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MoCA Cleveland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
MoCA Cleveland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Shaun Leonardo Accuses MoCA Cleveland of Censoring Exhibition Confronting Police Brutality

American artist Shaun Leonardo has accused the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Cleveland of censorship after it called off “The Breath of Empty Space,” his exhibition of charcoal drawings of police killing black and Latino men, which was set to open last week. According to the New York Times, the museum canceled the show—which would have featured pictures of victims of police violence including Eric Garner, Rodney King, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott—in March, following objections from local black activists and select members of the institution’s staff. The works had previously been exhibited without controversy at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where Gray was allegedly killed in 2015.

Jill Snyder, the museum’s director, said that local residents criticized Leonardo’s work for “stir[ring] the trauma back up for the very community that it is intending to reach, and also that there is a way in which institutions like MoCA put that pain and trauma on display disrespectfully and somewhat gratuitously—that there is a performative aspect to our presentation of it.” In response, they announced they “were not prepared to engage with the lived experience of pain and trauma that the work evokes.”

In an email sent to his followers on June 6, Leonardo wrote: “I must make it clear that I was never given the opportunity to be included in outreach, and therefore, never had a moment to engage any community member regarding the show. What has become evident to me is that after grave mishandling of communication regarding the exhibition, institutional white fragility led to an act of censorship.”

He stated that he was speaking out about the MoCA exhibition now, months after the cancelation, because of what he saw as “empty messages coming out of primarily white art institutions since the death of George Floyd.”

“What I take the most offense to,” he added, was that the museum was “using my work to create the opening for the dialogue that should have been happening in the first place.” Leonardo’s work also includes The Eulogy, which incorporates reactions to the deaths of Martin and other black men, alongside a band performing a New Orleans funeral march, and was staged at the High Line in New York in 2017. In 2018, Leonardo presented the performance Primitive Games at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the artist is based.

A public apology published on the MoCA Cleveland website reads: “We failed the artist, we breached his trust, and we failed ourselves. The work of anti-racism involves taking responsibility and supporting risk. We did not do this. We failed. We are learning now.” She also noted that she had learned that “the black community is not monolithic. . . . We should have sought other voices.”

Many cultural organizations have recently been criticized for issuing hollow, public relations–friendly statements about racism and police killings, rather than addressing the systemic racism within the institutions themselves—including racial pay disparities; board members who profit from riot gear, weapons, and private prisons; and the dearth of people of color in museum board and leadership positions.