Barbara Robinson has made it her life’s mission to advocate for the arts. Her service to arts and culture has had a deep and lasting impact, extending well beyond the borders of northeast Ohio. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Robinson is revered as a longtime friend, honorary trustee, and generous benefactor who has supported the Transformation Campaign and initiatives of the museum’s strategic plan, Making Art Matter. The galleries of Near Eastern art and Etruscan and South Italian art are named for Robinson in recognition of her service to and philanthropic support of the museum. Robinson has never been one to back down from a difficult challenge. In the late 1980s, she successfully went toe to toe with politicians who wanted to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), following an uproar over controversial works of art created by artists receiving NEA funding.
As head of the Ohio Arts Council from 1987 to 2000, Robinson transformed the organization into one of the nation’s most respected state arts councils. She helped bring the arts to rural areas and paved the way for cultural exchanges with Cuba, Mexico, Israel, and other countries. “Creating cooperation on the international front gives you respect and trust for different cultures and for people who are not like you,” she says. “It also makes you appreciate what others can achieve.” In June 2018, the Cleveland Arts Prize lauded Robinson’s accomplishments with the founding of the Barbara S. Robinson Prize for the Advancement of the Arts. The annual award recognizes an individual or organization demonstrating extraordinary commitment to the advancement of the arts through leadership in public policy, legislation, arts education, and community. At the Cleveland Arts Prize’s 58th annual awards ceremony, held in October at the CMA, Director William M. Griswold received the inaugural award. Robinson’s life has been rich with the arts from an early age. An only child, she has fond memories of growing up in a house filled with music. Her father was an amateur violist who loved to listen to opera, and musicians would fill the family’s living room on weekends for impromptu concerts. Robinson studied flute, violin, and piano. In fact, she began her career in the arts as a pianist, appearing as a soloist with the orchestras of the New England Conservatory of Music and the Boston Pops. Memories of visiting the CMA with her parents also hold a special place in her heart. They would often spend time admiring the Thinker and objects in the armor court, before enjoying tea and crackers while watching swans at the lagoon. Robinson’s parents instilled in her a passion for service to the arts. Her mother was a social worker and head of a community center. Her father, a CPA, volunteered at a community center and helped to break down barriers for minorities.
From these examples of service, she learned that change happens when you leave the sidelines and get involved. “By participating in civic discussions and listening to different viewpoints,” she says, “you learn to respect people who may be different from you. That’s key to advocating for the arts.” Robinson has stepped back from many of her official responsibilities, but she lends invaluable insight to the councils and agencies she formerly chaired. “The CMA succeeds in making its multigenerational programs relatable to all,” she says, pointing to programs like studio classes, music in the galleries, and community events such as Parade the Circle. “You have to build an atmosphere of inclusivity to let people know that the arts are for everyone,” she says. “Art does matter.”
The Cleveland Arts Prize:
William M. Griswold Leadership by example
Congratulations to CMA director William M. Griswold on being awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize’s Barbara S. Robinson Prize for the Advancement of the Arts. Griswold received the honor for his proactive commitment to returning undocumented antiquities to their countries of origin. He also earned this recognition for his leadership in making education a priority at the CMA, reorganizing and expanding the museum’s Division of Public and Academic Engagement, and putting the museum’s audience at the center of the new strategic plan. Recently, as part of a national cohort of institutions, the CMA launched a major initiative to address the long-standing lack of diversity in museum professions.
Cleveland Art, November/December 2018