Building on Change: Interview with Megan Lykins Reich

Megan Lykins Reich, executive director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland


In June 2020, Jill Snyder, former executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, resigned amid controversy over an exhibition. After nineteen months and nearly a year-long search, Megan Lykins Reich, who has been serving as interim director, was appointed to serve as the new Kohl Executive Director at moCa.

Having first met when she took his master’s level CWRU Museum Studies class about a decade ago, Dr. Henry Adams felt it was a great time to learn more about who she is, and how she plans to approach this new role.

HA: How did you get into the museum field?

MLR. By a circuitous route. I was an obsessed competitive soccer player until just before high school, but then had a serious knee injury that left me in recovery for a year-and-a-half, and I started exploring another love: art. In college, after a brief stint exploring a career in medicine, I turned to fine art and then to art history. Art history courses really stimulated my interest in the connection between making art and interpreting art. I also realized that while I had talent as an artist, I didn’t have the drive necessary to be one professionally. After double-majoring in art history and art, I had the good fortune to intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice.

HA: That’s a remarkable collection.

MLR: It’s really incredible. We interns would spend an hour after the museum closed just being with the works. My internship was the first time I was immersed in a museum like that, and I found it fascinating. I took copious notes while guarding and studiously watched audiences as people encountered the collection, becoming increasingly curious about that relationship.

HA: From there?

MLR: My family had moved to Cleveland when I was in college, and before I returned from Italy I reached out to moCa to ask if there were any opportunities. When I returned, I interned for nine months, took a short break to work in education, and then enrolled in the CWRU graduate program in art history and museum studies. I was privileged to receive a fellowship working in the Cleveland Museum of Art working with Dr. Jeffrey Grove, Dr. Cathleen Chaffee, and Dr. Tom Hinson, and the following year was offered a Tremaine Fellowship to work at moCa. From then on I never left moCa, and made a slow but steady climb from curatorial fellow, to assistant curator, to director of programs and associate curator, to deputy director, interim executive director, and most recently to Kohl Executive Director.

HA: What was it like transitioning from the academic world to the museum world? What was your first curatorial project?

MLR: I have organized over thirty exhibitions for moCa, and a good deal of this work has been in collaboration with artists [of] the Cleveland area or the Great Lakes region. My first was part of the Wendy L. Moore Emerging Artist Series with ceramist Alicia Basinger, who had just graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art. We were both quite new to this. Her work was about embracing the failures that happen in the kiln, and we called it Shiver and Craze—that’s a term used in ceramics to describe glazing challenges. The work was really incredible. But I do remember submitting my catalogue copy to the team and getting edits back saying “this is too academic.” It took me a while to shake the approach to writing.

HA? What other projects resonate?

MLR: Duke Riley’s An Invitation to Lubberland was deeply memorable. I still have an empty whiskey bottle that he used to fill the “well” in the gallery. The artist iona rozeal brown’s all falls down exhibition of 2009 introduced new ways to engaging youth in exhibition-making and ignited my passion for partnerships. Coordinating Do Ho Suh’s exhibition at moCa in 2015 was awe-inspiring, having admired his work since my time in Venice in 2001. This experience, however, also brought out shortcomings in accessibility, and I worked with Anders Ruhwald less than a year later to adapt the show Unit 1: 3583 Dubois to meet moCa’s new accessibility goals. Coordinating eight For Freedom Town Halls with the City Club of Cleveland, Hank Willis Thomas, Eric Gottesman and several special guest artists, community leaders, and activists further expanded my focus on equity and social justice.

A career highlight was DIRGE: Reflections [on Life] and Death of 2014, in honor of my late father. For that I worked with TR Ericsson, Dario Robleto, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Spring Hurlbut, among others; the show also featured historical masterpieces such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled #2, and most importantly, Hannah Wilke’s Intra Venus Tapes. The work by Hannah Wilke was going to be the subject of my doctoral dissertation, which I never wrote, but which this exhibition embodied.

HA: How has moCa evolved over time?

M.L.R. It’s important to note that moCa was built on change. It was started in 1968 as a for-profit gallery, The New Gallery, run by Marjorie Talalay, Nina Sundell, and Agnes Gund, in a former drycleaner’s storefront on Euclid, very close to our present gallery. These women were driven by showing and supporting very current contemporary art: at one point, the storefront was wrapped by Christo. But there wasn’t a strong market in Cleveland at that time, so in 1974 they shifted to a non-profit model, moved into a house on Bellflower, and expanded their educational focus.

In those days, most work shown came from outside Cleveland. Nina was the daughter of the famous art dealer Leo Castelli, and of Ileana Sonnabend, so the New Gallery had a direct line to some of the most famous artists showing in the 1960s and ‘70s, like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s the focus expanded to include emerging practices like feminism and Earth Art, and to embrace artists working in our region.

This period was also important in establishing lasting connections. As the story goes, Peter Lewis and architect Frank Gehry were introduced at a panel at moCa in the early ‘80s, which led to a lifelong friendship and collaboration. Toby Devan Lewis, Peter’s former wife and longtime curator for the Progressive Corporation’s incredible collection, began her work with moCa in those early years. She continues to be a vital contributor to our programs, most notably through Toby’s Prize, a biennial award for emerging artists at moCa.

HA: I remember moCa when it was over by the Cleveland Clinic. How did things change then?

MLR: In 1990, moCa moved to a much bigger space in a former Sears store on East 86th Street and Carnegie, sharing a portion of the Cleveland Playhouse building. Marjorie Talalay retired a few years afterwards, in 1993. The move allowed the museum to create larger, more ambitious exhibitions, and to commission artists to create substantial new artworks.

Jill Snyder became director in 1996, expanding and professionalizing the organization, updating the name in 2003, and increasing its support and ambition substantially. Then Jill and the board undertook the largest project in moCa’s history, the creation of our current home in University Circle, designed by Farshid Moussavi. We celebrate the tenth anniversary of the building this fall, which seems impossible!

HA: How would you like to push moCa forward?

MLR: I hope to nurture a shared vision that drives moCa. I am honored to work alongside an incredibly creative, committed staff, board, and community. This is my goal: for both our art-focused mission and our work advancing equity to ensure that all voices–but particularly those that have been previously marginalized–can help drive and develop moCa’s work as we move forward. moCa will always center its work on artists, supporting their vision and demonstrating their crucial value.

Right now we are experimenting with how to make the building more useful, pushing further how artists can create while in the building and how audiences can be connected with their practice. Dexter Davis and Robert Banks are using part of the fourth floor Mueller Gallery to create a new experimental documentary, working with teens from NewBridge and CIA. Right now the space is part painting studio, part film studio, and it will transition in March into a gallery that shows both artist’s works.

Amber N. Ford is our new artist-in-residence, and she has a private studio in a third floor classroom. I love the idea of making the artistic process more accessible to audiences, so visitors can experience how it is also a problem-solving process. This extends to having artists more regularly available to talk and work with audience members directly, as former artist-in-residence Joyce Morrow Jones did through Joyce and Friends last fall. Similarly, Terry Joshua spoke with audiences regularly during his exhibition mounted in December 2021 by the Museum of Creative Human Art, who is our institutional residency partner.

HA: How do you envisage your role?

MLR: As a trusted colleague, collaborative guide, and champion of the voices and perspectives of artists and moCa stakeholders. The operational challenges in arts and culture are very real right now, so a good deal of my work necessarily focuses on the business side of moCa’s health. More broadly, I am trying to encourage our team to approach challenges with openness. We’re working to reduce binary thinking and to approach criticism and failure as opportunities to grow. We’re striving to be active listeners who actively apply learning. We need to be aware of and accountable to the past, but not revolve endlessly around it. This process is a cycle that never ends and one that is driven by all moCa stakeholders.

My role is to shepherd this work, which is not objective or mathematical. What art museums do is about human expression and human relationships. By its nature, by our nature, it’s messy and imperfect. It’s also dynamic, emotional and beautiful. There’s endless potential for growth and incredible reward, and I’m honored to be part of it (with the enduring support of my family, especially my husband and three children).

Megan Lykins Reich