|  July 30, 2020

Newly appointed director of Spaces gallery in Cleveland quit Detroit job to protest workplace environment

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Tizziana Baldenebro, the newly appointed director of Spaces gallery in Cleveland, was named by her parents after Titian, one of the great Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance.

But she’s also a front-line participant in the growing art world movement to upend traditional hierarchies in a quest for racial and social justice, a movement that has rocked the Akron Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and other institutions across the country.

Baldenebro resigned in July from her position as the Ford curatorial fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to protest the workplace environment under MOCAD’s then chief curator and executive director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder.

Borowy-Reeder was fired Wednesday by the MOCAD board of trustees, according to news reports. (The Detroit News reported that Borowy-Reeder said she took accusations of workplace violations “to heart, and am profoundly sorry for any harm I caused.”)

A 32-year-old native of Los Angeles, Baldenebro is a daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico and Colombia. She majored in anthropology at the University of Chicago before working from 2011 to 2016 as a product manager and client support specialist for Strata, a Utah-based software company. She then completed a master’s degree in architecture in 2019 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before embarking on a career in the visual arts.

John Williams, president of the board at Spaces, said Wednesday that the organization chose Baldenebro from more than 100 candidates in a national search. He called her the “right person with the right voice at the right time. She’s really, really smart, and an exceptional problem solver.‘'

In an interview with, Baldenebro said she’s “elated’' to start work in Cleveland in mid- to late August because it offers her a chance to help artists.

“I want to support living artists,’' she said. “It really is a privilege to get to work with artists every single day.”

Founded in 1978, Spaces, located at 2900 Detroit Ave. in Hingetown, serves rising and mid-career artists with exhibitions, residencies, grants and other programs.

It’s the smallest of the leading visual arts institutions in Cleveland, but it attracted national attention in 2018 for “A Color Removed,” a project by Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz prompted by the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014.

Christina Vassallo, the immediate past director at Spaces, left in 2019 after six years to lead the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Under her leadership, the gallery moved from its former address on Superior Viaduct to its new and more visible home in Hingetown.

It has also come within $220,000 of completing a $3.5 million capital campaign initiated on Vassallo’s watch, Williams said.

Spaces has a budget approaching $1 million, and it mounts several suites of exhibitions a year, attracting 5,000 to 9,000 visitors. Funded largely through donations and foundation and government grants, Spaces has survived the coronavirus pandemic without layoffs, Williams said. After closing temporarily in March, the gallery reopened June 27, with admission by appointment.

The gallery also has distributed emergency assistance grants to 126 artists, using funds donated by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, of New York, and the Cleveland Foundation. The vast majority of the grants were worth $1,000, Williams said.

Baldenebro said that when she stepped down from her job in Detroit, she didn’t know whether she would receive an offer from Spaces, or whether her resignation would hurt her chances.

But she said she was “absolutely thrilled about how supportive and respectful the Spaces board was about the work I was doing’' in Detroit.

That work included her participation in the 70-member MOCAD Resistance, an organization of former staff members who sent a letter to the museum’s board early in July detailing what they called a “toxic work environment.”

The complaints outlined in the letter were similar to those leveled by former Akron Art Museum employees in 2019 against Mark Masuoka, who resigned from his job as the museum’s director on May 18. Masuoka has denied accusations of workplace violations on his watch.

In June, Jill Snyder resigned as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland after New York artist Shaun Leonardo accused the institution of censorship for having canceled a show of his drawings depicting police killings of unarmed Black men and boys, including Tamir Rice.

MOCA Cleveland, which temporarily closed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has not said when it would reopen. The museum’s interim executive director, Megan Lykins Reich, did not respond to an email last week about its plans.

Protests over racial insensitivity and social injustice have rocked other institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Baldenebro said the MOCAD group is in contact with Akron Art Museum Accountability, a group of former employees that has picketed the museum in Akron.

“We’re all following each other and celebrating each other’s successes and sharing front line stories,’' Baldenebro said.

“Every fiber of what I’m trying to do right now is toward making art spaces equitable,’' she said. “There’s a real demand for change in the systems that undergird the art world. It’s a bubbling field of inequity.”

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