Mark Cole Associate Curator of American Painting and Sculpture
For the first time in its history the Cleveland Museum of Art has a permanent space dedicated to the display of work by artists associated with Cleveland and its environs. Occupying prime real estate in the museum’s new east wing, the Cleveland Gallery will host a series of changing exhibitions that showcase the many and varied contributions of artists who have played vital roles in our community. The gallery’s inaugural installation, Highlights from the Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, features more than a dozen masterworks from the museum’s holdings in a wide range of media, including painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, photography, and the decorative arts.
From a modest settlement founded in 1796, Cleveland has evolved into an artistic center with local, regional, and national significance. Initially, our fledgling city was temporary home to traveling artists and artisans who practiced various trades. By the late 1800s, however, Cleveland had developed the population, institutional support, and patronage necessary to sustain thriving professional artistic communities within its borders. Contributing appreciably to the city’s vibrant art scene was an explosive rise of manufacturing, which attracted numerous artists and designers who made their primary living in the realm of the commercial arts.
The growth and maintenance of the visual arts were further augmented by the formation of important cultural institutions, such as the future Cleveland Institute of Art in 1882, which originally opened as the Western Reserve School of Design for Women. (Apparently, its first male students had to be given titles such as “assistant janitor” in order to explain their presence among the female student body.) Founded in 1915, the future Karamu House also proved vital, for during the heyday of its studio art offerings, several African American painters and printmakers—among them Charles L. Sallée Jr.—gained widespread recognition for their achievements. In addition, the Cleveland Museum of Art, which opened its doors in 1916, has long served the community, functioning as a source of inspiration and education through its collections, exhibitions, and programs.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Cleveland itself has often provided visual raw material for artists interested in evoking its unique character, particularly during the American Scene movement that flourished during the second quarter of the 1900s. For instance, an oil painting by Carl Gaertner and a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White, both featured in this installation, capture the city’s astoundingly dynamic industrial backdrop. Conversely, artists such as William Sommer were drawn to Cleveland’s rural surroundings in a quest to create psychologically and emotionally charged responses to nature.
The installation in the Cleveland Gallery reveals the museum to be a longstanding champion of work by artists with local connections. Best illustrating this ongoing relationship are two works that bracket the museum’s nearly century-long existence: a sun-dappled landscape by Frederick Gottwald that the museum acquired the year after its incorporation (thus becoming the first painting by a living artist to enter the collection), and a poignantly brooding cityscape by Hughie Lee-Smith purchased only a few months ago, which is making its Cleveland debut.
The Cleveland Gallery installation of Highlights from the Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art will be on view through May 16, 2010.
Cleveland Art, September 2009