MOCA Cleveland has never been afraid of breaking ground. The institution was the first space in the region to show works by pioneers such as Andy Warhol, Jaspar Johns and Cindy Sherman. Now, it’s looking for the next innovator.
As the museum prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary this month, a new award ensures its experimental spirit is fostered into the future. In December 2017, MOCA announced the launch of Toby’s Prize, a $50,000 biennial award given to a rising, innovative artist who would benefit from museum support. The recipient receives the funds and curator support to develop a solo exhibit that will make its worldwide premiere at MOCA.
Named for Toby Devan Lewis, an art philanthropist and MOCA honorary director, the award furthers the institution’s long-term goal to make contemporary art more accessible. “The prize allows us to be a broadcaster in the sense that we are bringing in artists from other places and sharing that exciting work with people here,” explains Courtenay Finn, MOCA’s chief curator. It’s a mission also strengthened by Open House, a new collection of initiatives which include free admission for all, “engagement apprenticeships“ which help visitors better understand the art and more family-friendly programs.
Toby’s Prize also helps advance MOCA’s goal to exist more as a lab for innovation than just a collection of gallery walls. As part of the prize, artists are encouraged to come to Cleveland and work with MOCA curators to envision and research their new work and concepts.
“It helps us move from being just a presentation space to a true production space,” Finn says.
The first winner, Sondra Perry, was selected by an international panel of modern art curators from institutions such as New York’s Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Her exhibit, A Terrible Thing, opens April 27, the same day as MOCA’s 50th anniversary gala.
A contemporary artist from New Jersey, Perry has explored how technology repurposes and often exploits identity. At her show at the Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York, Perry displayed cellphone videos of her and her twin brother walking through museums while a narrator discussed how these images were taken.
The exhibit was meant to mirror her brother’s own modern day experiences with exploitation. A former Division I basketball player, his image was used in an Electronic Arts March Madness video game — without his consent.
But for A Terrible Thing, an exhibit inspired by the MOCA building’s architecture and its work environment, Perry found herself considering some of the same questions MOCA curators have been pondering as the museum looks toward the future.
“She’s looking at the life of the museum as an entity,” says Will Brown, an assistant curator at MOCA. “Imagining the building as a life, with its own sounds and smells, and how the people working within that space are creating and altering it to give it an identity.”