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“Moral Obligation”: My Chat with Cleveland Museum of Art’s William Griswold (plus Benjamin & Rub)

William Griswold has no interest in leaving the directorship of the Cleveland Museum for Art (CMA) any time soon…not even for the top spot at the beleaguered Metropolitan Museum (for which I had presumptuously nominated him).

That’s what he averred towards the end of our extended conversation over oatmeal at the New York hotel where he was staying recently, from which he planned to walk over to the Met to see its Age of Empires show (to July 16) and to meet with Met colleagues to discuss “a possible exhibition, about which I can say no more.”

The immediate occasion for his New York visit was the opening of The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s (to Aug. 20), co-organized by the CMA and the Cooper Hewitt.

William Griswold, left, pondering “Railing For the Cleveland Play House,”  ca. 1927, on loan to the “Jazz Age” show from Rose Iron Works Collections
Photo by George Zervoudis

Here’s what Bill told me, with an emotional quaver in his usually confident voice, betraying his distress over the ordeal suffered by his Met counterpart and by those who had felt the fallout:

It’s clearly a difficult moment for the Met, and I feel for Tom [Campbell], I feel for the board, and I feel for the staff. It’s really very sad. The Met is a strong institution. The Met will move on. It is already moving on and is continuing to do great things….

I came to Cleveland after a period of repeated changes in the director’s office over a number of years….I understood this very acutely when I made the decision to leave an institution in a city I loved [the Morgan Library & Museum in New York] for a new place—that I had incurred a real moral obligation and to serve that institution [Cleveland] for a good, long period of time, and to break the cycle of departures. It wouldn’t be right to consider anything else right now. [Griswold became Cleveland’s director less than three years ago.]

Fortunately, that is exactly coincident with the feeling that I have that there is so much to be done, and so much I’m excited about doing with the team of people who are now at the museum. I wouldn’t want to give up the pleasure and excitement of seeing our team accomplish the goals we are setting for ourselves right now.

Most of our chat focused on the new developments at a museum that, prior to Bill’s hiring, had suffered a directorial debacle with some parallels to the Met’s situation:

It was a period of change [at Cleveland]….We had a lot of senior vacancies when I arrived. We’ve now filled essentially all the vacant positions, and a few new ones. I know this sounds like a small thing, but filling the executive team that really works well together is so important. For the first time, as of last Monday [Apr. 3], when our new chief advancement officer began, we now have a full compliment of executive leaders within the museum.

That chief advancement officer, John Easley, will guide the fundraising and strategic planning for a host of new initiatives that Griswold enumerated to me, including the development of large outdoor spaces to be used for art installations and programs.

There was one important staff vacancy yet to be filled when we spoke: Constantine Petridis, curator of African art when I reviewed Cleveland’s “Senufo” show two years ago for the Wall Street Journal, recently left to become the Art Institute of Chicago’s chair of African and Indian Art of the Americas. He circled back to Cleveland for his current show—African Master Carvers: Known and Famous (to July 16).

Unmentioned to me by Griswold was that Cleveland was soon to be in the news for an important repatriation—the planned transfer to Italy of an early 1st century A.D. marble portrait head of Drusus Minor that research revealed to have been illicitly removed from a site near Naples near the end of World War II:

Portrait Head of Drusus Minor, 13 B.C.–23 A.D.

Speaking of being in the news, Cleveland had begun planning its upcoming Dana Schutz exhibition (Sept. 1-Dec. 10) before she became embroiled in the widely publicized Whitney Biennial controversy. (The artist has a local connection as a Cleveland Institute of Art alumna.

As it happened, while I was waiting, four days later, for the doors to open for the Museum of Modern Art’s press preview of Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction (to Aug. 13), I ran into another art museum luminary on my unsolicited list of nominations for the Met directorship.

I was surprised to be accosted at MoMA by Brent Benjamin, director of the St. Louis Art Museum, who immediately set out to correct my assertion that I’d never met him. We did have a previous encounter, he recounted, while he was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he had been deputy director for curatorial affairs before arriving at SLAM in 1999. He then launched into an enthusiastic and knowledgeable description of his museum’s enticing (from its catalogue, which I had received) Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade (to May 7).

During our chat, up walks the highly esteemed, Met-worthy director of the Philadelphia Museum, Timothy Rub (fresh from his Frank Gehry groundbreaking), who was there with Benjamin to do an American Alliance of Museums peer review of MoMA. (Hey, guys, did Glenn Lowry pass the audition?) With all this administrative star power before me, I blurted out: “Who wants to direct the Met?!?” (Judging from Rub’s icy stare, he didn’t regard the question as tongue-in-cheek, and/or thought it was in bad taste.)

Regarding the “Postwar Abstraction” show, which was drawn from MoMA’s collection and promised gifts, I largely concur with Peter PlagensWall Street Journal review. But I’m not nearly as taken as he was by MoMA’s big, blowsy Krasner. I much prefer her tight un-Pollocks—the “Little Image Paintings” (which I had previously reviewed for the WSJ).

That said, even the show’s curator, Starr Figura, gravitated to the Krasner: She chose it as backdrop for her CultureGrrl portrait, largely on the strength of color-coordination:

Starr Figura, MoMA’s curator of drawings and prints, with Lee Krasner’s “Gaea,” 1966
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Meanwhile, the Met’s departing director, Campbell, may have had a valuable job-networking opportunity in Brussels, where he recently traveled to attend the meeting of European partners of the Bizot group—a consortium of about 60 European, American and international museums that organize loan shows. Where he will land remains to be seen.

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