The May Show Debate: Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt: Who Advocates for the Artists of Cleveland?
The May Show, an annual exhibition of Cleveland’s artists at the Cleveland Museum of Art, was discontinued in 1993. There were lots of reasons. Fine. There has been enough discussion. It is dead, cremated, and the ashes have been dispersed.
But for the last 20 years there has been an undercurrent sense of loss within the community of people who care about art in Cleveland. It bubbles to the surface now and again, then submerges, but always seems to be there. Much of the audience for art here – at least the older people in that audience – fondly remember the May Show. It was more than an exhibition. It was an event of surprise and excitement and congratulations. As a community, we celebrated the artists of Cleveland.
And, as a community, we miss the May Show. Part of it is local pride. But, more importantly, it was an important way for us to understand ourselves, to understand art, and to understand how we are part of an international conversation of ideas. The show told us that art was not just something made at another time, in another place – but it was something that was also about us, here, now.
It was also a gateway to understanding the international conversation about art. It is impossible to understand the work of a contemporary artist from seeing only one piece, at one time. A sculpture by Robert Gober of a leg sticking out of a wall seems pretty dumb if you’ve never seen another work by the artist. If you see it as one piece in an exhibition of his work, and if you have seen several exhibitions of his work – it reveals itself easily. Part of understanding the importance of the May Show is to understand that juried regional exhibitions, as isolated or one-off projects without context, are odd and inconsequential.
However, when experienced as a series, they are amazingly provocative and influential. For example, catalogs for the May Show are funny things by themselves, pretty much a repetition of the same introductory essay year after year, and then a series of pictures of winning pieces. But if you assemble a collection of catalogs covering 20 years, and then look at them one after the other, you have art history, with a compelling narrative of how ideas ebbed and flowed. Compare those tides to the New York art world, and there is wonderful sense and dissonance.
The May Show meant something because it was part of the lives of people here; something that they followed year to year. It was a context in which they could easily find new artists, and follow them as their skills and careers developed. And it was sometimes a place where a work of art was featured that was provocative and amazing, the summation and effective presentation of an artistic voice that said something special about our lives – even if (as sometimes happened) the artist was never accepted for the show again.
In the attic of my house are two t-shirts, designed in the early 1980s by Rob Mihaly, who at the time was Director of SPACES. One suggests, sarcastically, “Don’t Buy Art in Cleveland without the May Show Seal of Approval.” The other asks, “Is there Art After the May Show?” With the amount of attention that the May Show received, it is understandable that an artist might feel that it so dominated the local art scene, that nothing else seemed to matter. But, for the last two decades, for many people with some interest in Cleveland art, there has been no art after the May Show. Based on available numbers and my own experience, there were many more unique visitors to the May Show that all other exhibitions of artists in this region, combined.
The May Show wound down in stages, with the last annual show in 1989, and skipping a few years, the last show in 1993. At the same time, Cleveland artists were featured in invitational shows in 1991 and 1994, and then there was one last juried show in 2005, which was called “The Neo Show” (held in makeshift space as the Museum was closing for construction and renovation). In 1990, at the same time the Cleveland Museum of Art was discontinuing the May Show, it started the festive “Parade the Circle.”
The correspondence between discontinuing one signature annual community-outreach event and initiating another was not accidental or incidental. The museum’s message was clear: it was more important for the museum to involve children than to celebrate the region’s artists.
The Museum decided to discontinue the exhibition based upon its own objectives, without any broad-based consultation of Cleveland’s art community. In some ways this is understandable, but it is also puzzling since, when representatives from the museum have discussed the end of the May Show, they have consistently spoken of how the Cleveland art community outgrew it, and suggested many beneficial results for artists and galleries. The museum, like a parent, knows best and is confident in speaking for the artists and galleries of Cleveland.
It’s true, the way artists made and thought about art had changed. By the time the show was discontinued, studio practice had shifted from technical focus and masterworks to the development of ideas in bodies of work. And when an artist did make a grand gesture, it was often as installation or experience that needed more than the 10 x 10 x 10 ft. limitations of the May Show.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Sherman Lee had changed the rules of the May Show. Artists were limited to entering two works, and the geographical scope of the show expanded. Previously the show was only open to artists who lived in Cuyahoga County; the new rules allowed anyone who lived in or was born in a 13-county area of Northeast Ohio. Most importantly, the new rules invited participation by artists who taught at Kent State University and Oberlin as well as, later, University of Akron.
By the time the Cleveland Museum of Art decided to end the May Show, it was time for the rules to change again. But museums do not gain status in the international art world by hosting regional exhibitions of any kind; curators do not gain reputation by working on regional contemporary exhibitions (outside New York City or Los Angeles). It did not occur to the Museum that there was another choice – to advocate for Cleveland as a regional, national or international center of creativity. This has been typical of Cleveland arts institutions of all sizes: serving and advocating Cleveland’s creative workforce is a generous peripheral gesture rather than central to who they are.
In 2001 the Board of Directors of SPACES had the choice of two initiatives to endorse. One was to host a major exhibition of regional art (perhaps embracing a radius of 250 miles from Cleveland) to be held every two or three years – a Biennial or Triennial of major proportion with satellite exhibitions throughout the area. This was a project that I developed, intended to address issues and losses that resulted when the May Show ended. The other project was what has become known as the SPACES World Artists Residency Program (SWAP). There were many reasons why the Board (mostly artists) chose a project that invited artists from other countries to interact with Cleveland over a project that promoted Cleveland as a center of the region’s art. I was never completely sold on my own proposal, but I remain critically concerned about what it intended to address.
For the last several decades arts institutions have been encouraged to have mission statements, which, admittedly, have helped in several ways, such as providing a sort of containment of an arts institution’s tendency to expand beyond sustainable capacity. The focus on the mission statement, however, ignores a question that I think all arts institutions should ask: “What is important or essential to our cultural community that only we can accomplish? What is important that will not happen unless we do it?”
What has happened since the May Show ended is that fewer people in Cleveland are aware of and interested in the artists in our community. It is much much harder for a young artist to gain a reputation, and to find a broad audience for their work. The audience that participated in a dialog with art of the region has significantly diminished even as much more work is made here now than 20 years ago, there are more supportive places (such as Zygote Press or Morgan Paper Conservancy), and more artists doing much more to promote themselves. Nothing can substitute for the broad reach and cultural clout of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the region’s other major institutions. Galleries, at best, are minor players, supporting and enhancing what the institutions are capable of doing.
The May Show cannot come back. Continuity is key to the effectiveness and importance of a juried regional show. That has been lost. It’s time for something new that promotes and broadens the audience of Cleveland’s creative workforce. Talk of reviving the show just rehashes the arguments of 25 years ago. It is time to look toward the future.
What will the Cleveland Museum of Art do to help make Cleveland a center of creativity? What will SPACES do? What will MOCA, Cleveland do? What will the Cleveland Institute of Art do?
It is not a matter of doing something for Cleveland Artists. It is a matter of doing their job.