When the Cleveland Museum of Art opened in 1916, reporter Albert Ryder observed, “There is of necessity something raw and chilly about a new museum, up the stairs of which but few feet have tramped and through the halls of which almost no seekers after pleasure and knowledge have wandered. The atmosphere is lacking, but the sense of undeveloped opportunities and possibilities is great.”
But Ryder had it wrong. Though the building itself was new, the fledgling museum’s possibilities and opportunities were anything but undeveloped, thanks largely to the early focus on education by its founders, trustees, first director Frederic Allen Whiting, and first educator Emily Gibson.
Upon arriving in Cleveland from her post as the director of a school in Indianapolis, Gibson immediately got to work even though the museum itself wasn’t yet open. She organized a traveling exhibition of Babylonian and Assyrian tablets for local libraries, arranged for art classes in Cleveland’s elementary and middle schools, and gave talks and lectures to groups throughout the city to interest as many people as possible in the museum’s success.
After the museum opened its doors to the public in June 1916, the workload of the education department continued to grow. During the week, schoolchildren visited with their teachers, while children’s programs—films, talks, puppet shows, and art classes—brought young visitors to the galleries every Saturday. In 1919 the Cleveland Museum of Art became the first American art museum to allow students to sketch in the galleries. Traveling exhibitions continued to visit schools and libraries around the city, presenting works of art from the lending collection.
Top row: A class in the Children’s Museum, 1928; Outdoor art classes around the lagoon, 1940s; Lecture audience in the original auditorium, 1940s; Lantern slides used for research and presentations, 1930s; Puppet theater, 1929.
Bottom row: Studio classes in the galleries, c. 2005; Les Vince in the Distance Learning studio, c. 2004; Solving clues in a Family Game Night puzzle, 2015; A lecture at the museum by artist Hank Willis Thomas, 2014; Surreal fashion on the runway at MIX: Couture, 2015.
A Children’s Museum room included not only works of art but also specimens of natural history: birds, butterflies, shells, and stones. Whiting even had plans to construct a separate building to house the Children’s Museum, along with an auditorium, exhibition galleries, classrooms, lunch space, and an outdoor amphitheater for plays and puppet shows. Although the separate building was never built, the Children’s Museum room remained in use until the 1950s, open for children to draw, read, or explore in when not attending a class.
Work with schools and students was a strong component of the education department’s activities. In the 1920s, the museum conducted studies to determine the best lesson plans for elementary students of varying abilities, corresponding to a classification system used by public schools at the time. Under Thomas Munro, curator of education from 1931 to 1967, the department emphasized teaching critical skills for understanding and appraising works of art, and created links to school curriculum by placing the works within the broader context of history and other art forms such as music, dance, literature, and drama. To strengthen the relationship between museum and classroom, local school boards also funded museum teaching positions.
Nor were relationships with schools limited to K–12 education. In 1967 the museum formalized a partnership with Case Western Reserve University to create a joint institute in art history to train museum professionals in both art historical scholarship and museum best practices. Curators taught courses as adjunct faculty, and graduate students were granted access to museum resources such as the library and slide collections, and received internship and fellowship placements.
For adults, opportunities ranged from lectures, films, and concerts held in the auditorium (located on the lower level of the 1916 building, the space now occupied by the Egyptian and African galleries) to weekly Sunday gallery talks by curators, educators, and scholars. Adults could also take longer courses in art appreciation, music, or even home design. During World War II, some courses covered the arts and cultures of regions involved in the war, such as the Pacific Islands. Early on, the museum’s founding trustees and director felt that Cleveland’s industrial economy would benefit from talks and programs on topics aligned with those interests; later, Munro would use these programs as public forums in which to explore difficult or controversial topics like modern art.
In addition to teaching and programming, the education department has often looked to technology to enhance experience of the collection. From 1916 to 1923, short instructional films were part of a weekly Saturday program of children’s activities that also included lectures, concerts, and the occasional sing-along. Lantern-slide presentations were used in combination with gallery visits until the 1960s, and education staff also worked with local radio broadcasters to record segments on current exhibitions or interesting aspects of the permanent collection.
In the 1970s, daily slide-tape presentations—slideshows with synchronized audio narrated by education and curatorial staff—were offered in the new Breuer education wing. The slide-tapes provided contextual and introductory information beyond what could be shared in an object label or brochure. Visitors could drop by the audiovisual center to see what was playing or to request a specific slide-tape for a class or group.
One hundred years later, many of these early programs still sound familiar. Saturday art classes still draw in the galleries. Talks and lectures take place throughout the year. Schoolchildren visit on field trips. But the past century has also brought many changes.
The slide-tape program was discontinued in the early 1990s, but handheld audio tours were developed for special exhibitions and eventually the permanent collection galleries. In 1998 the Sight & Sound tour debuted with over 300 audio stops, and in 2010 Art Conversations, a multimedia tour available on iPod Touch devices or online with personal mobile devices, launched for the reopening of the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and medieval galleries.
Today, visitors can access multimedia content about museum objects both in the galleries and at home by exploring videos, tours, hotspots, and high-resolution images in the museum’s groundbreaking ArtLens app, available for download on iOS and Android devices. As with the slide-tapes some four decades before, museum curators, educators, and other staff frequently lend their expertise to these resources.
Schools remain a central focus. After funding for museum teachers ended in 1978, the museum opened the Connie Towson Ford Teacher Resource Center in 1981. The TRC has for the past 35 years provided teachers with resources, lesson plans, and continuing education programs that support incorporating the museum into school curriculum.
Beginning in 1998 with just six lessons broadcast to schools around the state, the Distance Learning program now offers more than 50 topics showcasing works of art from the museum and serves tens of thousands of participants each year from all over the world. Distance Learning provides live two-way videoconferencing sessions to schools, community organizations, retirement homes, senior centers, and other organizations.
Although the Extensions department closed in 1992, the since-renamed Education Art Collection lives on through the museum’s popular Art to Go program, which brings suitcases filled with museum objects out to classrooms around the area. Participants in Art to Go lessons always enjoy the chance to hold real works of art—while wearing gloves, of course!
The joint program in art history continues to attract talented candidates each year. In 2014 the museum and CWRU established the Nancy and Joseph Keithley Institute for Art History, a new doctoral program that will train PhD candidates in art history and curatorial practice.
Programs for younger audiences still include studio classes, but also encompass everything from Art Stories for preschoolers and early elementary students to Teen CO•OP, a year-long art museum experience for high-school students. Studio classes like My Very First Art Class introduce young children, along with their favorite adult, to the museum, and events like Family Game Night and Second Sundays encourage families to play together while exploring art. And, though the Children’s Museum is long gone, a dedicated space for young visitors still exists: Studio Play in Gallery One.
Lectures and gallery talks continue throughout the year for adult audiences, but a much broader range of programs now offers many different ways to explore art and the museum. MIX and Trivia Night provide art lovers a social, lighthearted experience with friends. Meditation and yoga classes in the galleries use art to guide contemplation and mindfulness, and writing and storytelling workshops encourage participants to seek inspiration from works on view.
No longer a new museum, and one that has certainly seen more than a few feet tramp through its halls in search of pleasure and knowledge, the Cleveland Museum of Art would never again be described as raw and chilly. As the education department and the museum continue into their second century, there is still a great sense of opportunity and possibility for new ideas, collaborations, and initiatives yet to come.
Cleveland Art, May/June 2016