The Cleveland Museum of Art is undoubtedly the museum I’ve spent the most time in. When I still lived in Cleveland, before they began the lengthy remodelling process that meant huge chunks of the museum were closed off, I went there about once a month. Because of this, it’s nigh on impossible for me to be unbiased about the complete redesign of a museum I knew so intimately. I’d been to a few new galleries as they were reopened, but the first time I had the chance to check out the complete refurbishment was when I was back home last Christmas. I was pretty excited about it, since I hadn’t seen the museum in its entirety in six or seven years, as the construction was interminable. Unfortunately, (and I suspect I’m in the minority with this opinion) I couldn’t help but wish they had left things well enough alone.
I’ll begin by talking about all the things I loved about the old museum. Firstly, the progression through the galleries was more or less chronological, which I liked, as it gave things some context (and also helped ease you into modern art, which I needed, since I’m not the biggest modern art fan). The art was spread out nicely between both the newer, uglier (1971) building, and the gorgeous Classical 1916 original museum. There was an enormous, cavernous basement devoted to the extensive Asian art collection, beautiful Egyptian and Islamic galleries (going to see the sarcophagus is one of my earliest museum memories), and my favourite bit; the hall of armour, which opened up into the prettiest little courtyard, with an indoor garden, a fountain, and plenty of benches and chairs scattered about for relaxing in. I knew exactly where to find all my favourite paintings, from the Van Goghs, to Cupid and Psyche, to the Jeptha Wade portrait of Nathaniel Olds sporting his distinctive green glasses. Visiting the Art Museum felt like visiting an old friend.
Reading what I’ve just written, it seems almost inevitable that I wouldn’t like the new museum, as I was so fond of the old one. But honestly, I really did want to like it. I think it’s fantastic that Cleveland has such a well-renowned museum, and I know they poured a tonne of money, and years of effort into the remodel, so I truly did give it a chance. The most noticeable feature of the new museum is the way both buildings have been combined under one roof via a massive atrium, pictured at the start of this post. It was neat to stroll around in a huge indoor courtyard, and I liked the way the museum shop and cafe were situated facing out into the atrium, so I was given the feeling of meandering through a self-contained village. However, once I was actually inside the museum proper, I was distinctly unimpressed. There was no logical order to the galleries, so it was confusing finding your way around, and I kept having to consult the map. Even then, I still feel like I missed seeing parts of the museum because I couldn’t find them. I’m sure they must have added some new pieces, but the only one I’m positive was a recent addition was a Damien Hirst; with a stained glass effect created from real butterfly wings (which was not a good thing for my lepidopterophobia. I took a quick glance and got the hell out of there). The hall of armour seemed essentially unchanged, except it no longer opened out onto that lovely courtyard, and was no longer surrounded by religious art. They used to have this amazing, dim, vault-like room with a heavy door where they kept loads of crucifixes and icons; it kind of creeped me out, but I was simultaneously fascinated by it. That’s gone now as well.
The old museum building only had a few small galleries housed in it, mostly Byzantine and Roman art. I didn’t see any Asian or South American art at all, so I’m not sure if they don’t have it any more, or if it’s in a section that isn’t open yet. I hope it’s the latter, as they used to have loads of great objects in there. I also found it galling that I could clearly see the Islamic art was there, but it was in a gallery that only members were given access to. They’ve had those same pieces for as long as I can remember, so why are they now restricting access to them, as if they were a new exhibit? It seemed bizarre. Overall, I was left with the impression that they had about half the collections I remembered, but spread out in twice the space. I genuinely hope they get more galleries open in the near future, because the current state of things was not at all what I was hoping for.
With all of that being said, if you were visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art for the first time, I doubt you’d be disappointed. They still have some stellar pieces, and it is one of the best museums in Cleveland (and the only free major museum in the city that I know of). I certainly wouldn’t let the redesign stop me from returning, I just wish it had been better executed. I think my real complaint is that it doesn’t feel like my museum anymore, but maybe I can get to know it again someday…if they ever reopen ALL the galleries! (Side note: spread out throughout this post are random photos of some of the pictures I like best. They include: Lot’s Wife by Anselm Kiefer, Nathaniel Olds by Jeptha Wade, Portrait of Isabella Brant by Rubens, mysterious cat picture (I can’t find it on their website, and I can’t recall the artist), and Goldsmiths by Emil Nolde.
I’ll give it a 3 out of 5, though I really wish it was higher. Before the remodelling, I would have given it 5/5.