Exhibits Celebrate moCa's Early Days and Conversations With Strangers

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Cleveland’s museum of contemporary art, moCa, celebrates its 50th anniversary with exhibits both exploring its past and what contemporary art can be.

 “The Mending Project” invites people to have a conversation with a stranger. Visitors are to bring an item of clothing for a volunteer mender to fix or embellish at the museum. The mender then sews the item on the spot and chats with the visitor. The idea is for the visitor to then leave that item at moCa to become tethered to other articles of clothing as part of a visual display.

Artist Lee Mingwei shared his vision for “The Mending Project” with volunteers in Cleveland before the exhibit opened so they could carry out the concept. The work originated from Mingwei’s personal experiences on September 11, 2001, as he wondered if his partner, who worked inside the World Trade Center, was alive.

“At that moment, I went home and took out everything I needed to repair (and) started repairing until I heard the key lock turn, and there he was standing covered in ash and blood with six other strangers behind him that he collected along the path,” Mingwei said.

The project was a way to create something positive from a tragedy and is part of a larger exhibition, “You Are Not a Stranger,” that encourages conversations.

Lee Mingwei, "The Mending Project" [Lee Mingwei]

That aligns with the role moCa aims to play in the community, according to executive director Jill Snyder.

“When I thought about the 50th anniversary, I thought about what messages I wanted to send out to the world, not only on the 50th anniversary but at this moment of time… really of turbulence in our world,” Snyder said. “It felt to me that the most important message we could be sending at this time was museums could be a place for civil conversation, for deepening our humanity.”

As part of its 50th anniversary, moCa also announced admission is now free of cost.

moCa’s mission today is an evolution from the early days. It began as “The New Gallery,” founded by three women as a place to sell contemporary art in Cleveland. The gallery opened in a storefront just down the street from its current spot on Euclid Avenue in 1968.

Founders Marjorie Talalay and Nina Sundell when the New Gallery opened. [Mitchael J. Zaremba/Plain Dealer]

“The late 60s was really a time when many of these alternative, contemporary art galleries were opening around the country,” Snyder said. “It was consistent with a period of social activism where contemporary art and contemporary artists were seen as maverick and renegade.”

Two anniversary exhibits honor many now well-known contemporary artists from moCa's earlier days, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. One exhibit, “Sunrise,” features works selected by the daughters of the founders. The other, “Abe Frajndlich: Portraits of Our Early Years,” spotlights photos of contemporary artists taken by a Clevelander who was an early visitor of the New Gallery.

“In 1970, when I knew nothing about the existence of an art world and even less about the existence of a photo world, I used wander in that gallery,” said photographer Abe Frajndlich. “I was sort of mesmerized by what I was seeing, [because] I completely did not understand it. And yet, I was curious.”

Frajndlich then moved to New York City and become a photographer who captured portraits of many contemporary artists throughout his career.

And he grew up with the contemporary art movement as moCa did, too.

“It’s a wonderful institution, and you could feel in the very early days that it was gonna get bigger and it was going to be meaningful, and it has done that,” he said.

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