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Interview: Cyra Levenson

Cultivating a sense of wide-awake-ness
December 16, 2016

December 2016

Last August, the museum welcomed Cyra Levenson as the new director of education and academic affairs. She previously held positions at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, the Rubin Museum of Art and the Heritage School in New York City, and the Seattle Art Museum. After graduating with an art history degree from Oberlin College, she earned an EdM from Columbia University.

What brought you to the Cleveland Museum of Art?

The collection, the city, and the institution’s historical commitment to public education all played a role. I was intrigued by the fact that teaching with works of art has been a part of the DNA of the Cleveland Museum of Art since before we even had a collection; the unwavering commitment to being open and accessible to all also matches my values. That’s the rational side.
Then there’s the gut response—the sense of awe and amazement I felt when I first came into the atrium and walked through the galleries. The possibilities are endless.

You attended Oberlin College in the mid-1990s and visited the museum as an art history student. What has changed since then?

For one thing, the museum now has an incredibly important public space that we offer to the city year-round. The fact that we are free and open to the public for so many hours a day and so many days a year means that we can be a part of daily life for people. People can walk through on a lunch break—in fact, I just talked with a Case Western Reserve University faculty member who says he’s done some of his best thinking here in the museum. I’ve spoken with others who met their future spouses here. The number of personal stories that people have shared about what the collection has meant to them in their professional and personal lives is really incredible, and it all centers around the fact that we’re so accessible—that you can walk in and stay for as little or as long as you like.

The “academic affairs” portion of your title is new. What does that term signify?

Coming from a university museum, I’m committed to the idea that a collection of works of art can be relevant and connected to any number of academic disciplines. As far as institutional collaborations go, “academic affairs” acknowledges the programs we’ve had with CWRU, with the Cleveland Clinic, with Cuyahoga Community College, and with other colleges and universities. It’s exciting to think of the museum as part of the overall ecosystem of higher education in the region and to consider how a civic museum could work with its academic partners. 
Art objects can lead you in unexpected directions. We tend to believe that thinking and knowledge production are separate from emotion and sensation, but neuroscience is disproving that idea. We store knowledge through our sensory experience. When you try to cram for a test or remember a phone number, it’s easier if you can create an acronym, a pattern, or some other type of association to attach to the facts you have to remember. Making these connections intentionally is how we learn new things. When you try to learn something new without a connection to it, it’s harder to retain unless you already have a certain baseline of expertise in that topic. When more of your senses are activated, you’re most optimized to learn new things.
Works of art, for the most part, were created to be interpreted by people. Whether they are abstract or representational, material or ephemeral, the artworks we create capture some part of our human experience that is shared with others. That makes a museum a really great place to think and experience—borrowing the perspective of others who have come before us. So that’s a very broad way of thinking about academic learning.

What is your vision for broader collaborations?

We have an incredible resource to offer educators across the spectrum of disciplines and grades through the breadth of the collection and in the amount of accessibility that we can provide. In turn, when we open up the museum to inquiry, we encounter new ways of thinking about our collection. We are hopefully developing a feedback loop of new perspectives, ranging from a five-year-old to a faculty member who has dedicated a lifetime to studying a discipline—either of those will bring a new understanding. So it’s really a two-way street where we provide the raw material and our collaborators provide us with new questions, and in some cases new answers.

You’ve worked in a few different urban and town settings, from Oberlin, to Seattle, to New York, to New Haven, and now to Cleveland. What do you see as the role of museums in communities and of this museum in this city in particular?

There are fewer and fewer places in our culture that are dedicated to contemplation and to concentration, and that limit the distractions of daily life so you can consider what’s happening in front of you without being rushed. Museums, libraries, and performing arts venues can provide a necessary psychological space in a world that is increasingly filled with distraction, where we’re bombarded with images and text and information. Museums provide a place where you can go to, if not escape, to experience a different kind of everyday life—one that’s focused on stimulating new ways of thinking or seeing the world. I think of it as akin to reading a novel and losing yourself in someone else’s story. We need psychologically that sense of being in the presence of something bigger than ourselves and outside of the everyday, something that gives us access to different perspectives, that causes us to be alert in a productive way. The educational philosopher Maxine Green talked about a kind of wide-awake-ness that an experience with a work of art can provide, and I think we need more of that.

How does that idea of making space for contemplation work in relation to the continuing drive for testing and quantification in K–12 education?

We need to learn to make a better distinction between research and quantification. The purpose of research is to ask questions to which we don’t yet have answers and to systematically establish new knowledge. We’ve flipped the paradigm in education to trying to replicate results that are predetermined. I have worked closely with researchers in educational psychology who feel that it’s actually harder and harder to do new research on learning because schools are doing more and more testing. Oftentimes when we are collecting data now in schools, it’s to affirm what we think we already know, as opposed to learning something we don’t yet know. I’m all for research, as long as it allows for new knowledge and ideas and understanding to emerge.

Do you think museums are in a position to lead toward some new models of teaching and learning, helping kids to absorb and analyze information?

Absolutely. The brain’s capacity to process visual information is fully formed by age 5. If you think about all the channels for learning that we innately have, vision is the most powerful. So why wouldn’t we be teaching literacy through imagery? In fact, we know this inherently, but we haven’t worked it into the priorities of schooling. Children learn reading through picture books. They draw without having to be taught how to do it. We do have to teach the more abstract and symbolic skills of reading and writing, though. But once children can read and write, we try to wean them off of drawing as a form of communication. In doing that, we are grossly underutilizing information we have about how the brain works best to build some of the foundational skills we need to be literate. Museums are the perfect place to practice those skills. I see us as really front and center in the creation of a more experiential approach to learning and schooling. So why not come to the museum and learn from a great work of art? We can and should be a resource for everyone who is open to exercising their senses and to seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.