02/14/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

About a Museum

My education in the arts began at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As a Cleveland child, I visited the museum's halls and corridors, gallery spaces and shows, over and over. For me, the Cleveland Museum was a school of my very own--the place where my eyes opened, my tastes developed, my ideas about beauty and creativity grew. I remember how often, time and again, I returned to one piece: an ancient Chinese statue of lacquered wood called "Cranes and Serpents," a piece as tall as I was, or taller. Serpents curl at the statue's base; two cranes rise tall from the base, leaning away from each other, bound by the serpents at their feet. It is hard to tell why a statue from the Chinese Period of the Warring States so captured me as a little girl.

Maybe it was the shape of the sculpture -- the way the cranes lean, I felt framed by them, caught almost as they were by the curling creatures at the base. Maybe it was the sinuous shapes of nature, caught so lovingly by the artist. Maybe it was the age of the piece; its intactness over time. Certainly, I ran through the whole world of art in that museum, from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, from Egypt to Asia to America. Whatever drew me to "Cranes and Serpents," though, it has been a touchstone ever since for the inspiration of art in my life. And "Cranes and Serpents" always brings the Cleveland Museum of Art to my mind.

That museum -- inspired by a band of prominent citizens, designed by local architects on donated land -- opened in 1916 as an achievement and adornment of its city. It was Cleveland through and through, not least in the motto it proclaimed for itself: "For the benefit of all people, forever." This was a daunting public mission in its time, but it has also been durable; a mission conscientiously met right through to the present. From its beginning, admission was free. From the beginning, since 1918 to be precise, Cleveland has had a performing arts department alongside its visual arts offerings. The museum began to collect film as soon as movies began, and it has programmed contemporary music since the 1940s. It has long offered diverse public programs, addressing the needs of diverse citizens. It has long shown living and local artists. In all these ways and more, the Cleveland Museum of Art has been a "benefit to all the people."

The museum thrives, I think, because of that long embedded public mission. When I visited it recently, I was struck all over again by the immediacy and urgency of providing "benefit to all the people." How, I wondered, is the mission met, today? There are, of course, many activities and offerings, as there always have been. But I was most impressed by two current commitments: the new atrium, the newest addition to the main museum, and the Transformer Station in Ohio City, an outpost of the museum which opened just last year. In these two spaces, Cleveland's public commitment is being met in fresh, challenging, 21st century ways.

As an article in The Plain Dealer put it, Rafael Viñoly's atrium, the heart of the main museum's current renovation, can become a kind of Pantheon in Cleveland's public life. The elegant atrium serves the conventional purposes of a central space; it is a greeting hall, the home for shops, the connection to the galleries. But the public functions of the atrium can go well beyond the usual, as The Plain Dealer points out. The new space has "... enormous potential to enhance everyday life in the city... a civic crossroads... a great public stage." As the article phrases it, the atrium can be not only an inspiring informal public place, it can also encompass art and performance "from experimental installations to works from the permanent collection, from concert series to one-time special events... chamber music, movies, video art, sculpture displays... and more... " The atrium is a space that can inspire offerings in the heart of Cleveland to audiences that might not otherwise experience them; it can be a sounding board and a stimulus for public needs and public use.

In another unusual contribution to the city, the Museum has participated in creating another public space across the Cuyahoga in Ohio City: the Transformer Station, a soaring space which reuses an abandoned utility building. Dedicated to local artists, the Transformer Station is a civic space of a new kind, "a new way of working with contemporary art and... artists," in the words of David Franklin, the museum's director. In this singular building, the museum and its partners acknowledge the importance of a local art community, giving it space and opening up the art world at one and the same time. With the Transformer Station, the Museum redefines its public presence -- the space is located where the artists and their community already live. The Museum travels to the people, rather than the other way round.

In these two acts of architectural restoration, the museum "benefits the people" by acknowledging the changes occurring in art, in participation and in community in our time. Increasingly, we are learning, the public sphere is about public space. In a recent essay, Alan Brown, a respected cultural researcher, examines the new roles of "venues and settings" in the making of community and in meeting the needs of artists and of audiences. Brown examines "... placemaking, the psychology of architecture... the role of public art in civic identity." He and other researchers study the ways unconventional spaces inspire artists, and the ways in which artists inspire new concepts of space. They think about how spaces control, or free, or stimulate audiences, about the connections spaces make between art and audiences. As Brown notes, "... arts facilities... [are]... fixed and slow to change, while culture is changing more and more rapidly." New spaces, including those of the Cleveland Museum, break the traditional distances between art and audience. They are new public platforms, meeting new needs as civic life changes, and as America becomes more diverse. In its assertive and imaginative new spaces, Cleveland meets the present, carrying into our time its mission "... for the benefit of all people... " Other institutions are growing and changing in similar searching ways.

Do children, today, stand and stare as I did at "Cranes and Serpents," in wonder at the shape and meaning of a work of art, about its size and its beauty, sensing its foreignness and, at the same time, its sweet familiarity? If children care and parents come and lessons are learned and community prospers, it is because our institutions, like the Cleveland Museum of Art, are thinking in new ways -- and in new venues -- about their commitment to serve public needs.