MOCA: enduring vanguard

The year was 1968 and the country was embroiled in cultural and political turmoil. Parents watched on nervously as their sons traded pressed shirtsleeves for fringed leather and their daughters turned off Bobby Vinton and turned on Bob Dylan.

Vietnam had somehow transformed from a far-off exotic land to a political lighting rod. The country was divided between old and new, us and them. The chaos became a fertile breeding ground for new ideas, particularly in the arts.
Much of industrial Cleveland, however, was on the conservative side of the line, including the reigning cultural monarch, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), which eschewed all things pop.
"It was notoriously not receptive to contemporary art," says Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) executive director Jill Snyder, noting that the CMA of yesteryear instead celebrated its historic galleries, traditional exhibits and its developing Asian collection.
And so it was when a trio of forward thinking women debuted an art space the likes of which Cleveland had never seen. The New Gallery was a tight storefront on Euclid Avenue founded on the notion of introducing Clevelanders to works that confronted them at every level.
"To make a separate dedicated contemporary art institution was something that really only began in the 60s," says Snyder. "At the time when these institutions were appearing, they were still very much in the margins. They were often off the beaten track. They were in places that were kind of marginalized locations. They were part of that ethos of counterculture."

The New Gallery founders Agnes Gund, Marjorie Talalay and Nina Sundell dove headlong into it.

Do Ho Suh the current exhibit at MOCA Cleveland
From the Dec. 1, 1968 Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Quite a different concept from anything offered at present in Cleveland galleries is reflected in the name of 'The New Gallery' opening to the public Saturday." The article goes on to describe a group of Cleveland Institute of Art students peering through the door, giddy with anticipation.
The effort was fueled in no small part by Talalay's previous gallery experience and the blood in Sundell's veins. Her father Leo Castelli owned one of the most successful and enduring galleries in New York, a connection that would become The New Gallery's direct pipeline to the era's most avant-garde contemporary artists. Try: Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein was part of The New Gallery's inaugural show, which the Plain Dealer then described as "trend-oriented" and "unprecedented on the Cleveland art scene." Heady stuff indeed and exactly what The New Gallery delivered throughout its tenure.
"When we moved from the storefront, Christo wrapped the gallery on Euclid. Imagine that in 1972," says Snyder. "Who knew Christo at that time?"
So it began. Over the years, the organization would become the Cleveland Center of Contemporary Art with locations on Bellflower Road and Carnegie Avenue. In 2002, the organization became the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA) and returned to Euclid Avenue in University Circle in 2012. Changing names and environments notwithstanding, one aspect of the fluid organization has remained the same.

"We believe in artists. We believe in artists being the seers of our culture," says Snyder. "We have this remarkable legacy of working with some of the most emerging artists who have gone on to become icons of the postwar period."

"That sense of being connected to an emerging generation of artists who went on to become established time and again has shown that we have had the prescience to identify and to promote and present those artists to our region."

That sensibility extends to each of MOCA's endeavors, including the extraordinary building that houses it.
Defining itself by reflecting everything around it
In 2008, Cleveland was on the brink of one of its darkest periods, but as the Great Recession unfurled, instead of hunkering down to weather the storm the vanguard institution did exactly the opposite. It set the bar as high as possible with a vision for a new home that would eventually exceed all expectations.

The criteria were numerous, but perhaps the most economical is Snyder's thumbnail description of the project she so painstakingly shepherded.
"We wanted a building that knits into the fabric of the district, that feels alive day and night," Snyder recalls. "We wanted a building - a building - that feels vibrant."
Artist Henrique Oliveira's piece from the inaugural exhibition at MOCA

Of course, architect Farshid Moussavi's end result does that and so much more. It achieves the seemingly impossible: it is at once a static structure and a living canvas, defining itself by reflecting everything around it.
"There's not a day when it ever looks the same - or a season," says Snyder. "It’s like the ocean. There are days when it's moody and gray and days when it's vibrant and totally reflective."
The building's fruition also reflects MOCA's creative methodology. The search for an architect was much like a search for an exhibition, with a worldwide quest to find that one promising designer who could realize MOCA's vision while simultaneously marking a definitive point on the arc of that individual's career.
"We wanted our project to be a turning point for them," says Snyder.
After inspecting a pool of 32 potential firms, MOCA reached out to 17 of them, 16 of which responded.
"We were shocked," recalls Snyder. "That told us that even in Cleveland, Ohio, the prospect of building a contemporary art museum is one of the most plumb jobs for an architect anywhere in the world."
Snyder parallels Moussavi's body of work and the MOCA design with the venerable list of artists that the organization has nurtured over the years. At the onset of the project, the young Iranian architect was on the trajectory of being internationally respected, but she had never worked in America.

By the time the gleaming building on Euclid Avenue was complete in 2012, however, her star was glittering on high. And MOCA, which started in that tiny storefront across the street from the new building's location, once again exploded the boundaries of contemporary artistic expression.
"This ended up being a huge coup for us," says Snyder of Moussavi's creation. "By the time it was built, her reputation was even more on the ascendency, so we got a tremendous response from within the architecture design world."
To wit, Architectural Digest described the new MOCA as a "fine and enigmatic figure" when it debuted. W Magazine said of Moussavi's design, "She's done nothing less than create a radically new type of contemporary art space that's neither a stereotypical white cube nor a monumental museum in the traditional mold." More recently, the New York Times chose a stunning photo of the building to announce Cleveland as one of "52 Places to Go in 2015."
Snyder was stunned. "I would never have had the audacity to say: when the New York Times selected Cleveland as one the top 52 places in the world to visit in 2015 they would use the image of our building as the reflection of Cleveland."
That the nearly 50-year-old organization continues to garner such seminal moments on the national stage does not diminish the arc of its local impact.
"Its part of the civic story now," notes Snyder. "MOCA has gone through this dramatic transformation of being a marginalized catalytic institution to being now a revered cultural icon for the city."
Broadening dialogues, transcending visual interpretation
As MOCA's placid exterior reflects a frenetic scape of traffic and passers-by, the contents of the interior transform at a different, more thoughtful pace. As a non-collecting museum, exhibits change with northeast Ohio's seasons, showcasing an array of voices from across town and across the world. In 2013, Everything All At Once featured local talents such as Dana Depew and Elizabeth Emery; while today, MOCA's galleries feature the work of Do Ho Suh, an internationally acclaimed artist whose accolades include being named the Wall Street Journal's 2013 art innovator of the year.
To remain on the cutting edge, MOCA constantly pushes the boundaries of what it means to interact with art. A winding interior asymmetrical stairway features a sound installation, making the listening experience one that involves the act of physically ascending or descending. Exhibits transcend visual interpretation across unexpected creative expressions and ideologies.

MOCA’s interior Stair A features a sound installation by Fatima Al Qadiri - photo Erin O'Brien

Unorthodox forays have included tethering contemporary art with the culinary world via Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, which earlier this year featured the visualization and drawings of a man who is widely noted as one of the world's greatest chefs.

Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent showcased the eclectic pop-style work of an activist Catholic nun. Kent's mid-20th century portfolio reflected tolerance, diversity and love. The show ran in summer of 2014 as a subtle backdrop for the concurrent Gay Games.
"We're broadening a dialog around culture," says Snyder, "bringing fine arts into other arenas where innovation is happening." She sees that cross-pollination extending to the tech and science industries and more immediately, to the music industry by way of the upcoming summer 2016 show Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia, which MOCA is presenting in collaboration with the Akron Art Museum.
"Throughout his career," says Snyder of Mothersbaugh, who cofounded the alternative band DEVO, "he explored the visual art arena and merged popular music and art. We are going to be presenting his entire artistic output."
Objects at MOCA will include manipulated musical instruments from his "Orchestrions" collection and documentation of DEVO's evolution. The Akron museum will focus on Mothersbaugh's visual art endeavors including prints, rugs and 30,000 hand drawn postcards.
"For the very first time it will be our opportunity to partner with another museum equally and to construct a structural model that drives regionalism," says Snyder. "It's going to be wild. The show is just going to be wild."
All of it culminates to define MOCA as a coveted venue for celebrated artists that have a choice regarding where they exhibit and thereby elevates the entire region on the world art stage despite being in a medium-sized metropolitan area.
"You can be more vanguard working outside of major metropolitan areas," says Snyder. "You can be more daring. There are fewer influencing pressures that come from the funding and collecting communities. There's an advantage to being outside of the mainstream that allows you to be more experimental."
That fundamental DNA, which MOCA has now molded into an international reputation for this unflinching Cleveland institution, has implications that its galleries cannot contain: MOCA's example applies to business entities across the region.
"How do you attract talent and make this the best R&D place for someone who is at their highest creative production to want to come and work here?" poses Snyder. "Those are conversations that hospitals are having, that the tech community is having."
As that talent arrives amid the ongoing 216 renaissance, MOCA will challenge those new patrons in ways they cannot even yet imagine.
"We are very good at embodying those values of innovation and risk and daring," says Snyder. "We attract people who see themselves mirrored in those values."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.