Mission Driven: Why won’t the Cleveland Museum of Art bring back the May Show?

During a recent lunchtime talk at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Fred Bidwell, acting director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, told the crowd that the museum’s May Show—the display of art made in Cleveland and the surrounding region, last presented in 1993—”won’t come back.” “It’s just not part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s mission,” Bidwell said.

The idea of the May Show predates the opening of the  Cleveland Museum of Art's original 1916 building.

The idea of the May Show predates the opening of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s original 1916 building.

For those who don’t remember, the May Show was the Cleveland Museum of Art’s most lively and best-attended annual exhibition for nearly 75 years. It once was viewed as central to the museum’s identity. Why was it killed? And at a time when cultural institutions are so focused on community outreach, why not bring it back?

The notion that an exhibition of art made in Cleveland does not fit the art museum’s mission is rather amusing in the context of all the museum does that’s not directly connected to the display of art: holding an outdoor chalk festival for children; staging an annual costume parade; hosting a promotional event for the products of Hermes of Paris; and holding a wide array of concerts, dance performances and parties. In fact, if you check out the museum’s website what you find is mostly not art-related but a list of entertainment events. And some of the art — such as Martin Creed’s 2012 installation
that filled an East Wing gallery with purple balloons—seem as much dedicated to entertainment as to art any usual sense. Surely showing art by Cleveland artists has a more direct relation to the museum’s mission than some of this.

Parade The Circle is just one of the Museum's major community outreach efforts. Photo by Erin O'Brien.

Parade The Circle is just one of the Museum’s major community outreach efforts. Photo by Erin O’Brien.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to these endeavors. In fact, it seems to me that the existing diversity of the museum’s activities provides a good argument that the return of the May Show would be a good idea. Interestingly, when the Cleveland Museum of Art was founded, the May Show was seen as central to its mission, and was one of the first major activities that the staff took on beyond completing and installing the building itself. The May Show was first proposed
in January of 1914, two years before the museum’s magnificent classical building was completed. The idea was put forward by the museum’s first director, Frederic Whiting, whose background, interestingly enough was not in museum directing or curating but in art and crafts: he had led the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston and edited their journal, Handicraft.

When the May Show made its debut in 1919, it was the first major exhibit after the museum’s opening. Whiting gave the task of organizing it to his lead curator, William Milliken, who went on to become director in 1930, and made the May Show one of his principal endeavors until he retired in 1958. Not surprisingly, this period of major investment in the May Show was also unquestionably the highpoint of art-making in Cleveland. Such figures as William Sommer, Henry Keller, Frank Wilcox, Clarence Carter, August Biehle, and Paul Travers produced distinguished work, and three artists produced works of national significance: Charles Burchfield, who received the first one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Viktor Schreckengost, whose Jazz Bowl is widely recognized as the finest example of American art deco; and Margaret Bourke-White, Cleveland’s best industrial photographer, who caught the eye of the publisher Henry Luce and went on to produce some of the most extraordinary journalistic photographs of the 20th century. It seems not entirely a coincidence that this was also the period of Cleveland greatest growth and prosperity as a city.

Notably this was also a period of strong regional voices in American art, led by figures like Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas City or Grant Wood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But in retrospect one can surely fault the May Show for being too regional. It never seems to have occurred to anyone to put Cleveland art on national tour.

In 1958 when Sherman Lee took over, the May Show continued but quickly lost its soul. Lee was obsessed with the idea that the Cleveland Museum should acquire works that met an international rather than a local standard of artistic excellence, and his ascension as director coincided with the huge bequest of Leonard Hanna, which for several decades made the Cleveland Museum of Art the richest art museum in the world. Lee focused on acquiring time-tested masterworks, mostly by dead people, for large prices.

The May Show didn’t fit with this goal, and over the years Lee progressively took steps to make it less democratic and more exclusive—first by trimming the amount of art that was shown, and the representation of crafts, and then by reducing the number of artists, and making the criteria of inclusion more snobbish and rigorous. But of course this went against one of the chief goals of the May Show, to encourage artists whose work was not yet well known. The notion that art-making grows out of a supportive community—and that a museum can play a role in building such a community—was not a priority for him.

By the time he retired, the May Show had become a zombie. While it continued until 1993—and throughout its history drew very large attendance—it had clearly become an embarrassment to the museum’s professional staff, who changed its format annually and finally discontinued it altogether. Is it a coincidence that Lee was buying his masterworks and killing the May Show at a time of urban turmoil, and the Hough riots, and the decline of Cleveland as a prosperous city?

Ironically, the rationale for events such as the May Show resurfaced just around the time when the May Show was killed off—and in good American fashion the argument revolves not so much around art as around money, and money-making fields such as real estate. Starting in the 1960s, it became apparent that artists can play a useful role as urban pioneers. In New York’s Soho area, for example, artists established their studios in abandoned warehouses, and within a decade or so transformed an urban combat zone into a desirable place to live—today one of the most desirable and priciest residential
sections of New York. (Some Cleveland neighborhoods have seen the same effect. In 1993, thanks to artists, Tremont had just begun to rise from its ashes.)

I think the argument for the May Show has at least three components. The first is that a lively art museum should present a mix of exhibitions, and that these don’t need to follow a single proscription. Just as a magazine like The New Yorker publishes both funny cartoons and depressing articles about nuclear war and toxic waste, so a lively art museum can provide shows based on different premises. I’m all for the exhibition of famous paintings by dead artists, such as the
wonderful Van Gogh show currently on view, organized chiefly by the gifted art historian William Robinson. But surely staging exhibitions of a different character by artists of more uneven performance could be stimulating as well.

Second is the notion that while “quality” is important, an art show can have a more democratic aspect: other values, such as “community,” may also have value. Surely it would be an interesting experience to get an overview of the art made in Cleveland, even if all the art is not at the highest level. And surely it is desirable to draw all these art-lovers and their friends to the museum. Above all, in a democratic society, surely it’s desirable to have occasional forums which
provide as many people as possible with a voice— artists included. Ultimately the most difficult question about the May Show is to what degree should “quality” be the criteria of selection. There’s no single or simple answer to this question, but surely “quality” needs to be balanced against other variables.

Third is the realization that people often rise to a challenge—that as Shakespeare once noted, while some are “born great,” others “have greatness thrust upon them.” If the Cleveland Museum regularly provided Cleveland artists the opportunity to show their creations, this would surely be an incentive to produce outstanding work. Not everyone would succeed. But a few gifted artists who are somewhat languishing today would surely rise to the challenge and amaze us.

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