The Cleveland Museum of Art has been part of Alfred M. Rankin Jr.’s life for more than 50 years. The former president of the board can trace his involvement to his return to Cleveland in 1970 to work for McKinsey & Company. Over time, Rankin became ever more deeply engaged, serving on the board of trustees for 30 years and as president for five, which comprised one of the most transformative periods in the CMA’s history: the construction of the new east and west wings and the atrium based on Rafael Viñoly’s design and the associated capital campaign. Rankin met with Cleveland Art to reflect on his enduring relationship with the CMA.
My family had a long history of engagement with the museum before I became formally involved. My mother was elected as a trustee in 1967, a position she continues to very much enjoy and which led to my parents’ interest in collecting art.
My earliest involvement with the museum was after I returned to Cleveland in 1970 following military service in Washington, DC. My wife Viki soon joined the museum’s Junior Council, of which she eventually became president. During that period, it became Womens Council and changed its membership policies, opening a new and wonderful avenue for the participation of a broader group of people who care deeply about the museum.
In 1992, I was asked to join the board of trustees. Eventually, I became an executive committee member, a position I held for 18 years, with five of those as president of the board.
It was very clear to me 50 years ago, as it is today, that the CMA is an organization of extraordinary and unusual distinction. In particular, it has the strength of a long history and a continuity based on a commitment to excellence. Fortunately, it has also consistently been blessed with an active board with good leaders. Interestingly, at least in my time of involvement, there has always been a sense of collective leadership on the board, one of working closely with the director. That has seemed to me a real strength. While its directors and board leaders have certainly made distinctive and important individual contributions, there has always been a sense of consensus. Further, as part of a constant process of renewal, the CMA has been able to bring terrific new trustees on board.
Over my time on the board, the core activities of the CMA have always been kept central and have been adeptly executed. These have been supplemented by an emphasis on special activities, which have tended to vary based on the needs of the museum and the temper of the times. This joint focus on core and special activities has led to the distinction the CMA has had, and continues to have, among museums.
In just under 30 years of board membership, the whole process of curatorial leadership, acquisitions, and scholarship has consistently been absolutely critical. In my view, curators are key to the acquisition process and its success. It’s the excellence and deep involvement of our curators in their fields and their connections with dealers that have enabled the museum to be knowledgeable about the needs of the collection and what objects are available, and to be productive in terms of scholarship.
In addition, the CMA’s curators and directors have encouraged art collecting, often with long-term benefits for the museum. For us, collecting began with the support of Sherman Lee in the area of Chinese porcelain in the early 1970s, and our collecting continues in other areas to this day, with the benefit of curatorial knowledge.
Overall, the museum has a terrific approach to making decisions about adding to its collection: curators make recommendations and then the director works through which ones best meet the needs of the institution. This process has given the collection real balance, and it means that acquisitions are driven by the overall needs of the museum. This has, I think, helped keep the CMA focused on its specific niche in the museum world, one of having a smaller collection with its objects consistently of the highest quality. Further, during the time I was on the board, the CMA was able to acquire significant large collections in North Indian and African art, which provided paths to broaden its holdings in underrepresented areas, while continuing to acquire objects of the highest quality.
Exhibitions and Education
A second area of core activities is exhibitions. There have been some extraordinary exhibitions over the years. Two of many examples I particularly remember include Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique, which Stephen Harrison, former curator of decorative art and design, organized, and Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art, which Sinéad Vilbar, curator of Japanese art, put together.
Another core area of activity is education, in which the CMA has had a quite distinctive commitment. During my time on the board, those programs continued to grow, particularly by using technology to provide greater reach and depth. The education programs have been a terrific way to engage the public, developing visitors’ interest in art and then deepening that knowledge.
The Building Program
Beyond these core areas were distinctive activities for special programs. A number of those came along during the time I was on the executive committee and was president of the board.
Of course, the most critical and important of those was the building project. Looking back, it’s clear that this was an extremely complex program. It was nurtured by a great many people in different ways. It’s a wonderful story of vision and collaboration. While you can talk of the building program and fundraising and financing separately, they were really part of a linked process that was complicated. A lot of the actual construction was going on when I was president, but the groundwork was done by those who came before me. Time and again, collective leadership helped work through many difficult issues.
The first key decision in the program was the selection of the architect in September 2001. Rafael Viñoly’s great building design was absolutely critical to the project’s success. The design process and building program were enhanced by a strong building committee’s oversight of the project. A maximum cost for the project was set. Meeting that cost required creative interplay with Viñoly to adjust his design to be more economical while still achieving his conceptual vision. In fact, we were able to come in essentially on that ultimate budget with an outstanding design.
The second key decision was to undertake the project in two phases. While the objective was clearly to complete both phases, doing the east wing first provided the potential for pause, if that became financially necessary, given that the path to raising the money for the entire project was initially unclear. Over time, both phases were undertaken because the fundraising path became clearer. Decisions were made thoughtfully to use a portion of the art acquisitions budget to help the fundraising program and to ask the Huntington trust, which had a long history of backing CMA building projects, to support the building project in a way that protected long-term annual support of the CMA. All this helped make the decision to move forward with the building project a prudent decision.
A third key decision, based on the board’s long-term commitment to minimally disrupt the CMA’s public activities, was structuring the project in a way that involved closing the museum entirely only for a short time.
I can’t think back over this period of my association with the CMA without reflecting on the museum’s directors. There were many I knew or was involved with. I knew both William Milliken and Sherman Lee. While they were before my time on the board, they certainly set in motion an extraordinary process of collection building and scholarship that provided an outstanding platform for the directors who followed: Evan Turner, Bob Bergman, Katharine Lee Reid, Timothy Rub, David Franklin, and William Griswold, with Debbie Gribbon assisting during a couple of gaps between directors. Each continued the process of building an even more outstanding CMA, always expanding the key elements of the vision set early on.
Bill became director when the building program was almost complete. That gave him the opportunity to take full advantage of a magnificent new building, the collection, and all the other activities. At the same time, he has had to deal with new issues: the problems of COVID-19, the winds of social change, and an enhanced emphasis on cultural property concerns, all of which are complex issues on their own.
The process of adjusting the focus and responding to evolving needs over time has gone on as long as I have been involved with the CMA. While there will always be new challenges and opportunities for the museum, I have every confidence that the CMA will continue to move forward with excellence in all it does and to lead in the museum world. Certainly, right now, we are seeing that being done in a wonderful way under the leadership of Bill and the board of trustees, to provide an appreciative and involved public with many great art experiences. For me, being a part of this great institution as an active trustee for almost 30 years has been a wonderful experience.