Object Lessons: Cyra Levenson works to engage art students of all ages, through the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art



Cyra Levenson has been in her role as the Cleveland Museum of Art’s director of education and academic affairs for just over a year. Her broad duties include overseeing interpretation of the collection, as well as collaborating in the launch of The Keithley Institute for Art History, which offers object-based learning opportunity for researchers or students interested in museum careers.  Since 2006, she has served as Curator of Education and Academic Outreach at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT. But working at CMA has been something of a homecoming.– ed


Cyra Levenson attended Oberlin College as an undergraduate, and visited the Cleveland Museum of Art frequently during that time, in the mid-nineties. Her career then took her to the East Coast, though, and she did not see the museum’s $320 million expansion and gallery renovation until 2016, when she interviewed for her still new-ish role, as director of education and academic affairs. After she saw the renovation, it was an easy choice to stay.


“When I came to visit and walked into the atrium and saw the galleries, I realized I would not be able to resist working with these resources,” Levenson said.


So she came back to Northeast Ohio. If “director of education and academic affairs” sounds like a comprehensive title, that’s because it is. The education director’s work affects guests ranging from the smallest children, to grad students, to lifelong learners. As easy as the choice to take the job might have been for Levenson, doing it will be more of a challenge. But all the evidence suggests she’s up to it.


In fact, Levenson already has overseen an initiative at the CMA to be proud of. Launched late last year, the Create It Kit program puts into children’s hands the material and intellectual resources they need to start exploring art. The kits contain goodies including a “Get Creative” book for young readers, craft supplies like colored pencils, and educational cards about works in the CMA collection. Originally, the kits were given by the museum to every third grader in Cuyahoga County. Enthusiasm ran so high that the Museum decided to sell them to any visitor who wanted them. They’ve been moving briskly, and Levenson takes this fact as evidence for real hunger for artistic education in Northeast Ohio.


“It speaks to how much support for the arts there is in our region,” Levenson said.

Away from the day-to-day bustle of engaging students and teachers, Levenson is also involved with the framing of the Museum’s next strategic plan, which is being designed to guide the organization through the next five years. However, Levenson says she thinks of it as a plan for the next “five to one hundred years.” The 2016 centennial of the Museum’s opening has its leadership thinking for the long term—as does our increasingly challenging political climate.

“After completing the centennial, we have to ask ourselves, How does the world need us? How do we embody our mission statement?” Levenson said, referring to CMA founder J.H. Wade II’s imperative that the museum be “for the benefit of all the people forever.”


To fully embody its mission statement, Levenson said the institution must recognize barriers to participation so that they can be overcome. She said that she wants everyone living in or around University Circle to feel welcome to participate in the area’s cultural resources.


“[The museum] might been seen as fancy or imposing. It might not be the most welcoming,” Levenson said. She suggested that by projecting more of a presence in the community, this perception might be overcome. The museum could expand its fine arts garden, and otherwise make the circle a more active public place, she said.


Additionally, she looks to institutions around the country for inspiration for how the museum might be made accessible to people with disabilities. She singles out New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as praiseworthy for its touch and audio-based tours for the blind.


For Levenson, the museum should be accessible because the critical skills it teaches are universally needed. Humans have always lived in stupefyingly complex environments. However, digital technology saturates us more deeply with information than we have ever been before. Sounds, words, videos, and pictures of all sorts—everything from war photography to friends’ selfies to cat GIFS to memes—are constantly beamed onto our desktops or phones. Levenson believes that in the Twenty-first century, the museum can help visitors navigate the digital jungle by helping them practice thinking about images and ideas.


“As we all experience every day, text is more integrated with visual, multimodal presentation. There are so many forms of information…We need to be able to take in more [information] and be able to process it,” Levenson said. (“Multimodal” refers to information delivered through multiple sensory avenues at once. For example, a movie is a multimodal form of media that simultaneously uses images and sound to convey messages to viewers.)


Though it might be mistaken for merely a historic archive, a museum in fact occupies an important place in Twenty-first Century culture. It not only displays images, but situates them in the context of their creators’ worldviews and historic situations. Museums thus offer opportunities to practice relating images to ideas and social milieu, and therefore are indispensable to modern education. “How do we make going to the museum not just a field trip, but part of the curriculum?” is a guiding question for Levenson.


But it’s not just school children Levenson thinks should be learning to look closer at and think critically about images. Pointing to programs throughout the country, she suggests that museums could partner with medical schools to sharpen observation skills. And—perhaps surprisingly to outsiders—she also suggests that the museum should take a more central place in advanced art history education.


Prof. Cyrus Taylor is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. His college contains the department of art history, which has partnered with CMA for almost five decades. While emphasizing that he is a physicist and not an art historian, Taylor said that it is his impression that since the 1970s, art history has been becoming an increasingly academic discipline, removed from face-to-face engagement with art objects.


“Case doesn’t seem to have swung that far,” Taylor said, but said it was an aim of the art history department to put objects closer to the center of its curriculum. This will be made possible through the deployment of a $15 million donation from Joseph and Nancy Keithley, announced four years ago. The Keithley Institute for Art History is still taking shape, under the guidance of both the university and their museum partners.   Levenson will play a key role in building the Institute’s programs and setting the course for its future.  Taylor said that he is confident that the partnership will strengthen ties between the institutions, and better serve the next generation of art historians and curators.


“I think the potential we have with stable leadership on both sides is deeper partnership than ever. I think that trajectory is only upward,” Taylor said.