May Show Resurrexit: Discussion continues as a longtime Cleveland art dealer weighs in
For three quarters of a century, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show was an opportunity to view new works by the leading regional artists. The experience was enhanced by the context–the juxtaposition of known and unknown artists, of great works alongside lesser ones–at the most prominent art institution in the state. The May Show was a juried show with standards of quality and artistic merit. It included artists from Cuyahoga County and the other 12 surrounding counties which are part of the Western Reserve of Ohio.
But in 2014, more than 20 years after its last iteration, the May Show has become an event which the majority of present day Clevelanders –including all those twentysomethings flocking back to Rust Belt cities–have never had an opportunity to attend.
Some suggest that the May Show has become a historical anachronism- outdated in an age of proliferating galleries, easy travel and vastly enhanced digital access to imagery. Indeed, the Cleveland art community today is a social, vibrant, and coherent group, with plenty of opportunity that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Many of the artists now have gallery representation here. Some even have it in other cities and states.
Still, a resurrection of the May Show would produce benefits for the Museum, for the art community, and the broader public. It would raise awareness of contemporary art here. It would be, as it was in the past, an enhancement of the cultural life of the community and an annual celebration of Cleveland art and artists.
As the operator of a private gallery and appraisal service in Cleveland, I have strong opinions regarding the role of the May Show at the Museum, and its impact on the large community of artists and aficionados here. And I applaud Henry Adams’ persuasive essay on the subject (which appeared in the Spring, 2014 issue of CAN, and which led to CMA interim director Fred Bidwell’s response in the Summer 2014 issue).
My business informs my opinion. My gallery has specialized for over 30 years in the sale of art by Cleveland School artists. Therefore I know that when I offer for sale a work by a Cleveland School artist bearing a May Show acceptance tag or, even better, a May Show prize label, collectors attach a premium price to such works. Documentation from the Museum adds luster to the provenance and importance of the art. It provides a vivid sense of history, a judgment of quality, and pride of place to the work of art. Most discussions of the May Show fail to consider that it added this significant value to the gallery economy, even decades after a work of art was exhibited there.
Likewise, the May Show provided the Museum with a unique opportunity to build its own collection by purchasing masterpieces from the Show. Since 1993–for two decades during which the Cleveland art scene has flourished–the museum has kept that door closed.
Neither is the show’s community value to be underestimated. I attended my very first May Show as a child in the summer of 1949. To this day I retain happy memories of this annual communal event. The May Show was, for me and for many, a wonderful introduction to and education in the visual arts. Its diversity helped members of the audience to see strengths and weaknesses, and to develop critical ability.
Because many of the artists were previously unknown, the exhibition of their work resulted in a significant increase in Museum attendance during the Show, drawing from their family, friends, and associates. This group of May Show visitors represented– and still potentially would–a pool of our fellow Northeastern Ohioans who have seldom, if ever, visited the Museum. In short, the outreach and increased level of community awareness was a major, if not principal, reason for hosting the annual event.
Juried exhibits at major museums are indeed an old and highly esteemed idea, dating to the 19th century. To this day, the Royal Academy Summer Show in London is the premier art event in the warmer months there—an enormous draw for museum-goers, as well as friends and patrons of artists who are selected for inclusion in the Show. As was the case with the May Show, works on exhibit at the Summer Show are generally available for purchase. The vitality of this annual art event in one of the major art capitals of the world is well worth noting. The Summer Show generates volumes of publicity in print, on radio, TV, and the internet.
Closer to home, the Toledo Museum of Art’s 95th Toledo Area Artists Exhibition–an annual juried show in the same vein–opens November 21, 2014. Earlier this year, the Columbus Museum of Art presented the fourth annual Greater Columbus Arts Council Visual Arts Exhibition. “CMA is proud to support our local artists and to present the diverse range of practices fostered within Columbus’s artistic community,” wrote CMA executive director Nannette Maciejunes.
These examples, among others, suggest that an annual juried exhibition is neither outdated nor passe. The tradition lives on and flourishes elsewhere. Why not here in Cleveland at the CMA?
Initially, I was somewhat surprised that Mr. Bidwell, in his role as interim director of the CMA, chose to offer any opinion on the future of the May Show. However, he included in his statement an assurance that his view was not in any way an effort to tie the hands of the next director.
Shortly after his essay appeared. the Museum announced the appointment of William M. Griswold–a highly regarded scholar and curator who is currently director of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York–to succeed Mr. Bidwell. Griswold begins his duties in Cleveland this Fall. On balance, three cheers for Mr. Bidwell for responding to a serious concern. Here’s hoping Mr. Griswold will consider the prospect of a new and revitalized May Show, in light of the potential benefits for the museum, the art community, and the general population of Northeast Ohio.