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Teach to Learn

Pioneering initiatives bring fresh perspectives via the Department of Public and Academic Engagement
April 17, 2019
Indian Combat, 1868. Edmonia Lewis (American, c. 1844–1907). 2011.110

New Voices
As educators, we realize that there is no better way to learn than through teaching but also that students often illuminate new ways of understanding that can change everything we think we know. In that spirit, we share with you the work of a group of students who are participating in the Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative (DAMLI) funded by the Ford Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. In October 2017 the Cleveland Museum of Art became one of 20 institutional recipients of this monetary award, with which we have established a tiered mentorship program for high schoolers, undergraduate students, and graduate students.

Tyehimba Jess, award-winning poet and DAMLI scholar-in-residence at the CMA, framed our initiatives to bring new voices into the museum field in a fresh way: “The program is investing in a dialogue rather than a monologue. We’re at a juncture in our history where monuments and traditions and the institutions that we have traditionally considered cornerstones are being questioned in radical and inventive ways.” Jess and the participants are helping the museum hear new voices and share new ways of seeing. For example, Jess’s poem “Indian Combat,” inspired by a work in the CMA’s collection, is on display in the Payne Fund Gallery (207) next to the sculpture itself.
Indian Combat
Edmonia Lewis, Marble, 1868 

We three warriors
were called forth
to be, forever, enemies. 
Stolen from marble, 
pressed into slaughter,
we never weary. We 
seek no asylum except
the perpetual hatchet, 
the eternal blade, 
the never-ending arrow,
our fists that swallow
our senses till we’ve carved 
ourselves into memorials
for causes long forgotten.
Our fight was forged 
by a free brown woman’s 
brunt, her design for
all our fates entwined
like fingers laced in prayer
for victory, then mercy,
then dug into the Earth 
to resurrect our embattled 
lives lived just as her own:
pounded into memory
with mettle on stone.

“Indian Combat,” from Olio. © 2016 Tyehimba Jess. Used with permission of the author and Wave Books.

Tyehimba Jess Poet and scholar
Tyehimba Jess Poet and scholar

Currently Under Curation Teen Program 
Through the Cleveland Foundation’s generous support, the Currently Under Curation (CUC) program welcomes teens into the research-driven, creative work of museum professionals. Participants gain access to CMA staff and resources as they collaborate to conceptualize, research, design, and produce exhibitions featuring work from local collections and artists. It’s an immersive, rigorous learning experience that expands student awareness of career pathways in the arts while preparing them for college. A partnership with the Cleveland Public Library brings CUC exhibitions to select library branches. Public displays let students witness how their collective work enriches the community and the museum.
Recently on a Wednesday night in a museum classroom, Cullen Williams-Freeman, Yomiralyn (Yomi) Gonzalez, and 14 peers focused intently on reproductions of artworks created by Cleveland artists between 1935 and 1939 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program. Images were taped to walls in various configurations as the group determined how the prints best convey the story and themes they aim to share. Museum educators Darius Steward and Sabine Kretzschmar looked alongside the teens, asking guiding questions. Cullen and Yomi stepped away to tell us about their experiences in the CUC’s pilot cohort.

What It Takes Curator Mark Cole leads a gallery talk with CUC students, providing insight into the details of designing an exhibition space: deciding on gallery layout, wall colors, and themes; framing and placing artwork; and writing descriptive labels.
What It Takes Curator Mark Cole leads a gallery talk with CUC students, providing insight into the details of designing an exhibition space: deciding on gallery layout, wall colors, and themes; framing and placing artwork; and writing descriptive labels.

What are your personal highlights from participating in this program?
Cullen: I get to see work that I wouldn’t normally get to see. These WPA prints have been sitting around in storage! Also, as an artist and illustrator, I have to problem-solve. This is another way for me to utilize that skill. It speaks to me. I think it would speak to anybody who is interested in puzzles and challenges.

Yomi: Going into different parts of the museum that most people don’t get to see is like getting a secret VIP pass. We visited the conservation lab, where we saw the backs of artworks and what certain artworks looked like before they were conserved. When we went the second time, the conservators let us touch the objects they were working on. I held an incredibly old ivory statue of Mary and Jesus. I was so amazed that now I’m looking into going to school for conservation.

Teen Curator Yomi Gonzalez examining conservation papers.
Teen Curator Yomi Gonzalez
Teen Curators Yomi Gonzalez and (above right) Cullen Williams-Freeman
Cullen Williams-Freeman

How has participating in this program affected your relationship with the museum?
Cullen: I’ve been able to meet so many wonderful staff members. Everyone’s career interests me. If something were to result from working with this museum, I would be so happy to take that offer. Also, I am exposed to more art because of free exhibition tickets; I went to Jazz Age with my color theory classmates from the Cleveland School of the Arts, Kusama, and Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve come here with friends before, but because of all this, I’m now the tour guide for them.

Yomi: I’d never been to the CMA. I recently changed schools and hadn’t been out much in Cleveland. Experiencing the city and the museum like this has been a big part of making me feel grounded here in a good way. I love being at the museum, and I don’t mind staying after school. I plan on joining the summer cohort. For my whole life, I’ve not wanted to stay in Ohio. But now, I would totally go to school in Cleveland. I have a sense of pride and appreciation for where I live that I never had before.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?
Cullen: I would like to start some type of illustration studio, working with writers and artists to see what kinds of crazy collaborations we come up with. To me, the most interesting museum career field is conservation. I could watch art conservation videos on YouTube for hours. I would do that if I could get hired without having to go to school for 15 years! 

Yomi: I want to be a curator or a conservator. As an artist, I make realistic art, working from photos. Restoration takes something I already enjoy and makes me part of preserving the history of so many people—it’s mind-blowing! With curating, I’d be able to show people artworks that I care about. This program gives us a lot of ideas for that. We are prompted to think freely. If I were to become a curator, I would try to keep that same mindset. 

What is it like to work with the program’s facilitators?
Cullen: Sabine and Darius are fantastic. They work so well together. I love that they tell us “just enough” but keep us thinking. 

Yomi: They guide us, but they’re not suffocating. They make us feel at home. Being surrounded by amazing adults who are doing stuff they love inspires me as I think about my future.

Student Guides at the CMA
Students from Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland State University, and Case Western Reserve University have been working together to develop permanent collection tours. Guides engage with staff as they research the collection and connect to their own academic interests. Beginning with an intensive two-day summer training course, guides commit to a full academic year of biweekly on-site training seminars. Tour topics include Disorienting Objects, Mary McPheeters (CWRU, Mathematics); Transition in Life: Who We Are Taught to Be and Who We Ought to Be, Marisa DeMaria (Tri-C, Art History); and More Than Meets the Eye: When Meaning Isn’t Immediately Clear, Hannah Boylan (CWRU, Medical Anthropology/Cognitive Science). 


Graduate Summer Seminar
In the summer of 2018 the Cleveland Museum of Art greeted its first cohort of graduate fellows, who participated in a two-week seminar created as an intellectual incubator to test new ideas, methodologies, and practices for public engagement in a museum context. Participants were exposed not only to the CMA’s collections but also to a broad spectrum of cultural institutions and communities in Cleveland. The museum’s extensive network of partnerships offers these emerging scholars and artists a view into the city’s unique offerings and potential for innovative artistic and scholarly engagement with the public.

Fellows' hands as they are working on a painting

The Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative is a matching-grant pilot program funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Each fellow received a prompt from an artist from which they were to create an artist book. The projects fell in line with the seminar’s curriculum focus, “Book Arts: Embodied Attention/Material Inquiries.” Activities were designed by Nanette Yannuzzi, professor of studio art, installation, sculpture, and book arts at Oberlin College and recipient of a DAMLI summer faculty residency. The lessons focused on an object’s materiality, or how it’s constructed and what it’s made of, and its transformation over time, in order to expand the stories that can be told about it. Morning experiments in the galleries led to experiments in bookmaking in the afternoon.

Kenturah Davis Examining an oil lamp
Kenturah Davis Examining an oil lamp

Kenturah Davis, an artist and a 2018–19 DAMLI graduate fellow, reflected on the museum’s galleries: “When wandering into the light-filled and architecturally integrated armor court that conveys a sense of permanence of Western power (while completely divorced from the costs of conquest), the striking contrast with the modest African galleries just (literally) below comes into full view. What does it mean to be an encyclopedic institution today? Is there another version of ‘inclusivity’ that shifts its focus from the (perhaps impossible) task of representing all people with equal effort to being more transparent about the complicated histories of its collection as it stands today?” Her final project for the seminar became a visual manifestation of these questions.

Davis designed an accordion-fold artist book to begin to work through these questions. Written in the opening pages are the defining statements of the museum. The following pages display inkless inscriptions. The book has a cavity holding a block of charcoal that can be used to render the text visible.

Like Davis’s, the other five projects posed challenges to institutional thinking and asked probing questions. The breadth of interests and areas of expertise among the fellows and the residents, Yannuzzi and Jess, created the kind of generative camaraderie central to the future of museum thinking.

DAMLI fellows

2018–19 DAMLI Graduate Fellows (above, from left)
Edi Dai, 2nd-Year MFA Painting, Yale University
Jovonna Jones, PhD Candidate, African and African American Studies, Harvard University
Kenturah Davis, MFA Painting 2018, Yale University
Johnathan Payne, MFA Painting 2018, Yale University
Claire Schwartz, PhD Candidate, African American Studies and English, Yale University
Oana Marian, PhD Candidate, Divinity, Trinity College

Mentorship at the CMA
In the summer of 2018, Adriana Nelson, a junior at John Carroll University majoring in East Asian studies and English, became a CMA student guide and an intern for Sonya Rhie Mace, George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art. We asked them to describe the importance of their collaborative relationship.

Meaningful Conversations Adriana Nelson (left) and Sonya Rhie Mace
Meaningful Conversations Adriana Nelson (left) and Sonya Rhie Mace

What did you learn from the experience?
Sonya: Adriana showed me firsthand that art of the long-ago and far-away can be inspiring and relevant to anyone. She has the ability to take esoteric subjects and fold them into meaningful conversations about today’s world.

My area of expertise is the sculpture of ancient India, and I have often assumed that museum visitors are more interested in works with which they are familiar. Once we began our twice-weekly, three-hour sessions examining art from early India, Adriana’s interest in the subject grew and deepened, as did her excitement when we made new identifications based on close looking and research. She inspired me to redouble my efforts to bring the works ever more forward to the public to share the perspectives they offer on the things that mattered to people in ancient India: nature, prosperity, beauty, fashion, birth, death, and how to know the divine. 

Adriana: I learned from Dr. Mace that in order to understand an art object, one must understand its historical, religious, geographical, sociological, and sometimes scientific elements. She emphasized that the importance of studying art involves plunging into the symbols of each piece rather than just observing them, to progress beyond your initial reaction to the works. This idea applies to any other researchable subject, and it has gained importance for my course of studies.

Tell us about each other.
Sonya: Adriana has incredible poise and style, and she is brilliant, hard-working, and already an accomplished leader. This is no doubt at least partly because she was raised by a remarkable woman. Charlotte Nelson was born in East Cleveland, the 11th of 13 children, and she raised her two daughters on her own in South Euclid. While Charlotte was never exposed to Asia or Buddhism, she encouraged Adriana’s interest in the subjects, which began with her Mandarin classes in high school. In 2017 she allowed her daughter to go on a life-changing trip to China with professors Paul Nietupski and Bo Liu of John Carroll University, where Adriana developed her interest in the art of early India as its motifs and iconographies traveled across Central Asia. Adriana’s confidence, work ethic, broad-mindedness, kindness, and courage stem from her mother’s dedication and conviction to these values.

Adriana: When Dr. Mace took me on as a summer intern, she did more than just teach me about the CMA collection: she immersed me in each and every individual piece we studied. Each day we met, she would take me on a “tour” of the South Asian and Himalayan galleries and storage. She stood in front of each work and presented its historical and religious significance. Her compassion was displayed through her willingness to engage me in the artwork. She makes sure you know everything about each piece and encourages you to conduct research beyond her understanding, which motivates you to further explore the galleries. 

Why is mentorship important to you?
Sonya: Without the extraordinary mentors I have had throughout my life, I would not be where I am today, working a dream job in the career of my choice. Mentoring interns and students is a way for me to pass on the knowledge that my mentors so generously gave me. Furthermore, the Indian and Southeast Asian collections at the museum are ideal for teaching because they include some of the finest known examples. Since most of the area’s schools and universities do not teach South Asian art history in depth, I wish to do what I can to fill the void for those who are interested.

What is most challenging about learning to give tours?
Adriana: For me, it’s raising questions and awkward pauses. I’m aiming to improve the quality of my questions not only to challenge my audience but also to galvanize my tours. 

As a student guide, Adriana designed eight tours of the Indian galleries. The first student-guide tours and talks debuted to the public in April. She graduates from John Carroll University this May. Next year, as the recipient of a J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship, Adriana will spend 10 months in China researching Buddhist cave temples of the Tangut Xi Xia dynasty (1038–1227). 


Cleveland Art, May/June 2019