This is my story about how growing up in Cleveland made me a museum person.
A year or so ago, I applied for a job at the Cleveland Museum of Art that . . . would have been a reach, to say the least. Instead of a cover letter, they asked for a one-page narrative describing my background and interest in the position. I figured that the only way I’d be able to get past the recruiter would be to write the best darn narrative they’d ever read. Well, it apparently didn’t work—but I still think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. It says just about everything there is to say about why I love working for museums so much—and why I love my hometown. Here it is, unedited.
One of my earliest memories is my first visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The memory must be from when my older brother and sister had already begun school, but I hadn’t yet, because I remember that it was the middle of the day and it was just me and my mom. That rare opportunity to be the center of her attention is part of why the experience stands out in my mind. I remember her telling me, before we went in, that I was going to see things I wasn’t used to seeing, that the paintings inside weren’t going to look like the ones I made in preschool. Specifically, I remember her telling me that there would be naked people. I was thrilled.
Once inside, I remember being awed by the medieval and Renaissance galleries, particularly the crucifixions, which were indeed unlike anything I’d ever seen before, in my Unitarian church or anywhere else. I was full of questions. My mom—who at that point was working her way toward being ordained as a minister of religious education—answered them candidly, as far as I can remember. She explained the Biblical story not only in its broad outlines but also in its details: he’s wearing that crown because they were making fun of him; that cut in his side is another way that they tried to hurt him. And so my first point of encounter with that discursive space in which art, belief, and humanity intertwine—an exploration that has been the focus of my scholarship—was in the physical space of the CMA. The moment is crystallized in my memory as a crucially formative one: me, in a museum, looking at art, with someone kind and smart to tell me about it.
That experience stayed with me throughout my youth in Rocky River, when I often escaped the blues of high school and suburban life by slipping away to the museum—always open, always free. It stayed with me through my college years, when I discovered that “art history” was a thing that you could actually do, and when I spent a transformative semester in Italy, drenching myself in the art and the great public museums of Europe. It stayed with me through graduate school, when “museum studies” became my next revelation, and it stayed with me into my first museum job at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where I found myself writing object labels about paintings like the ones that had mesmerized my five-year-old self. And it has stayed with me through another formative experience, a multi-level, multi-sensory project focused on the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, a lost masterwork of nineteenth-century American painting.
This isn’t the first time that I have told this simple story, of course. I have probably told it to everyone who has ever interviewed me for a museum job, and I know that I’ve told it at many conferences and roundtables and panels. It’s my standard answer for why I went into museum work. It works because it’s true, and also because it’s a version of the familiar story that most museum professionals have: early on, we learn that museums are magic, and all we want to do when we grow up is to be part of that. But it’s only as I continue to grow within this field, and as my role has evolved from looking to leading, that I realize the story encapsulates my passion for the work that we all do, and my commitment to it, on the deepest levels.
This wasn’t just any museum in which I had this experience, it was my museum, my community museum, the museum that welcomed me as a toddler and a teenager, the museum that I returned to as a graduate student to do research, the museum that my own kids love and is a highlight of every trip we make to my hometown, the museum where I recently went, by myself, while my mom was recovering from heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, and where I both lost and found myself in paintings of Maine, my adopted state, by Frederic Edwin Church, an artist whose work has been a focus of my scholarly life for the past six years.
The CMA is a navigational pole of everything that means home, community, and family to me, so it’s personal—but the real magic is that it’s personal for a lot of other people, too. My story is just one of many about how people love—really love—the CMA, or whatever their community museum happens to be. This is why what we do is important—because through our collections and the spaces that contain them we can create opportunities for stories to unfold, to evolve, to take on facets that reflect and radiate an entire world of experience in ways that are both intimate and universal.
I could have used this space to tell you all of the reasons that I am the person you are looking for—I am a leader, a director, an organizer; a scholar, a curator, a writer; an advocate, a teacher, a public servant; all of the things that you seek—but I will let my resume speak to all of that. You will have many qualified applicants for this position, and we have all reached the point in our careers where we can advocate for ourselves just as effectively as we can for our organizations. If you call me, I hope it will instead be because you liked my story, and because you liked what I had to say not just about myself, but also about the CMA, and about why, in our world today, museums matter, more than ever.
3 thoughts on “Hello Cleveland”
Not knowing why it would have been a reach, I can’t believe you didn’t get the job!