Hot in Cleveland

Left: Artist David Altmejd (left) and Teneille Haggard (middle). Right: Architect Farshid Moussavi, Cleveland MoCA director Jill Snyder, and collector Agnes Gund. (All photos: Allese Thomson)

CLEVELAND IS A SLEEPY gray city that curls around the edge of Lake Eerie and is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; three sports stadiums; one very popular casino; a sprawling world-class medical center; a car insurance company; an art museum with a glass atrium the size of a football field (“I feel like I’m in an airport—but in a good way,” said a friend as we glided down the escalator); one greeting card company; countless charming clapboard-and-brick homes that retail at less than $100,000; a large city park divided into ethnic zones (“Can you imagine if they did this in Central Park?” asked a New York dealer. “There would be an ethnic war,” said another); the nation’s most-frequented Starbucks; and, as of earlier this month, the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, a 34,000-square-foot hexagonal building that reaches sixty-five feet into the air and is lined with over thirteen hundred black steel panels that send the city’s reflection shimmering over its surface.

“It’s a fat building. And I like its fatness,” said Agnes Gund, sitting amid an audience of collectors, dealers, philanthropists, journalists, and artists the morning after the museum hosted its VIP opening reception. (“Black Tie—have fun with it!” the invitation announced.) There was laughter. The building’s architect, Farshid Moussavi, a fiercely self-possessed woman, dazzled Clevelanders and New Yorkers alike with her fashion choices throughout the weekend—Friday night: a dress made of combs (“It’s Maison Margiela. I almost bought the same one,” said Carol Greene. “But Bergdorf ran out.”); Saturday: a pink foam tunic that vaguely resembled the top of a cupcake (“Comme des Garçons,” said Angela Robins of Honor Fraser). At Gund’s comment, Moussavi made a small smile that could be read alternately as amused or piqued.

Left: Collector Toby Devan Lewis. Right: Greene Naftali's Jeffrey Rowledge with artists Jacqueline Humphries and Teresita Fernandez.

Gund is one of the museum’s most significant backers, having gifted $1 million in 2006 following a 2005 donation of $2.1 million by the George Gund Foundation, which was established by her father. These funds gave director Jill Snyder the means and confidence to hire Moussavi and begin the process of building a new home for a museum that previously occupied the second floor of an abandoned Sears department store and, prior to that, a former fraternity house. As a Cleveland native, Gund possesses a certain parental sense of propriety over the city—on the flight from New York en route to the opening, rumor has it that she marched up and down the aisle of the plane handing out Obama/Biden buttons.

“I’ve seen a lot of these buildings and so often they’re narrow, people smashed up against the wall,” Gund continued. “The design makes for an experience that goes beyond art.”

“I like to think of it as engagement,” said Moussavi. “Every floor is designed so the public and the art spaces invade each other.” For the inaugural exhibition, “Inside Out and from the Ground Up,” chief curator David Norr selected sixteen artists whose work negotiates boundaries between spaces that often oppose the other—for example, artificial and natural environments, light and dark, physical and metaphysical worlds. Haegue Yang, Jacqueline Humphries, Henrique Oliveira, Walead Beshty, Oliver Husain, and David Altmejd were among those with works in the exhibition that attended the opening—each presenting pieces that explore the liminal space that opens when conflicting forces collide.

Over the weekend, Cleveland-based collectors opened their homes for the slew of out-of-town visitors that descended upon the city to celebrate the big launch. Collector Scott Mueller passed out flutes of champagne to buses unloading dealers including Laurel Gitlen, Gary Snyder, James Cohan, and Janine Cirincione. (“The champagne’s flowing, so drink up!” he said merrily.) There was a visit through the collection at the Progressive Insurance campus, which has been amassed over the past several decades with an eye toward social disruption. “If a work doesn’t hum on the wall, if it doesn’t arouse conversation, then it’s not a good fit for Progressive,” said cofounder and former curator Toby Devon Lewis. We followed with curator Joanne Cohen’s tour of the Cleveland Clinic, where we wandered past operating rooms and works by Sarah Morris, Jaume Plensa, and Catherine Opie. “We had to install benches near some of our most popular pieces because people kept moving chairs out of waiting rooms so they could sit in front of the art,” Cohen told us. “Art is very restorative after the end of a long day or an open heart surgery.”

Left: Artist William Villalongo. Right: Collectors Dick and Doreen Cahoon.

“Restorative” can be thematized more broadly, too: As several trustees share, fifteen years ago Cleveland was in a severe slump and could have easily followed the tracks of Detroit. “Just to give you a sense of the drama around our fund-raising for the museum,” said Snyder, “the day the board met to decide whether or not it would commit to the new building, the primary bank in Cleveland was taken over by the government. It was October of 2008. The board could have said, ‘Scrap the design and build a shed. Do something simple that we can afford.’ And they didn’t.”

The board did state that they refused to break ground until all the necessary funds were raised. The museum, which clocked in at $27.2 million, is entirely debt free. On Saturday night, MoCA Cleveland hosted a party for its public opening. The event sold out completely. In the bathroom, I was struck by a very short conversation. Two women stood in front of the mirror applying lipstick. “I don’t get half of the art here, but I’m excited for what this museum means for Cleveland and for our kids, and their kids’ kids,” said one.

“Anyone can build a sports stadium,” the other responded. “But it takes a real force to build an arts center.”