CAN Journal  |  July 30, 2020

ROOM AT THE TOP: VACANCIES AND TURMOIL COULD BRING CHANGE

In the middle of the perfect storm that is the COVID crisis and the reckoning with our history of racism, a number of Cleveland art organizations are facing a crisis of another kind: No less than seven important Northeast Ohio, nonprofit visual arts institutions have recently seen their executive directors resign.

Most have appointed interim directors. All of them confront the challenge of finding new leadership at a time marked by economic uncertainty, the impossibility of planning any performance or event that requires a crowd, and of course the long-overdue need to have greater minority representation in leadership positions.

Ten months ago, Christina Vassallo left SPACES Gallery in October 2019, to lead the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. SPACES appointed Megan Young to the interim role. According to board president John C. Williams, the organization is in the process of wrapping up a 7-month national search and should announce a new ED very shortly. While I’ve counted SPACES among the seven organizations, because it does represent a change in leadership, that situation is a bit different from the rest, not least because it seems the resolution is near.

The most-noted of these resignations was that of Jill Snyder in June. Snyder had been executive director at moCa for 16 years. She resigned in the midst of widely noted controversy that followed the museum’s cancellation of an exhibit by Shawn Leonardo, which consisted of charcoal drawings made from photos of incidents in which Black people were killed by police. Deputy director Megan Lykins Reich is filling the interim role. The organization is in the process of assembling a committee to begin a search for Snyder’s replacement in the coming months. In the meantime, moCa has yet not re-opened to the public. They are in the process of determining how to maximize safety inside, and watching the pandemic’s process to determine an eventual reopening date.

Another high-profile resignation happened at the Akron Art Museum in May, when Mark Masuoka resigned amid allegations of racism, sexism, and bullying of staff. A spokesperson says the museum is in the midst of launching a “growth plan centered around the concepts of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion,” and that while that is underway, the Board of Directors has chosen not to conduct a search. Former board member Jon Fiume is serving as interim executive director and is leading the plan. The museum re-opened to the public on a limited basis July 23.

Several smaller organizations, each of which has made its own important mark on the region’s art scene, also have recently had their executive directors resign and are operating with interim executives, or for the time being doing without.

Zygote Press continues to search for equilibrium in the wake of the departure of Liz Maugans in 2017. Maugans co-founded the organization, was a driving force there for its first 20-ish years, and was executive director for twelve years. She was succeeded by Jane Black, who resigned after just a few months. The Board then appointed co-executive directors Kate Snow and Stephanie Kluk. Both have since resigned. Kluk is now development manager at CAN. This leaves Zygote searching for a third successor to Maugans, in just over three years. Meanwhile, Zygote’s board hired Leonard Young to fill the organizations ED role on an interim basis. Board president Bruce Edwards says they first formed a transition committee, which has evolved into a search committee to find a permanent executive director. They’ve put no time constraints on the process.

Young has been a stabilizing force as an interim director before. In fact, that is a role the retired attorney completed just one year ago at the Morgan Conservatory, when the Morgan hired Geri Unger as ED. (Full disclosure: I served on that search committee). Due to the COVID crisis, the Morgan’s board of directors decided to furlough staff, cutting back to just a few hours a week. Then, after just one year in the role, Unger announced to staff last week that she too was resigning.

But wait: There’s more. Alenka Banco announced earlier in July that she was stepping down from the leadership role at Cleveland Arts Prize. She plans to stay on til October 31. Her next step is to focus on the creation of a Reverend Albert Wagner museum, which has been a long-term pursuit for Wagner’s family, led by daughter Bonita. Banco says she won’t be involved in hiring her replacement, but that the position will be posted soon, and that the board hopes to have a new director in place to start the new year.

And speaking of Cleveland’s art history, ArtNeo—which is fittingly described as the Museum of Cleveland Art—finds itself leaderless too. Maggie Wojton had been the organization’s development director, and the board voted to promote her to executive director late last year. Then along came COVID, and the small organization was forced to furlough staff. In the meantime, Wojton moved to London. ArtNeo has for years faced financial challenges. In a talk given during a 2015 ArtNeo benefit, CAN contributor / CWRU Professor of Art / former Cleveland Museum of Art curator Henry Adams described it as “a relatively fragile organization, which still does not have a permanent home, or a significant endowment, and that can’t afford to make many mistakes.” Currently the Board is opening the doors during Third Friday events and by appointment to keep the collection accessible, and has hired part time help to maintain a social media presence. They’re in the process of charting a way forward.

Each of these organizations is different, and so are their situations as they face the moment. What they all have in common, though, is that they face leadership change and, in some cases, existential challenges at the same time as the COVID crisis. It’s a crisis that, according to artnews.com, could cause the closure of one-third of the museums in the US.

Additionally, those organizations all have openings at a time when artists, administrators and patrons are recognizing the degree to which People of Color do not hold leadership positions in our art institutions. On the one hand, not having an executive director when the economy is questionable and organizations have to innovate, be nimble, and make bold decisions is exceedingly difficult. On the other, the intersection of circumstance creates an opportunity for those organizations to make historic impact with their eventual hires. This is a moment when Cleveland art organizations could have much more Black and Brown leadership than they do now. Stay tuned.

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