Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art Redux

dsc09619Because I went back to Ohio for a few weeks over Christmas (and now I’ll have that stupid Back to Ohio (actually called “My City is Gone” apparently) Pretenders song stuck in my head all day), I wrote and scheduled a whole bunch of posts in advance because I knew I’d be too busy eating doughnuts, ice cream, and pancakes, and hanging out with my brother to want to do much writing while I was there.  As a result, I haven’t really written anything in about a month, and I’m finding it really hard to get back into the swing of things (and this damn jet lag (which I should probably just call insomnia at this point) isn’t helping).  So I thought I’d start by revisiting what used to be my favourite Cleveland museum: the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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I first wrote about the CMA in my first month of blogging, nearly four years ago now, shortly after they had finished their extensive remodelling project, and unfortunately at that point I was so attached to the old museum that I didn’t really give the new museum a fair chance. I also think that many of the galleries had yet to re-open then, so I wasn’t experiencing the museum at its fullest potential.  Well, this was my first trip to the CMA since that last ill-fated one, and I’m happy to report that it feels like a museum I can love again!  It doesn’t hurt that the CMA is still one of only a few free museums in Cleveland, though they do get you with the $10 minimum parking fee in their garage (yikes! Try to find a metered spot on the street if you can, because I think those are only a couple bucks), and they charge for major special exhibitions, but there were none on at the time of my visit.

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The main reason I was inspired to go back was that the museum was hosting a small exhibit on early portrait photography that sounded interesting (I confess I was hoping they’d have some of those creepy Victorian death photographs, but no such luck), but the exhibit was hidden away in the  middle of the second floor galleries, which meant I got to do a lot of exploring before I found my way there.  And look, I found one of my favourite paintings on the way (that I bitched about not being able to find last time): Cupid and Psyche, by Jacques-Louis David (above left).  And that excellent saucy portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale that I also know well and love (above previous paragraph).  And the three Van Gogh paintings the museum owns (my favourite is the tree one shown above right).  It was glorious, like finding long-lost friends.

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I am also very glad that the museum seems to be ordered in a manner that makes sense again.  I think when I visited four years ago, only about half the galleries were actually open, so they only had some of the collection’s highlights on display, and they weren’t really arranged in any particular order.  Happily, the paintings are now sorted chronologically, by country of origin, and by genre again, which makes it easy to find paintings that I know are there and want to see, like the handsome fellow on the left, above (Jean Terford David, painted by Thomas Sully.  I believe his wife’s portrait is also there, but the poor woman is kind of unremarkable next to Jean’s strong jawline and dreamy tousled hair). The only exception to this was Henri Rousseau’s Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo, which I love, but wasn’t in any of the places I expected to find it.  However, thanks to the free wifi the museum now offers, I was able to search for it on my phone, and discover that it wasn’t currently on display.  Annoying, because I really wanted to see it, but still better than me aimlessly wandering in search of it (or I guess I could have gone old-school and just asked someone working there, but if I can avoid human contact, all the better).  You will also notice that unlike at the hideous (except the armoury) Wallace Collection that I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the paintings are attractively displayed against plain walls painted in soothing solid colours, which makes them a pleasure to look at.  (The painting on the above right in Mary Spain’s Girl with Birds, but I was so busy looking at the cat that I scarcely noticed the birds.)

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And the CMA genuinely does have a first-rate collection.  You’ll notice the Picasso and the Velazquez above, but they’ve also got Monets, Manets, Gauguins, Toulouse-Lautrecs…basically all the big names, as well as an extensive collection of top-notch American paintings, like Ryder’s The Racetrack (Death on a Pale Horse) shown below left, and the portrait of Nathaniel Olds by Jeptha Wade that I included in the last CMA post, but had to include again because I love it so much (below right).

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I did eventually find my way to the portrait photography display that I had come to see in the first place, though ironically, it was pretty much the only place in the museum that photography wasn’t allowed.  It was only one room, but it was pretty interesting, mainly because I enjoy photographs of Victorians that prove that they weren’t always as stuffy as we sometimes imagine them to be, especially all the posed “joke” photographs that were apparently popular at the time, including one of a couple guys pretending to rob their friend, and another of men pretending to fight.

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There was also a small temporary display on Catholic vestments (more copes and chasubles, woot?), which I suppose was fine, but after seeing the incredible pieces of medieval English embroidery at the V&A, boring floral embroidery really paled by comparison.

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The final temporary display I saw was in the aptly named “Focus Gallery” and revolved around the 14th century Gothic table fountain (above left).  Apparently, table fountains (basically automata that spouted water at the dining table in various clever ways) were very common amongst the wealthy in medieval Europe, but eventually almost all of them disappeared, and the one now in Cleveland is believed to be the most complete surviving example.  And splendid it is too, full of dragons, and little grotesque figures that play instruments and spout water.  I presume it’s too fragile to actually see it in action, but they made a video of what it should look like when it runs, and the fact that it wasn’t in motion allowed me to study all the charming little paintings around its sides in detail.  Delightful.  I also liked the less elaborate castle themed fountain (above right).

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Because Cleveland is only a medium sized city, they don’t really have the resources to have separate museums for archeology and antiquities and all that kind of stuff, so it all gets lumped together at the CMA.  Although my description probably makes it sound like some poky local museum, which it is definitely not.  It’s a big museum, and everything is beautifully and professionally presented.  My whole point is that this is also the place to come in the CLE if you also want to see armour, or Ancient Egyptian stuff and other ancient artefacts.  There’s lots of very old Asian and Islamic art too!

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And the Christian religious art might not be in the creepy old gallery I used to love anymore, but it it still full of disturbing pieces (and some funny ones, like ol’ St. George above, who appears to be sprouting some sort of potato from his head).  That throne puts me in mind of Mr. Burns’s “chair” at Springfield University (which I would totally have in my flat, by the way).

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At some point Marcus decided he was going to photograph all the lions, only a couple of which I’ve included here (they have a surprising amount of lion-themed art), but I liked his thinking – I think picking one theme and focusing on objects relating to it is a good way to gain a new perspective on museums you’ve been to before, or just keep them interesting (I know the head on the left is not a lion, but it is a splendidly derpy face, so I couldn’t not include it, and it was in the same gallery as the lion on the right).

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The museum also had a few new technological/interactive things that I don’t recall seeing before, like a giant wall where you could select objects from the museum’s collections, and learn more about them, and some kind of motion wall thing that I noticed children jumping up and down in front of.  There were also quite a few touchscreens in “Gallery One,” which highlights some of the museum’s best pieces, and gives you a chance to discover more about the meanings behind them, and the historical periods in which they were created.  I think it’s a neat idea, even though the execution wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing as I would have liked.

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I think there were a few small galleries we didn’t have the chance to see, but I feel like I got to experience most of the museum, and have a much better appreciation of what the big remodel has done for the CMA.  Although the historic 1916 exterior is still hidden within the atrium, you do get excellent views of it from inside the atrium (you frequently have to go out on the balconies to move between galleries, so you get lots of chances to admire it) and it is a gorgeous space.  I can imagine that with Cleveland’s long and crappy winters that it is also nice to have a place to walk around and get some sunlight without trekking through ice and slush.  I have indeed completely revised my previous opinion, and can say that the remodelling process, though very irritating in the last few years I was actually living in Cleveland and wasn’t able to visit the Art Museum, was a good thing in the long run, and the museum has eventually emerged all the better for it.  4.5/5, and unquestionably the most spectacular museum Cleveland has to offer.



  1. This sounds an amazing collection. I looked back at your older post too and you did sound a bit put out to say the least, so I’m glad it’s living up to your expectations again. I love the atrium space linking the two buildings. They did a big reorganise at Glasgow’s main museum 10 years ago when it shut for a while. I liked the result but it wasn’t universally popular. Now another one, the Burrell Collection, has just shut for a couple of years. They are going to open the basement which had previously been used for storage so I’m looking forward to seeing even more of the collection.

    1. It really is a fantastic museum (and I’m not just saying that because I’m from Cleveland, since I obviously said plenty of bad things before!). It is annoying when museums close for years at a time though, even if they emerge better off at the end of it. I can’t even remember how long the CMA was closed for…I remember it being partially closed for years, and then completely closed for even longer…honestly, I think it was probably nearly a decade from the start of construction before everything reopened! It was a massive transformation though!

      1. I’m afraid my only previous knowledge of Cleveland, Ohio, was from Tales of the City in which it was Mary Anne’s home town – and she never wanted to go back. Oops! Reading about your museum has sent it up many, many places in my estimation.

      2. Ah, but you never really escape Cleveland. I couldn’t wait to leave when I was younger (all my daydreams were about running away to New York, or Boston, or anywhere that wasn’t Cleveland, really), but now I think of it as “a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” even though odds are good I’ll end up moving back there someday, because no one ever really gets out. But at least there’s the art museum. And frozen custard. And my favourite falafel place.

  2. Wow, it does sound like the museum emerged from the renovations to be something great. Plus, the atrium does seem really nice for a walk in natural light during winter. I’m currently sitting at my desk at work, and outside we have a whiteout, so creative uses of space like that are really great.

    1. To be honest, the museum was always pretty great, I guess it’s just that now they have room to display even more of their collections at once. In place of the atrium, they used to have a leafy conservatory-type space in the middle of the museum, complete with wishing well, which I really loved, but I’m trying my best to be positive about the renovation, so I’ll say no more about it. And I admit I’m actually kind of jealous of your whiteout. We got a bit of snow when I was in Cleveland, but London is not so great for that kind of thing. They are predicting some for later today, but I bet it’ll just end up being icy rain (that I’ll be forced to walk through for two miles to get to the library where I volunteer) that won’t stick.

  3. When I think of Cleveland the song that goes through my head is “Cleveland” by a relatively obscure guitarist named Lukej Doucet and it has the lyric “The Cuyahoga River won’t kill you no more, they cleaned it up back in ’74. Well you might get sick, but welcome to Ohio.” Haven’t been to Cleveland in a long time, but always liked the art museum.

    1. I looked up the lyrics to that song. A bit harsh, but probably true. Everyone talks about how Cleveland has gone through a “revitalisation” in the past decade, but from the perspective of someone who grew up there, and comes back once or twice a year to visit, it just seems like that translates to more trendy places to eat and drink. Which isn’t a bad thing, per se, but most of downtown is still pretty dead.

      1. Tourism would probably help, but I guess you have to have actual tourist attractions for that to happen! There are lots of great places that I love there, like the West Side Market, Lake View Cemetery, and the Dittrick Medical Museum, but I don’t know if those are the sorts of places people would know about if they’re not from there.

  4. Wow, the CMA sounds (and looks) incredible. And it’s amazing that it’s free! I love that art and archaeology have a home together there. Here, we have the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) – which went through a similar renovation as the CMA – and the Art Gallery of Ontario. I get to the ROM from time to time, but never the AGO for some reason, so I know I’d enjoy it if they were housed together. (I can feel the city’s collective scorn as I type this). Anyhow … there’s so much that I love in this post: Cupid and Psyche, Nathaniel Olds’ green glasses and the snake watching Death on the Pale Horse. But I’m especially smitten with the table fountains. I’d love to see them in person. A couple of years ago I became obsessed with a site called Historic Food that recreates dishes from the 17th and 18th centuries using moulds and contraptions from the period – so seeing those fountains (which are considerably older, of course) really blows me away.

    1. I think one of their founding principles was that they would always remain free, which of course doesn’t mean that they’d keep to that 100+ years down the line, but clearly they have. I actually have really fond memories of my mom and grandma taking me to see some amazing touring exhibitions here when I was growing up, most memorably a Faberge egg one, but also Bugatti (not just cars!) and some spectacular armour. And having all the Ancient Egyptian stuff was awesome when I was a kid, because I was really into mummies for awhile. Honestly, it was amazing to have a place like that in my hometown, and I’m probably a more cultured person because of it (maybe I should have stressed this in the post more…).
      I adore Cupid and Psyche mainly because of Cupid’s expression. He looks adorable and mischievous and cheeky, even though he’s actually being a total jerk by sneaking out on Psyche whilst she’s asleep.
      I’ve definitely checked out Historic Food before; the guy who runs it actually appears on the BBC quite a lot whenever they need someone to do a historic cooking segment. I love culinary history, but due to the extreme meatiness of historic food, have very little desire to re-create it myself. But the fountains are really incredible – they had a few other ones there as well, though the one I posted with the grotesques and such was the most elaborate by far!

      1. I know what you mean – I love reading the ancient recipes and seeing them recreated, but there’s usually far too much ambergris involved. Also, for the most part, the recipes really sound heinous. But I do love the antique implements and moulds and have started collecting them (so far it’s a tiny collection and most aren’t that old). I just hang them on the wall or use them for making shortbread, which is a whole lot more appetizing.

      2. Shortbread sounds like a great use for those moulds! I admit that every time I see one of those fancy old pudding basins, I want one, but since I don’t like dried fruit, pretty much the only steamed pudding I like is the chocolate kind with the oozy middle, and I don’t know if making a chocolate steamed pudding once or twice a year would be enough to justify actually buying one.

      3. I’ve always wanted one of those too – but I’m with you on the dried fruit. No matter how many yummy things they want you to soak them in, I just can’t get enthused about eating the stuff.

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