MoCA Cleveland Rebuilds Its Board After a Tumultuous Year

August 6th, 2021

A year after its director resigned over the controversial decision to cancel an exhibition documenting police killings of Black and Latino men and boys, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland, has remade its board, with three newly named copresidents—Audra T. Jones, Joanne R. Cohen, and Stephen Sokany—presiding over a freshly diverse committee.

“This evolved, diverse leadership framework goes beyond creating seats at the table,” said Jones, the board’s first African American co-president. “It allows for equitable conversation, decision-making, listening, and a diversity of perspectives that are unprecedented in MoCA’s history. A refreshed board leadership structure allows MoCA to move forward with a unique and bolder lens centered fully on artists, audiences, and equity.”

The museum drew charges of censorship last summer when it canceled “The Breath of Empty Space,” an exhibition of drawings by New York artist Shaun Leonardo depicting white police officers fatally harming Black and Latino men and youths, among them Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott. Originally set to open in March 2020, the show was postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic. After activist Amanda King and Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, who was killed by Cleveland police at the age of twelve, approached museum officials to express their concerns regarding the show, and amid a global wave of protests in the wake of the recent killing of George Floyd, MoCA director Jill Snyder canceled the exhibition.

Leonardo, who identifies as Afro-Latino, accused the museum of censorship, and the institution issued an apology. Days later, Snyder, who had led MoCA Cleveland for twenty-three years, resigned, telling the New York Times, “I embrace this as an opportunity to advance the movement for change that is now sweeping through our culture.” The museum issued a second apology, prompting Leonardo to note that they had failed to consult him before pulling the plug on the exhibition. “After grave mishandling of communication regarding the exhibition, institutional white fragility led to an act of censorship,” he said.

The changes to MoCA’s board were recommended by the museum’s governance committee, and were unanimously approved. “As a nation, we are in a time that demands more from museums, artists and collaborative spaces–beyond being agile, proactive about inclusion and purveyors of interactive experiences,” said the museum in a statement. “Contemporary museums must answer the call to represent the ideas and creators of our time fully. Our cohort of new directors represents skills that enhance our overall governance, and, best of all, they represent a diversity of professional insight.”

Each incoming copresident will serve a two-year term. Outgoing president Larry Oscar, hailed by the institution as an “accomplished and visionary” trustee, will remain on the board.