A year after its director resigned amid a furor over the cancellation of an exhibition of art depicting police killings, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) Cleveland has adopted a new leadership structure for its board of directors to promote “equity in decision-making”.
The new structure replaces a sole board president with three co-presidents–Audra T. Jones, Joanne R. Cohen and Stephen Sokany–who will serve two-year terms. The board has also installed a new and diverse cohort of members who will be “critical advocates for the public interest”, the museum says.
"This evolved, diverse leadership framework goes beyond creating seats at the table,” says Jones in a statement. “It allows for equitable conversation, decision-making, listening and a diversity of perspectives that are unprecedented in Moca’s history. A refreshed board leadership structure allows Moca to move forward with a unique and bolder lens centred fully on artists, audiences and equity.”
After 23 years in her post, Jill Snyder resigned as Moca Cleveland’s director in June 2020, saying that she recognised “that the world at large, and our museum in particular, are in a powerful moment of disruption and possibility.” Two weeks earlier, she had publicly apologised to the New York artist Shaun Leonardo for cancelling a show of his drawings, dating from 2014 to 2019, depicting police killings of Black and Latino men and boys.
Leonardo, who is Black, had accused the museum of “institutional white fragility” and censorship for its decision.
When it initially cancelled the exhibition, titled The Breath of Empty Space, in March 2020, Moca cited concern that the images would prove traumatising for African Americans in Cleveland. The show had been due to open that June, but the museum was closed in any case then in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In shelving the exhibition, “we failed the artist, we breached his trust and we failed ourselves,” Snyder said in her June 2020 apology, adding, “We prevented ourselves and the community from having the difficult and urgent conversations that contemporary art seeks to advance.” She acknowledged that Leonardo should have been included in public discussions about the show and said the museum should have reached out to a broader African American constituency.
The museum is currently led by an interim director, Megan Lykins Reich, who said in a statement on Wednesday, “We are becoming a more equitable space of belonging.”
The controversy over the exhibition's cancellation unfolded during massive protests against police violence across the US after the killing of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis in May 2020. Like other mainstream, mainly white-dominated institutions, American museums have been scrambling over the last 14 months to trumpet their commitment to racial justice in hiring, exhibition programming and acquisitions.
Moca, a non-collecting institution founded in 1968, is known for exhibitions of contemporary art by both established and emerging artists. Since its cancellation in Cleveland, Leonardo’s show has been hosted at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. In early 2020, it was on view at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. The exhibition was organised by the independent curator John Chaich.
“As a nation, we are in a time that demands more from museums, artists and collaborative spaces–beyond being agile, proactive about inclusion and purveyors of interactive experiences,” the Cleveland museum says. “Contemporary museums must answer the call to represent the ideas and creators of our time fully. Our cohort of new directors represents skills that enhance our overall governance, and, best of all, they represent a diversity of professional insight.”
The three new co-presidents succeed former board president Larry Oscar, whom the museum salutes as an “accomplished and visionary” trustee, and who remains on the board.