The Change We Want to See: Community Engagement efforts at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Deidre McPherson (top), Shelli Reeves (bottom)

It can be difficult for a 105-year-old organization to stay fresh and continuously come up with new ways to engage with the community. Lately, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) has been striving a little harder to do just those things.

A recent $368,400 grant from the Ford Foundation and Walton Family Foundations’ Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative—matched by the Cleveland Foundation for a total of more than $736,000—has propelled forward the museum’s efforts to develop a more diverse staff, some of whom work directly with the community and help organize community events.

Over the past few years, organizations across the country started building more diverse teams after a 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation study revealed only sixteen percent of senior museum positions nationally are held by persons of color.

Deidre McPherson, director of public programs, and Shelli Reeves, who manages Studio Go, a constantly-on-the-move arts outreach truck, are just two newer CMA hires working to expand the museum’s reach into communities, especially those in close proximity to the world-class institution.

Key Jo Lee, assistant director of academic outreach and Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, curator of African art have also recently joined the museum’s leadership.

McPherson’s energy is hard to overlook. Standing in the sunlight atrium, she’s energized and outgoing as usual. Having studied business and marketing in college, she’d also been working to organize art events in her spare time before coming on board as curator of public programs at MOCA Cleveland three years ago.

Reeves, who studied international studies and African American history while minoring in English, has been involved with the museum for years.

“I started volunteering here (at CMA) in high school, and from there I became a teaching assistant working in classrooms for five years,” Reeves explains. She also had experience in community outreach, working for political campaigns and writing grants for community development organizations.

Both women—keeping with CMA’s mission to make art accessible to as many people as possible—say they’re using art as a tool to bring people together. Their work inside and outside of the museum tends to intersect, but their efforts serve different functions.

“I spend almost every day outside of the building, engaging with people, talking to people, making art with people and bringing information back to the building,” says Reeves.

“I activate spaces, but what I’m really trying to do is encourage people to explore their inner artist.”

Meanwhile, inside the museum, McPherson focuses her energy on vibrant events that celebrate various cultures and on unifying holidays like Martin Luther King Day, which always includes a lively celebration with performers, as well as the International Cleveland Community Day and Parade the Circle, which generally attracts more than 6,000 people gathered around University Circle to enjoy giant puppets, props, floats and musicians.

McPherson is constantly striving to reach people who aren’t engaged with the museum, always keeping in mind current events or community issues that could bring people together or spark an interest.

“CMA is free and available for everyone, so I see us as here to serve the people,” she says.

To Reeves, who connects with a lot of different people all over the region on a regular basis, community engagement is about being genuine, open and realistic.

“Community engagement is revealing that I’m just another person,” she says.

Basically, community and engagement are dependent on one another.

“Any type of creative expression, I think, is there to elicit a response or not,” says McPherson. “It comes from a creative place and challenges us to think about the change we want to see in the world.”

This article, the result of a collaboration between Collective Arts Network and Twelve Literary Arts, is the first in a series by young writers on community engagement initiatives at the region’s nonprofit art organizations, supported in part by the people of Ohio through a grant from the Ohio Arts Council.