Community Voices: The American Dream
What does the “American dream” mean to you? In conjunction with the Cleveland Orchestra’s Mandel Opera & Humanities Festival: The American Dream, the Cleveland Museum of Art asked people across Cleveland how works of art can speak to the idea of the “American dream.” Their responses are on view May 2–August 31, 2023, as a series of temporary Community Voice labels throughout the museum.
Take the American Dream: Community Voices tour in the CMA’s ArtLens App for a guide to each artwork.
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Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd, Alice Neel, gallery 229A
As somebody who is queer, the American dream to me is the ability to live as visibly queer and be accepted by society. Legislation has oppressed LGBTQ+ people, but I think we are getting closer to the dream of equal opportunity.
For me, this painting is the most literal representation of being proudly and visibly queer. Both subjects display aspects of gender nonconformity, existing in that space between male and female. These people are proud to be themselves in a way we don’t see in a lot of traditional portraiture. Through the actions and lives of individuals like those in the portrait, queer Americans are getting closer to achieving the ability to be open and visible and proud of our identities.
Sandy and Her Husband, Emma Amos, gallery 229A
I grew up in the South of France and I loved American culture as a teenager. When I was in college in France, my major was English, so I came to study in Cleveland and met my husband. I’m living my American dream because I have my family and I’m doing something I love and feel lucky to be doing.
To me, this piece represents my husband and me. We are also multicultural. I see two cultures coming together. I came to Cleveland because I met the love of my life. The man in the painting has embraced this woman and she can be herself in his arms. This feels like a safe space where they can be together—and better together.
Héctor Castellanos Lara
Fountain of Blood, Malangtana Ngwenya, gallery 229A
I’m attracted to these strong, vibrant colors. The people are a combination of demons and creatures surrounded by paint drippings simulating blood. People may think this is evil, but I have read about the artist, so I see a person who experienced injustice and colonization in his country—a loss of cultural traditions. There’s a similar history in my country too. I really sympathize with this artist because he took a big risk.
I came here from Guatemala in 1977. Many people come here because of instability and persecution, so part of the American dream is safety. You can work, go to school, have a family, and settle down. But another part of our American dream is to celebrate our traditions and culture safely.
Justin M. Bibb
Bang, Kerry James Marshall, gallery 229A
Growing up as a working-class Black kid in southeast Cleveland, the American dream was about getting out of the inner city and making something of yourself. Now, it’s about making an impact. Being a mayor gives me the ability and tools to disrupt systems that have failed people of color. I don’t take the task lightly. I bear a lot of responsibility, but disruption requires the collective.
This painting is classic Americana—The Wonder Years, but the Black version. It makes me think about the first barbecue we held after my mom bought her first home. We felt like we made it—living the American dream and Black family traditions. The words in the painting look like they’re in human brains, supporting this idea indoctrinated upon us of what we should be. We are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Raja Belle Freeman
Marilyn x 100, Andy Warhol, gallery 229A
The American dream means a lot of things for me. The keyword is freedom. It’s about being able to choose what freedom looks like for you, because it looks different for everyone. Early in this country’s history the idea of Manifest Destiny—to expand the nation across the continent––became an American dream. Then the dream morphed into fame and fortune.
Many people want their face to be recognizable. Marilyn Monroe is such an icon. In this painting, she almost looks like an emoji. I think a lot of Americans want to be that level of iconic. In our capitalist system, people dream of fame and fortune because that guarantees security. Many of us will never see anything like what Marilyn had, but it’s what people aspire to.
Lot's Wife, Anselm Kiefer, gallery 229B
The American dream is the foundation of this country. It is the shared hope that we can accomplish something great regardless of our background, heritage, or race.The collective set of individual aspirations is what forms the American dream. There is hope and happiness, but not all of it is perfect. It can also be rough.
I am an immigrant from Croatia, so this means a great deal to me. This country has offered me unparalleled opportunities to grow and to make a difference. I love this work because it is very captivating. We see an empty railroad track in this horrible, unsettling environment indicative of the Holocaust. It is a stark contrast to the American dream, which can offer hope and happiness instead of death and despair. It is immensely powerful.
Mirror, Paul Fehér, gallery 228B
For me, the American dream means being able to make choices, pursue our goals with hope, support ourselves and our loved ones, and express our cultural identities, free of persecution and liberated from oppression.
Mirror was created during the Great Depression, a time when many of the immigrant communities represented in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens were facing great hardship. Paul Fehér, a Hungarian immigrant, no doubt knew what they were experiencing. This piece speaks to their tenacity and says that beauty can shine through our darkest times. The human spirit creates against all odds.
Filtered Yellow, Julian Stanczak, gallery 228A
The American dream is a fraught topic. It can be archaic and not fully inclusive, but it’s also not something to be trampled on. There are amazing opportunities here to make a good life for yourself and engage in community in incredible ways, which you may not have coming from other places.
Julian Stanczak’s life was a dream in many ways. He was an American hero with a remarkable story. He escaped war to come to Cleveland, engaged in this community where he connected with and influenced artists, and made beautifully detailed work. I see the amount of focus and energy it takes to plan something like this. He had to love what he was doing to do that, which I relate to.
Merging Emerging, Audra Skuodas, gallery 228A
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I’ve achieved that! I write daily and I’ve interviewed amazingly interesting people. That’s not to say there aren’t more goals to achieve, more books to write, or more interesting people to talk to. For me, the American dream is striving for something that never really ends. It’s a work in progress.
I like this painting because the composition is structured but unlimited along its borders. To me, the defined shapes in the middle represent goals or dreams. The unrestrained edges mean there is enough room to morph those goals or dreams, and to figure out how they could look different for you on a different day. The painting is open to possibility, and the American dream is about possibility.
Sky Cathedral-Moon Garden Wall, Louise Nevelson, gallery 227
This work is bold and feminine; comforting and inviting, even though it has a sharpness and hardness to it. There are these doors that seem like you can enter, which while welcoming, also present a mystery of what’s on the other side. I feel a sense of pride and dignity in the work, like some might feel for the American dream but that ideal, while sometimes welcoming, is also mysterious.
I heard a story that someone once prayed at this work. I thought, if I had to pray, this could be my altar. But also sometimes, maybe to a fault, we worship this idea of the American dream, and we can get overly obsessed with it. I’d rather worship something else, something more mysterious.
Gamin, Augusta Savage, gallery 226B
The American dream means you get to live the life you want for yourself and for your family. It means you getto enjoy the life you have been given, explore it, and do things you’d like to do. I know folks living the American dream that are poor and rich. They’re both living their American dream because they’re happy.
I picked this piece because it’s me when I was nine. If you saw a picture of me, you would say, “That’s Felton!” This object speaks to the American dream of that kid— being wide-eyed to the world thinking I someday can be the American dream. This is a young person with their whole life ahead of them to find that dream.
Fulton and Nostrand, Jacob Lawrence, gallery 226B
When I was younger, my idea of the American dream was a big house, two cars, a garage, and a good living. As the climate of the world changed, so did my dream. Now my American dream is for everyone to unite, love each other, and abolish all hate and racism. Unity and a sense of community are the American dream for me.
This painting makes me think about a time in the Hough neighborhood in Cleveland when everything was good. Black people owned businesses, and everybody was working together. We all knew each other. In the painting, people are enjoying themselves and working together. It looks like a real neighborhood where people take care of each other. You don’t find that much anymore around here.
Muse with Violin Screen, Paul Fehér, gallery 226A
I love this screen made by an immigrant artist in Cleveland. It’s industrial yet artistic with organic shapes and floral motifs. The use of European aesthetics reflects the rise in immigration at the time, particularly in industrial cities like Cleveland. A woman, reminiscent of musician and actor Josephine Baker, functions as a muse, representing people who didn’t have the same access to opportunities associated with the American dream; she inspired the designer, becoming an archetype of possibility.
The American dream is a subjective ideal about the potentiality present within American society. It’s supposed to be accessible, but that’s not always the case. Even today, inequities prevent everyone from realizing their own dreams. I strive to help my students embrace their inherent potential to turn their own dreams into realities.
Dr. Raquel M. Ortiz
Woman and Bird, Rufino Tamayo, gallery 225
This is an homage to pre-Columbian art and culture. It’s so important to talk about our ancestors and what came before us. Reminding ourselves that we come from incredible people helps us to dream and create collective, beautiful dreams together. I love that the woman is looking up, and to some extent the American dream is about looking up and being hopeful.
Sadly, the American dream has also been interpreted as an individualistic, solo pursuit. Freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness are beautiful and wonderful but can come at a cost to others. It’s something that we need to reevaluate. My hope for the American dream is for us to be able to share our resources, celebrate and love ourselves, and love Mother Earth.
In the Waves, Paul Gauguin, gallery 222
For me, this painting is about strength and overcoming barriers. There’s this female figure, a little curvy like me, about to emerge from some adversity. If you are a woman, a person of color, or have disabilities or just anything that isn’t mainstream, the American dream was not created with you in mind.
My mom was a teen mom of two trying to make it as a single Black woman. She instilled in us a strong work ethic. You do your job well, have good values, and follow the rules, and then you could achieve the American dream, and I did that. There are so many obstacles and challenges depending on who you are, the color of your skin, your gender, who your mama is.
Twilight in the Wilderness, Frederic Edwin Church, gallery 206
The American dream means having the freedom and opportunity to pursue whatever dream I have and knowing the right path to follow to obtain it. I spent ten years in the army, and I think it prepared me for where I am today. It gave me the discipline to know what I want and the motivation to achieve it.
The first thing I noticed in this painting is the red, white, and blue clouds. It’s a very patriotic sky. The clouds are like a blanket that provides you with the freedom to pursue your dream. The vastness of the landscape with a river running through it shows me a path that I can follow to get to that distant land of riches, freedom, and opportunity.
A Home in the Wilderness, Sanford Gifford, gallery 206
The American dream has evolved over the years. Before, it was very standard, but it has changed to become about doing better for my community and passing down my culture and heritage through education of where we came from.
I see this painting in two ways—as nice and tranquil, but also destructive. There’s a secluded cabin on the lake, which appeals to me greatly because my reservation in South Dakota is desolate and horrible. I love nature, the trees, and mountains, but we don’t have that there. At the same time, it is also hurtful, because I see the encroachment of the White man. They just came in here and cut down all these beautiful trees to make themselves a house.
The Power of Music, William Sidney Mount, gallery 207
This painting speaks to me as a violinist. Everyone is feeling joy listening to music, but the White people are in one space that is elevated, indoors, and comfortable. The African American man, who is clearly enjoying the music and feeling relaxed, is not in the same space—he’s outside and hiding behind the wall.
Sadly, in our country, even today we don’t yet have a situation where all spaces and places are available to everyone. For me, the American dream would mean that everyone—absolutely everyone—could live the life they imagine for themselves, but we still have a way to go.
Fifth Avenue, Childe Hassam, gallery 208
The American dream is the ideal visualization of success in America. I’m a fourth-generation American. My great-grandpa lived in New York. He was basically a New Yorker even though he came from Europe. Many people entered through Ellis Island, and it was their first impression of America. New York represents everything American—it’s chaotic and busy, but everyone still wants to be there.
I was drawn to this painting because there are a lot of people, but you can’t see each one individually. It represents that in America, the ideal is to be part of the bigger whole. I love how everyone is gathering, how chaotic it is in New York, but how beautiful it is because everyone is part of a community.
Maine Coast, Rockwell Kent, gallery 208
To me, the American dream means achieving whatever you want. For some people that might be happiness. For other people it might be a certain level of status or becoming a celebrity. For me, it would be to find who I am, find peace, live a comfortable lifestyle, and raise a family—all while understanding that everything is not going to work perfectly the way that I want it to, but I am learning and constantly growing. That’s my idea of the American dream.
In this painting, I see peacefulness. I feel like a lot of Americans want that sense of peace and connection to nature. My dream is to move to Maine one day, and this image connects with that.
A Woman’s Work, John Sloan, gallery 208
The American dream is an ideal, not a promise. It gives you opportunities and pathways, but you must put in effort; nothing’s guaranteed. I think many of John Sloan’s paintings show working people, alluding to an American caste system, which, in a way, persists. The mega-wealthy are unrestrained while the poor are still condemned.
This woman is working hard, using her own hands and gumption. She might have family or be solitary, but she is self-motivated. She could be a recent American immigrant who may not speak English well and/or is having to start over. Either way, she’s excelling and pressing forward. We don’t know her backstory but can see she’s building the best life with the resources available to her.
Brandon Edwin Chrostowski
A Hare and a Leg of Lamb, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, gallery 216B,
The American dream is having the opportunity to achieve what you are called to do but also helping others get where they want to go. EDWINS is a restaurant and training center helping people who have been affected by our criminal justice system. They get an education in the restaurant industry that could give them a career in culinary arts or hospitality.
This painting reminds me of using what the earth provided and making a meal with it. I had a dream of being the best chef in the world. When I worked in France, this is what the walk-in cooler looked like: full of rabbits with fur. I couldn’t speak the language, but I understood how to cook, and I used that to grow myself.