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Your Museum, Your Voice: Community Voices at the Cleveland Museum of Art | by Cleveland Museum of Art | CMA Thinker

By Rachel Arzuaga, Interpretive Planner, and Stephanie Foster, Lead Interpretive Planner

Cleveland Museum of Art
CMA Thinker

A museum is nothing without its visitors. The stories of the artworks and the people who interact with them make museums come alive. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, we are committed to building an audience-centered culture. This idea is key to the work of the interpretation department.

Interpretation sits within the Division of Public and Academic Engagement, known as Education in many museums. Our guiding principle is that there is more than one way to engage with art. Through encounters with art in a museum, we can better understand and appreciate ourselves and others, acknowledging that multiple perspectives exist. With a collection that spans place and time, the CMA offers the opportunity to engage in essential conversations about all aspects of human existence, both positive and negative, through art.

Think of all the experiences you’ve had in your life. Which ones stand out the most to you? These important moments all inform how you look at and interpret a work of art; they are unique to each individual visitor. With this in mind, interpretation has spearheaded a Community Voice initiative across the permanent collection and for select special exhibitions.

We are prioritizing and highlighting the voices of community members alongside those of curators because we feel that everyone is an expert in their own lived experience. We first experimented with this initiative in the 2021 exhibition Picturing Motherhood Now, and again in 2022 with Derrick Adams: LOOKS and with Riemenschneider and Late Medieval Alabaster, which is on view through July 23, 2023, in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery. Each of these featured the voices of community members reflecting on personal experiences related to the themes of the exhibitions. By including multiple voices and perspectives in the galleries, we hoped visitors would recognize how individual experiences often inform how we engage with or interpret an artwork.

Naazneen Diwan spoke about Dinari/All Our Mothers by Aaron Gilbert in Picturing Motherhood Now.
Evelyn Burnett spoke about Mama’s Always Watching by D’Angelo Lovell Williams in Picturing Motherhood Now.
Tameka Ellington spoke about the work of Derrick Adams in Derrick Adams: LOOKS.

While we have found success with these labels in various exhibitions, they had yet to make their way into our collection galleries. When the CMA was approached by the Cleveland Orchestra to participate in the inaugural Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Opera & Humanities Festival, which takes the American dream as its theme, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to feature community voices across the collection galleries. We collaborated with 22 Clevelanders to share their thoughts and reflections on what the American dream means to them. Our goal was to invite participants from a variety of backgrounds to be reflective of the Cleveland community, from high school students to the mayor of Cleveland; each perspective gives valuable insight into the American dream in 2023.

Community partners chose a work of art on view that encapsulated their feelings on this topic. The interpretation team crafted labels from recorded interviews with the participants to honor their unique voices and accurately reflect their lived experiences. From A Hare and a Leg of Lamb by Jean-Baptiste Oudry to Merging Emerging by Audra Skuodas, the variety of objects chosen made it apparent that the American dream means something different for everyone. Common themes that emerged were safety and security, fame and fortune, and hopefulness. Most people felt that the American dream is not equally available to everyone. Below you can read a few examples of the labels as they appear in the galleries.

James Schaffer, a CIA student, talked about being proudly and visibly queer using Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd by Alice Neel as a visual representation of his thoughts and feelings.
Raja Belle Freeman, who is a local poet, artist, and creative arts teacher, reflected on her experiences with Marilyn x 100 by Andy Warhol.
Justin M. Bibb shared what it means to be both a Black resident of Cleveland and the mayor of the city, making connections with Bang by Kerry James Marshall.

These excerpts are just a portion of what you can find throughout the museum. The complete list of participants includes a cross section of the community:

James Schaffer, college student, Cleveland Institute of Art

Anne Harrill, owner, Océanne Studio and Boutique

Héctor Castellanos Lara, lead artist, Parade the Circle 2023

Justin M. Bibb, Mayor of Cleveland

Raja Belle Freeman, poet, artist, and creative arts teacher

Tomislav Mihaljevic, MD, CEO and President, Morten L. Mandel CEO Chair, Cleveland Clinic

Lori Ashyk, executive director, The Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation

Sean Watterson, co-owner, Happy Dog, Cleveland

Annie Zaleski, music journalist, editor, and author

Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director, Cleveland Public Theatre

Felton Thomas, executive director and CEO, Cleveland Public Library

Dexter Davis, artist

Christa Adams, faculty in history, Bard High School Early College Cleveland

Dr. Raquel M. Ortiz, cultural anthropologist, author, educator, activist, songwriter, and storyteller

Phyllis Harris, executive director, LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland

Randall Harrod, combat veteran, United States Army

Marlys Rambeau, enrolled member, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Isabel Trautwein, first violin, The Cleveland Orchestra, Trevor and Jennie Jones Chair

Shawna Polster, high school student, Currently Under Curation

Logan Fribley, high school student, Currently Under Curation

Rebecca Kimble, OnBase file clerk, Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities

Brandon Edwin Chrostowski, founder, president, and CEO, EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute

The Mandel Opera & Humanities Festival: The American Dream runs through May 20, 2023. However, these labels will be in the galleries until August 31, 2023. As you encounter them across the museum, we invite you to consider what the American dream represents to you. Feel free to share your own reflections with us in the comments! For other opportunities to share, visit the CMA on June 17, 2023, from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for the Artist in the Atrium program featuring performances by Dr. Raquel M. Ortiz and Raja Belle Freeman.