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Curating under Construction

An Interview with CMA's William Robinson and Jeffrey Strean


Cleveland Museum of Art under Construction, November 2006

Cleveland Museum of Art under Construction, November 2006

(© 2006 S. Mitchell; licensed to About, Inc.)
La Vie by Pablo Picasso

"La Vie" by Pablo Picasso, part of the Barcelona exhibit at CMA

(© 2006 Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, New York)
Curating under Construction

An Artist's Drawing of the New CMA

(courtesy of University Circle Inc.)

The Cleveland Museum of Art continues its $258 million expansion project, set to be completed in 2010. The project will increase the museum's space to 588,000-square feet and include a sun-lit 34,000-square foot central piazza and a life-long learning center as well as more gallery space. The new Ingalls Research Library, located in the Marcel Breuer wing, the first segment of the new project to be completed, opened in November.

While the museum is under construction, Cleveland Museum of Art has stored and shared with other museums its permanent collection, but is hosting a series of temporary exhibits, including the current Barcelona and Modernity and the upcoming Monet in Normandy.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with William Robinson, CMA's Curator of Modern European Art and the project director for Barcelona and Modernity and Jeffrey Strean, the museum's Director of Design and Architecture about the museum's building project and the challenges of hosting exhibits during the construction.

That the museum, the art, and the Cleveland art-viewing public are important to both men was immediately apparent, both from the sparkle in their eyes when they discussed the project and by the fact that these two very busy individuals took the time to share their thoughts with About readers. This is what they had to say:

Q: Other area museums, such as the Akron Art Museum, have chosen to close completely during their renovation projects. What made CMA decide to open as soon as possible during construction?
A: Frankly, we felt some heat from the community at the prospect of having the museum closed for so long. We value the Cleveland art-viewing community and were willing to spend a little extra to make (the early opening) possible.

Q: How do you minimize and/or eliminate the dust, noise, vibrations of the construction in the gallery area?
A: Again, we're willing to spend a little more money to get tools that, for instance lessen the vibrations. Also, the gallery space where the Barcelona exhibit is currently being shown will eventually be torn down to create the new gallery wing. In the meantime, there's a solid wall between the construction and the art.

Q: For Mr. Robinson: What challenges did the construction pose for you in curating this exhibit? Were any museums leery of lending their art to CMA because of the project?
A: The biggest challenge was in working with the exhibit space. Unlike the usual temporary space, these walls are fixed and the displays had to be worked around them, both for flow and content.

As for museums being leery about lending art, I think we were lucky that we are one of the last museums to undergo a major renovation. Maybe if we'd been one of the first we would have, but we didn't meet with any reluctance.

Q: Again for Mr. Robinson: How long does it take to create an exhibit, such as "Barcelona," from conception to its opening? How many people are involved in the project?
A: The "Barcelona" exhibit began as an idea of mine five years ago. We put together a curatorial team with two members from CMA, two from the Met, and one independent curator. In addition, we amassed a scholarly advisory committee of 16 art scholars from all over the world. That the exhibit grew to include textiles and the decorative arts is just one direct result of this collaboration.

Q: For Mr. Strean: What new features can the Cleveland art-viewing public look forward to in the new museum?
A: The new museum will convert the former courtyard to a enclosed gallery arcade. There will also be increased light from the addition of numerous skylights. We've eliminated the office space and the drop ceilings from the original building and are reverting the section back to its French Neo-Classical style. The new museum will be much easier to navigate.

Q: Is the project still on track to re-open the permanent galleries in late 2007?
A: Basically, we're on track. However, when you're dealing with an old building, you plan using the best estimates of the time and labor involved. Sometimes, when you open up a wall, you get surprises. Then you have to start "redesigning on the fly."

Barcelona and Modernity is being shown at CMA until January 7 when it moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibit is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10am to 5pm and on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10am to 9pm.

Admission for adults is $15 on weekends and $12 on weekdays; for seniors and college students, it's $13 and $10 respectively; for children 6-18, it's $10 and $7. For children under 6 and museum members, admission is free.

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