal in status to the visual arts departments in any of America’s great museums. The first major concert of note in the museum was an early 1918 performance by the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Josef Stransky. Soon after, Frederic Allen Whiting sought to expand the museum’s commitment to music. In 1921, Thomas W. Surrette became the first curator of music, succeeded in 1922 by composer Douglas Moore (who, in 1951, would win the Pulitzer Prize), Arthur Quimby (1925), Walter Blodgett (1942) and Karel Paukert (1974). On the occasion of Paukert’s retirement in 2004 and the commencement of the museum’s renovation project, the performing arts department consolidated all musical activity in one area, led by Massoud Saidpour and Paul Cox. Since their departures, the department has been led by Thomas M. Welsh, who joined the museum in 2007. Beginning with Whiting’s visionary commitment to music in a museum and his establishment of the first of several endowments devoted expressly to performing arts, the department has been foundational to the museum’s mission.

An astonishing number of extraordinary artists have graced the stage of the museum, including Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, Thomas Wilfred, Nadia Boulanger, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Olivier Messiaen (with Yvonne Loriod), Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, Bright Sheng, Amy Beach, Henry Cowell, John Tavener and many other major composers. Among the more than 5,000 concerts organized over the course of the museum’s first century, a very brief list of notable performers includes: Jascha Heifetz, Wanda Landowska, Virgil Fox, Lotte Lehmann, Jose Iturbi, E. Power Biggs, and the Juilliard String Quartet dating to the early years; the José Limón Dance Company, Alfons & Aloys Kontarsky, Emerson String Quartet, William Christie, Kronos Quartet, Eighth Blackbird, John Adams, and a 14-year old Joshua Bell in more recent times. In the last decade alone, the museum has presented John Luther Adams, Frederic Rzewski, John Zorn, Vijay Iyer, Maja S.K. Ratkje, Camille Norment, Chen Yi, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), So Percussion, Alarm Will Sound, Ensemble Signal, The Calder Quartet, JACK Quartet, and, in first-ever appearances in the museum, The Cleveland Orchestra. As the first several curators were also organists, a commitment to music written for this instrument has been an essential part of the history. All told, there have been countless regional and world premieres, regional and US debuts, and many other firsts.

Less well known within this legacy is the museum’s commitment to non-western cultures. The museum has presented music and dance to Cleveland audiences experiencing, almost certainly for the first time, these ancient traditions, dating to the 1930s and the first American performances of Uday Shankar’s Indian dance company (which, incidentally, included his youngest brother, then 13-year old Ravi Shankar), and Devi Dja, considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on Indonesian dance. Indian sitar master Nikhil Banerjee performed in the museum on his first US tour in 1967, and several major artists from Asia were presented in the museum in the 1970s, including Katsuya Yokoyama (Japan), Lu Sheng Ensemble (China), and the Sabri Brothers (Pakistan). In recent years this commitment to non-western musical traditions has only grown, spotlighting such artists as Wu Man, Nrityagram Dance, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, Amadou & Mariam, Fanfare Ciocărlia, Conjunto Chappottín, Noura Mint Seymali, Tarek Abdallah & Adel Shams El-Din, Totó la Momposina, Ji Aeri, Zakir Hussain, Nurlanbek Nyshanov, Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, Ragamala Dance Company, Alam Khan, and many others, together representing no fewer than 100 countries.

The Performing Arts department has regularly expanded its offerings to keep up with developments in the field and reach the widest possible audience. Sound installations by John Luther Adams, Ellen Fullman, and Jeremy Bible; serious examination of the historical avant-garde including Albert Ayler and John Cage; unclassifiable artists such as Fred Frith, Camille Norment, and Miya Masaoka; film-and-music programs by Marc Ribot, Jim Jarmusch, and Third Coast Percussion; popular summer concert series including Solstice and City Stages; all are spearheaded by the department and fit comfortably within the museum’s activities and its century-long commitment to remain current with its various audiences.

This cornucopia of musical activity is tailored to take best advantage of the various venues the museum now has at its disposal: from Gartner Auditorium (acoustically superb since its renovation completed in 2010) to the galleries, from the Atrium to the Transformer Station, and elsewhere. In addition, the museum maintains a collection of keyboard instruments—pianos, harpsichords, organs, and more. Altogether, performance experiences are curated and produced in singular fashion, distinct from any other museum in North America, and indeed otherwise unavailable to audiences of the Cleveland region.

The museum’s commitment to music and performance has over time garnered regular critical notice and numerous awards. Just in recent years, these have included: Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming; commendations from the City of Cleveland; kudos in the New York Times and Symphony Magazine; regular radio broadcasts of select performances in Cleveland as well as through National Public Radio.

In addition, the museum is home to one of the oldest film programs in the US. Since 1986, John Ewing has curated a year-round series that brings to museum audiences the finest in international, independent, experimental, documentary, and other fascinating films unique to this venue.

The commitment to performing arts continues to expand, notably this year with the announcement of a major commissioning series for six composers to create new works that spring from inspirations found in the collection. The addition of this commissioning series brings the museum into the top tier of forward-thinking, globally-minded, and influential arts institutions working in the performing arts. The Department of Performing Arts endeavors to mirror the collection itself, in its breadth and range, honoring the past while looking to the future. Audiences have a unique opportunity to experience the museum and the world through its performance series in a way that distinguishes this institution and elevates the region.

This standard was set in the earliest days of the museum, when curator of music Douglas Moore wrote in Fine Arts Review in 1922, “Is there not a real service that a museum may render to the community by offering a musical standard as well as a pictorial one?” An esteemed, century-long commitment to the endlessly beautiful variety of musical traditions in this unique curatorial role has given rise to a performing arts series notable for its international reach, critical acclaim, and adventurous spirit.


Thomas M. Welsh
Director of Performing Arts, Music & Film
The Cleveland Museum of Art
May 2018