As Megan Lykins Reich stands on the second floor of the museum’s Monumental Stairs on an unseasonably warm March morning, Cleveland’s East Side moves behind her. Five minutes later, Lykins is outside, posing in front of MoCa’s jagged exterior as part of a photo shoot, a change that makes the city’s pulse all the more noticeable. Cars zoom by. Students from Case Western Reserve University saunter by. Nearby, two workers from the city fix a broken streetlamp. If the twisting, turning streets of Cleveland East Side are the region’s arteries, then Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art is the heart.
And since January, that heartbeat has gone through Lykins, who, after being with the museum since 2004, was named MoCa’s kohl executive director. We spoke with Reich about the building’s impact on Cleveland’s East Side, along with the museum’s future.
Q. How does this space help with MoCa’s mission?
A. This space was really built to respond to our mission and it embodies what we're trying to do at MOCA. The idea of the flexibility of this space along our ability to change it up and use it in as many ways as an artist can imagine is exciting. Even on something like the Monumental Stair, you have someone like Aram Han Sifuentes who comes in and uses it as an opportunity to do the citizenship test on the steps. The angularity, dimensions and irregularity of the building keeps us all on our toes and reminds us of the need to be open and adaptive. It's a challenge as a building; it’s a weighty, loud and aggressive space. It's also something where we're always in dialogue with it, which is important because it is where we do our work. It's very present.
Q. This building is incredibly unique in how crooked, jagged and all over the place it is. How does that contribute to creativity?
A. Artists are always really inspired when they come to the building for the first time. We really encourage artists that we’re working with who don't live in Cleveland to come for a site visit, because this space is so unique. We have a lot of art in the public spaces because the art is in dialogue with the architecture. There's a real conversation that's always happening. Something like the staircase as a social space. There's a lot of platforms on it. It's intended for visitors, staff and stakeholders to interact and see one another and have these sort of special moments as they're moving through the building. The building encourages creativity in alternative spaces, not just the obvious gallery space.
Q. Do you have a favorite part of the building that not a lot of people know about?
A. There's not a ton of privacy in this building since there are glass walls everywhere. That said, the Galvin Conference Room is a spot where I spent a lot of time before COVID. I really love that space. It's a private space where you can have a sort of intimate discussions, important planning meetings, but you have that huge glass wall that looks out onto the stairs so you're always engaged with the program, visitors and the guests. Also, there’s a ladder that goes to the roof. And the roof is not flat; it’s mildly pinched. It is so bizarre when you get on the roof because there's no ledge, it just sort of looks like it dives off into nowhere. It’s the coolest, weirdest, scariest place in the building that almost no one gets to see. We had an artist several years ago who did a project and part of it was in the gallery and part of it was on the roof, so we all had to go up occasionally. It is terrifying and beautiful at the same time.
Q. How has the space changed since you started?
A. We’ve made some important changes since we opened the building almost 10 years ago. And the most obvious one was we redesigned the welcome area because it was a bit too aggressive and it wasn't very accessible, especially for people with mobility disabilities or devices. We wanted to create an opportunity for when people came in to have a little bit more ease in that initial exchange because the exterior of the building is reflective, so people don't know what's inside. We've really tried to push the building in a lot of different ways with the artworks that we've shown by using photo text and installations on the surfaces of the stair; it’s a fire stair, so we can't hang things inside. We’ve also been addressing the fact that as you live in a space and you get to know it, it loses that precious fragility, and you start to hit it a little bit harder with ideas. Now that we're at 10 years, we have some ideas on how we want to push it further. Renée Green, one of the artists we’re working with this summer, said the best way to work with the building is to just appreciate what it is and not try to change it. Her work is very architecturally focused and she's gonna be doing a lot of subtle relational work that I'm excited to see.
Q. What’s it like to work in a place with so much natural light?
A. It's really nice, except when I'm on a Zoom call, I look like I'm being attacked by the sun. So what's weird is it the building is in the round, so depending on where you are, and where the sun is, you can see these really pronounced expressions of light hitting. It's beautiful.
Q. How does this space expand upon the legacy of MoCa?
A. We’re always thinking about the outside of the building and its relationship to the neighborhood and to the site. We’re exploring ways in which the footprint of the building and the surrounding area can be engaged more by artists. Unlike other museums, you can just come right up to our building and interact with it. A lot of people come up to the window and dance in front of it thinking it’s a mirror and not a reflective window. We’re really trying to continue to help the building be playful and welcoming; the one challenge of the building is that it’s reflective, which can make it a little imposing and intimidating because you can't see inside. We’re trying to soften that people so they can see art, and the Tony Tasset hand sculpture that’s up in front is a great opportunity to do that. And then inside we’re continuing to mess around with it and invite artists to really push around. There is not a lot of flexibility beyond what it is so it’s not like we can add a rooftop garden or something, but we'll continue to play with it as much as we can and invite other organizations to do their programming in the space.
Q. Lastly, how does the neighborhood contribute to what MoCa is?
A. It’s very relational. We are part of the neighborhood and we're responsive to the neighborhood. Uptown is kind of a synthetic space that was designed for some specific purposes, but our desire is to make this museum relational to our neighbors in places like Little Italy, University Circle, Glenville and East Cleveland. So again, making the museum a space where people can come in and out comfortably. It's a space so you can come in and walk around for 15 minutes. We’re free, so there’s no barrier there. You can come and check it out, wander around and then go back to your job or go get something to eat. And it doesn’t have to be the singular experience; it can be this kind of consistent experience that you work into your days.