Seeing the City: Cleveland Museum of Art as Urban Education

By Jerry Shang

Museums occupy a contradictory space in our contemporary society: while they are continuously upheld as an authoritative educational institution that imparts objective truth to their visitors, people also increasingly point to their colonial legacy and see them as contributing to the larger structural inequalities of racism, sexism, and classism. Museum critiques emerge in this context to offer critical examinations in the ways museums explicitly and implicitly perpetuate social inequalities and to imagine new ways in which museums could expand their accessibility and become democratic spaces for cultural and knowledge production. Tony Bennett, a sociologist on the roles museums play in societies, offers much of the basis for these critiques. In his discussion on the birth of the modern museums, he embeds the institutionalization of museums within the context of a variety of urban reform movements.1 From model towns, to department stores, to public festival grounds, Bennett argues that the modern museum shared with these other sites a reformatory and disciplinary impulse to forge a cultivated, moral, urban citizenry through the implicit power of high art, architecture, and mutual surveillance. 

This essay builds on Bennett’s argument and uses the Cleveland Museum of Art as a case study to show how art museums are employed to shape a distinctly urban consciousness within its visitors. It argues that one implicit programming underlying the Cleveland Museum of Art is an effort to educate visitors on how to navigate the modern cities through both an aesthetic and critical lens that allow them to simultaneously appreciate the city as a manifestation of historical progress as well as to be critical of its social contradictions and inequalities. However, as its analysis on “Ashcan School Prints and the American City 1900~1940” exhibit shows despite the museum’s portrayal of itself as an institution critical of social and racial inequalities, such critiques lack political and social forces and instead are framed as a celebration of a detached individualism beyond the conformism of the urban masses. 

The project to instill within visitors an appreciation for urban culture and progress, as well as to limit the kinds of visitors who can take part in such narratives started with the architecture of the museum. Situated in the University Circle, the Cleveland Museum of Art constitutes an eclectic assemblage of different architectural styles that combines the original 1916 neoclassical structure with later renovations.2 The northern entrance through which visitors enter today was built in 1971 and resembles modernist architecture with its plain granite façade and its stress on angular lines.3 Starting in 2005, another major renovation project linked the original 1916 structure with the 1971 extension by creating a central atrium domed over by a glass ceiling.4 The project also redesigned the East and West wings of the museum, which now include glass boxes and open balconies on both sides. Despite the heterogeneous architectural designs, both the neoclassical and the modernist styles represented at various points in history an ideal vision of urban progress. On one side, the imposing southern facade of the museum harks back to Ancient Greece’s ideal of the polis. As the foundation for later renovations, the 1916 neoclassical structure anchors the many transformations of the museum and its surroundings within a long history of urban development ever since antiquity. On the other side, the horizontally expansive and no less imposing northern façade points to a history of urban renewal where modernist architecture was employed to create a more rational city rooted in technological and artistic progress. 

The architecture of the museum further celebrates the indispensable role high art played on urban development throughout history. The changing architectural style becomes both a testament to the constant reinvention of the modern city and a documentation of the art museum’s commitment to serve as a cultural leader in urban development. However, by reproducing the narrative of urban progress in its architecture, the grand institutional scale of the museum also becomes a site of exclusion and alienation. It privileges visitors who benefit from or are the elite drivers of urban modernization at the cost of those who are displaced and dispossessed by such grandiose claims of development. Despite the museum’s free entrance, the architecture serves as a preliminary site of exclusion that limits the kinds of visitors who can participate in the transformative urban experiences offered by the museum. 

The guiding map of the museum and the newly built glass boxes and balconies in both the East and the West wings further showcase the reformatory goal of the museum architecture in inspiring new urban sensibilities.5 On the frontpage of the maps is a carefully framed photo of the museum. In the photo, the very eclecticism of the museum architecture is highlighted: the modernist granite façade serves as the base on which the 2005 glass constructions overlaps with the 1916 building with its white marble façade and antiquity-inspired columns. This technique of overlapping is often used in arts depicting the cityscape to recreate the dense urban atmosphere.6 By consciously portraying the museum’s architecture in a way that mirrors the aesthetic portrayal of the city, the map invites visitors to tie their visual experiences of the museum to the larger urban world. Built at different times and drawn from a variety of architectural languages, the museum reflects the constantly changing and heterogeneous cityscape. However, rather than degenerating into a “mish-mashing disorder,” the orderliness of the photo on the map encourages visitors to rationalize the museum, and by extension, the cityscape through an aesthetic lens that unites different architectural styles into a coherent narrative of urban modernity. This goal is further facilitated by the glass boxes and balconies in the East and West wings. Dissolving the boundary between the museum and its surroundings, the glass boxes allow visitors to view artworks, in both cases sculptures, in the background of the University Circle. Such transparency challenges the traditional definition of art as simply those objects contained within the museum and encourages viewers to see their urban surroundings as itself a form of art deserving of observation and appreciation. The architecture of the museum constitutes an educational programme aiming to ingrain within the visitors an aesthetic appreciation of urban modernity and progress.

Beyond the exterior and interior designs, the museum also uses its exhibitions as a site that allows visitors to both aesthetically and critically engage with the social, cultural, and architectural consequences of urban modernity. As analysis on the exhibition Ashcan School Prints and the American City 1900~1940 seeks to show, the focus on the exhibition’s aesthetic value at times jeopardizes its critical potential. One such contradiction lies in its display style. The exhibition wishes to imitate the fast-moving and distracting New York everyday lives at a time of rapid urbanization. However, by imposing an organizational scheme that highlights each piece’s artistic merit, the museum also makes sure that the audience would not be drawn into the vortex of emotions and ideologies that these images could potentially convey and instead limits the viewers’ engagement with these pieces to one of aesthetic appreciation at a distance. Compared to the spacious arrangement of fine arts in other galleries, the prints presented in this exhibition cram more tightly together, sometimes with one piece of art hanging above another. The relatively cramped space along with their print media reflects the experiences of modern cities where different visual stimuli compete for people’s attention and where popular media, such as newspapers, billboards, or magazines, presents a great variety of social, political, and cultural information that at times threatens to become overwhelming. However, in the stabilizing space of the museum exhibition such tightness does not give in to chaos. The grayish color of the background wall, the black and white frame, and the evenly illuminated prints all serve to remind the viewers that these prints should be viewed within a museum context as individual artworks whose artistic merits deserve to be detailedly yet detachedly examined. From the display style, the exhibition betrays an ambivalence on the ways in which the viewers should approach these prints: should the viewers be engaged in an immersive experience that situates them temporarily in the midst of 20th century New York life? Or should the viewers be connoisseurs who view the arts stoically and aesthetically?

One can similarly see such a contradiction between critical engagement and aesthetic detachment in the text panel of each work. The introductory panel of the exhibitions encourages viewers to use the exhibition to “recognize some of the social and economic tensions that persist in America’s cities even today.”7 Rather than seeing these artworks as  simply an artistic heritage of “a bygone era,” the exhibition consciously tries to use these prints to offer the visitors a critical lens through which they can examine and critique the inherent inequalities in present day urban modernity.8 However, the word “even” reinforces a narrative of progress that urban inequalities today are an exception rather than the rule. The introductory panel thereby reveals the museum’s attempt to both invite social and political critiques and to contain their radical potentials by stressing the progressive nature of the status quo. 

Furthermore, by juxtaposing art that depicts contradictory urban scenes, the exhibit offers a critical yet guided narrative on modern urban life that reveals the cost of technological progress. Depictions of urban parks and skyscrapers are set alongside depictions of industrial landscapes and poverty. Scenes of nighttime excursions hang right next to scenes of workers’ mobilization in the wake of the Great Depression. Such juxtaposition presents the rising gap of social inequalities in visual terms and recreates the spatial proximity between the privileged and the less privileged in urban spaces. However, such a critical approach is also limited. Among the text panels, there is a tendency to highlight arts that conferred individuality to its characters over arts that depicted urban masses. One such example is the text panel for Raphael Soyer’s “Bowery Nocturne” (1933), which emphasizes how “though nameless and ordinary, each man is carefully differentiated by clothing, hat, facial features, action, and expression to indicate his individuality.”9 Compared to some other text panels which tend to be more descriptive than analytical, this quotation implies how aesthetic merits are to a degree linked to the art’s ability to visualize individualism. This selective celebration of individualism, both in terms of the subject matter of art and in terms of the artists’ individual merit, challenges the exhibits’ critical approach which very much depends on reflecting general social trends and putting individual artworks into conversation with each other. 

Nothing exemplifies the museum’s celebration of individualism and aesthetic cultivation and its direct critique on the conformist tendencies of its visitors more than its discussion on John Sloan’s artwork “Copyist at the Metropolitan Museum” (1908). Depicting an art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, the print becomes a mirror for the Cleveland Museum of Art itself. By including it in this exhibition on the American city, the museum curators affirm the centrality of museums in modern urban life. However, it also becomes a parody on the very institution of art museums. The text panel claims how the artwork satirizes “the aura that surrounded some art objects, artists, and collectors” and “may express amusement at the common phenomenon of spectators taking interest in a painting only when it is admired by others.”10 The word “may” suggests that the text only represents one interpretation among others. However, by privileging this particular interpretation, which challenges the viewers to reflect on their own behaviors and experiences within the museum, it becomes clear how the museum sees itself as cultivating aesthetic tastes and fostering individualism among its visitors so that they can face a distracting modern urban world without being swept away by its constant transformations or by the conformist masses.

If the relationship between art museums and municipal governments is often seen as one of economic mutual benefit, this essay wishes to show how the relationship between the cities and the museums run far deeper than the economic. Art museums can teach their visitors how to approach the city with its heterogeneous built environment and its overwhelming visual culture. Museums can both affirm a triumphalist narrative of urban development and reveal the inequalities that structure such narratives of progress. Focusing on the eclectic architecture of the Cleveland Museum of Art and its exhibition on Ashcan School’s depictions of American cities, this essay argues that the aesthetical programme of art museums and its emphasis on individualism at times hinder their ability to make critical claims on the city, which entail both the formation of collectivist movements and a passionate use of art as a medium for social and political messages. 

 [1] Tony Bennett, “The Formation of the Museum” in The Birth of the Museum (Routledge, 1995), 17-58.

[2] Cleveland Museum of Art: Encyclopedia of Cleveland history: Case western reserve university. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University. (2019, November 18). Retrieved November 5, 2021, from

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The guiding maps are available in nine different languages, these maps are both necessary accessibility tools and a symbolic self-promotion on the museum’s part of its international orientation and the diversity of its audience, not unlike some cities’ self-congratulation of themselves as sites of global connections and diversity.

[6] Tony Cornbill, Urban Photography, (London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2019)

[7] Wall text, Ashcan School Prints and the American City 1900~1940, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Wall text, “Bowery Nocturne”, Ashcan School Prints and the American City 1900~1940, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

[10] Wall text, “Copyist at the Metropolitan Museum”, Ashcan School Prints and the American City 1900~1940, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

Works Cited   

  • Bennett, Tony. “The Formation of the Museum” in The Birth of the Museum. Routledge, 1995, 17-58.
  • Cleveland Museum of Art: Encyclopedia of Cleveland history: Case western reserve university. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University. (2019, November 18). Retrieved November 5, 2021, from
  • Cornbill, Tony. Urban Photography. London: Octopus Publishing Group, 2019. 
  • Wall text, Ashcan School Prints and the American City 1900~1940, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

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