William Griswold Cleveland Museum of Art William Griswold Cleveland Museum of Art
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William Griswold fixes his gaze on a patch of fickle bamboo.

The late afternoon sun streams through the soaring glass roof of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s atrium, washing over the plants and creating a uniform series of golden stripes on the stone floor.

Perched three stories up, the museum director cocks his head sideways while pondering the bamboo in a gardenlike section near the white cafe tables at the west end of the atrium.

These are not always happy little stalks.

“The bamboo sometimes looks healthier than other times,” he says with a mix of chagrin and levity. “I’ve even cherished, dreamed of replacing it.”

The issue must be serious if Griswold, who has a deep affection for Asian art and culture, wants to uproot the symbol of strength, virtue and resilience. Tinkering with the atrium, the heart of the museum’s Rafael Viñoly-designed $320 million, eight-year-plus expansion, seems akin to correcting the Mona Lisa’s smile. 

“It’s a space that looks beautiful when it’s empty and looks beautiful when it’s full of people,” he says. But something isn’t quite right. 

“It’s a space that is crying out for art.”

The trick is accommodating both the wildly popular activities and events held in the mammoth public space and any art installations. It’s one of the biggest challenges facing the museum.  

But Griswold’s to-do list looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, and the atrium is just one splatter. He’s reimagining other areas of Viñoly’s building and using the museum’s centennial this year as a chance to focus on community outreach — a founding principle when it opened in 1916. 

The yearlong centennial celebration kicked off with a New Year’s Eve party and has continued with special exhibits and loans from other museums. This month brings two birthday celebrations June 6 and 7, and a festival weekend June 25 and 26, which includes the annual Solstice party and a Cleveland Orchestra performance.

“I like having lots of balls in the air,” he chides.

Tall, lean and a dynamo of energy, Griswold is the Leonardo
da Vinci of museum leadership. The multifaceted 55-year-old combines sincerity, curatorial expertise and a collector-level grasp of the art market with a genuine desire to connect people and art. Griswold began as director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in August 2014, less than a year after the sudden resignation of director David Franklin, who left amid a scandal surrounding an improper relationship with a co-worker. 

Since Griswold has taken the lead, the museum drew 640,000 visitors in 2015, its highest attendance in years, and successfully closed the funding campaign for the expansion. 

In the next two years, the museum will launch exhibitions on festival-themed Old Master paintings and a Jazz Age and art deco show in partnership with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

As masterful as the future looks for Griswold and the museum, lingering questions about the director’s provenance give pause. Over the last 15 years, Griswold has changed jobs four times. He moved from the Morgan Library & Museum in New York to Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum in 2001, then to the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2005, back to the Morgan in 2007 and eventually to Cleveland in 2014. 

“He’s been a museum hopper,” says Lee Rosenbaum, a veteran culture journalist who writes for The Wall Street Journal and blogs as CultureGrrl at artsjournal.com. “For Cleveland that’s a little bit scary. The ideal is the long-term stability of a major director staying at a major institution.”

Consistent museum leadership is vital to fundraising, exhibition programming and building a lasting connection to the community. While Griswold is only the 10th director in 100 years, he’s the fifth since Robert P. Bergman died unexpectedly in 1999. Like so many other things in his life, Griswold’s answer to such concerns is both thoughtful and heartfelt. 

“There has been more turnover in this office than one would like,” Griswold says. “I took all of that very seriously in thinking about coming here.”

Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, is less than a three-hour drive from New York City. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are even closer. Griswold grew up in the little borough of less than 8,000 just across the Susquehanna River from state capital Harrisburg.

His parents, Robert and Laura, took advantage of their proximity to the nation’s cultural meccas by regularly venturing on road trips to each city for museum visits. 

Fascinated by the mystery and beauty of the Egyptian pharaoh’s golden mask and sarcophagus, Griswold fondly recalls touring the Tutankhamun exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in the nation’s capital. The intrigue of the ancient relics from another part of the world sparked his imagination.

At Trinity College in Connecticut, Griswold took art history, French and English literature even though he planned on attending law school. Being a lawyer seemed to be a more logical path, but all of those family trips to museums had his heart stuck on art. He graduated from Trinity with a bachelor’s degree in art history.

“Art and museums have always been a part of my life,” Griswold says. “I just fell in love with it.” 

In graduate school at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, he studied Italian Renaissance drawings — sketches that often come before masterpieces — because he loved the intimacy of the medium. “Many of the most exciting drawings are the ones where you can see the artist correcting his mistakes, reimagining a composition or a figure,” he says.

He felt close to the mind and hand of the artist’s creative process.

“He’s deeply passionate,” says Christopher Malstead, Griswold’s partner of 25 years. “Works of art and museums have both intellectual and emotional resonance, and he’s captivated by both of those.”

Griswold was drawn to Florentine artist Piero Di Cosimo’s originality and eccentricity. In 1988, he completed his doctoral dissertation on the artist’s collected drawings, which are few, and soon got his first museum job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as assistant curator of drawings. It was a nice break from the intense doctoral research on a single artist.

“I absolutely loved it,” Griswold says. “Becoming a curator was like coming up for air. Suddenly, I could be a generalist again.”

When he joined the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue in 1995, he headed the drawings department, which had a vast collection of Old Master drawings, including five by Michelangelo. “The Morgan is a wonderful place with extraordinary depth in works on paper,” Griswold says.

The former library and office of financier Pierpont Morgan and his son, J.P., also holds special personal value for Griswold: It’s where he met Malstead at an exhibition of drawings by Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck on Valentine’s Day in 1991.

But by the late 1990s, Griswold started repainting the lines of his career. 

He fell hard for Chinese art on a trip to the country. He identified with the gestural similarities between European drawings and Chinese paintings and particularly enjoyed the country’s ceramics.

“The objects are really beautiful,” Griswold says. “And the religious concepts that undergird so much artistic production in Asia is really fascinating.” 

He also wanted a closer hand in influencing an institution’s

“There are so many different ways to think about works of art in museums,” says Malstead, who took art history at Columbia University. “He’s deeply proficient at communicating that range of meaning and importance.”

Griswold inched closer to his goal in 2001 when he became associate director for collections at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the sprawling, palatial institution set in the hills of northwest Los Angeles. “That was my introduction to leadership,” he says.

He worked with the Getty’s six curatorial departments and closely with Peggy Fogelman, who was the assistant director for education and interpretation. The two bonded over East Coast ties and the horrors of LA traffic. They collaborated on community projects such as an interactive space for families and expanding the role of education at the Getty.

“He came from a curatorial background,” says Fogelman, who took over as director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Garden Museum earlier this year. “But he had a deep and sincere interest and enthusiasm for how museums interface with their public.” 

When he became interim director of the Getty in 2004, rumors swirled that he could be a candidate for the permanent directorship there. But Griswold dreamed of leading a bigger museum with stronger civic ties.

While one of the most visited museums in the United States, the Getty’s influence on the city’s cultural landscape is overshadowed by the much larger Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“That was a fantastic leadership experience,” Griswold says. “But, I wasn’t at all sure that LA was the right place for me.”

In early 2005, the Minneapolis Institute of Art began a five-month search for a new director after Evan Mauer, who led the
institute for 16 years, retired for health reasons. It was the big, cultural anchor Griswold wanted. The museum had a wealth of Old Master paintings and Chinese art, and a major expansion near completion.

When he became director in October 2005, Griswold worked to complete the expansion and oversaw the installation of more than 30 galleries. It seemed like a perfect frame for Griswold’s career aspirations — and for a short time, it was.

“I loved it,” he says. But then, in 2007, the Morgan called looking for a new director. 

“I had this romantic notion that New York was where I belonged and that the Morgan was where I belonged,” Griswold says.

Leading the Morgan felt like destiny. He even told Rosenbaum in a May 2007 interview that the Morgan “is my retirement job.”

All of that changed when the Cleveland Museum of Art search committee called in 2014 to gauge his interest in becoming the director. 

Griswold had a past with the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

When he first visited as a graduate student in the 1980s, he was mesmerized by Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew (which goes on view this month after two years of restoration) and admired the museum’s collection of Asian art.

It had been nearly a decade since he’d visited, and Griswold was overwhelmed by the expansion and atrium. He saw the atrium’s potential even then, despite its lack of art.

Cleveland had all the elements of a

“I found my dream job,” he says, glancing out at the atrium from the conference room above. “I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else.”

In the Cleveland Museum of
Art’s West Wing, Griswold channels his inner Krishna. 

He unbuttons his suit coat for a little flexibility and glances over his shoulder. He juts his left hip up and out, and raises his left hand to the sky — palm up and turned inward. 

“The left hand is holding up Mount Govardhan to protect the cow herds from a rainstorm that was brought by Indra,” he says, reciting the story from memory while peeking back again to make sure the look is right.

Behind him against a reddish-brown wall in the Indian and Southeast Asian gallery stands Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan. The 8-foot-tall, roughly 1,400-year-old Cambodian sculpture has been at the museum since 1973. It’s part of a long list of Asian art acquired and restored during the tenure of former director Sherman Lee, who, like Griswold, was an Asian art enthusiast and curator at heart.

“This is a really good, thoughtful restoration,” Griswold says, motioning to the Krishna. “But we now know that in some subtle way, it’s not exactly right.”

For starters, the left hand, which holds up the mount, is missing. But it was recently acquired from the National Museum of Cambodia. Now, the left hand, which includes part of a backing plate, is on the other side of the museum in the conservation lab. That piece of sandstone sculpture will soon be joined with the rest of the Krishna. 

But by piecing the sculpture together with 3-D printed replicas, conservators think there should be more torsion to the body. To make the left hand fit, the left hip should actually be pitched up higher.

The discovery of the subtle change wouldn’t be possible without the left hand, which the museum received as a result of Griswold’s efforts working with the Cambodian museum since he arrived.

Throughout the museum’s history, directors have left their marks. Frederic A. Whiting, the first director, had the task of assembling the initial 7,000-piece collection, much of which was textiles. He also saw to the completion of the $1.25 million Beaux Arts-style building and worked to make sure it served as a teaching institution by establishing a library and education department.

Starting in 1952 as a curator, Lee amassed an Asian art collection that includes works such as a bronze Standing Buddha from 591 and 22-foot-long hand scroll painting Portraits of Emperor Qianlong, the Empress, and Eleven Imperial Consorts from 1770s China. With the help of a $35 million bequest from Cleveland philanthropist Leonard C. Hanna Jr., which positioned the museum among the richest in the country, he acquired works such as Frederic Edwin Church’s famous Twilight in the Wilderness. Lee also spearheaded two major renovations, in 1958 and 1970, that added gallery space, the Ingalls Library and Museum Archive and Gartner Auditorium. 

A generation later, Lee’s daughter Katharine Lee Reid, initiated the most recent expansion, including selecting Viñoly as the architect. 

In less than two years, Griswold hasn’t been afraid to revise Viñoly’s vision. This month, a reimaging of the Japanese and Korean galleries debuts on the second floor of the most recent expansion.

“The expansion is great,” Griswold says. “It’s a pretty remarkable thing, but the Japanese and Korean galleries we felt could be made more coherent.”

An excess of natural light spilling into the North Wing galleries through a set of doors leading to the atrium caused the works to be washed out against the grayish walls. The galleries were also broken into three unconnected rooms, which resulted in an awkward flow of traffic and visitors skipping them altogether.

“We have a great collection of Japanese paintings,” Griswold says, “but we felt we couldn’t really show them as well as we’d liked.”

As part of the redesign, the doors to the atrium have been closed off, because the long second-floor hallway connecting the Asian, textiles, pre-Columbian and contemporary galleries is used more often. The Japanese and Korean galleries have been combined into one unified room with a new coat of purplish-brown paint to better highlight the paintings and bronze and giltwood sculptures.

But Griswold’s favorite part of the project reawakens an artistic flourish diminished by Viñoly’s expansion, which butts up against the 1970-built Marcel Breuer building that serves as the main entrance. To Griswold’s delight, Breuer’s colossal stone staircase next to Gallery One in the lobby now connects new and old. Previously there was no second-floor connection between the Viñoly and Breuer buildings. By punching a hole in the back wall of the Japanese and Korean galleries, the staircase provides a new avenue into the redesigned Viñoly galleries.

“It’s a really beautiful staircase,” Griswold says. “Now it will be one of the principal routes to the galleries. That wasn’t planned [by Viñoly], and so I’m really proud of that.”

Griswold makes frequent trips to the conservation lab, which is tucked out of sight in the northeast corner of the museum.

“I spend too much time there,” he jokes, as he crosses the atrium toward it. “The conservators never get anything done.” 

Once inside, Griswold strides slowly from object to object. Ancient Asian goodies surround him. 

There’s a ceremonial Japanese Buddhist bell, a bronze Korean triad sculpture and a Burmese Buddha that hasn’t gone on view since the museum acquired it in 2011. They are lightly draped with plastic wrap to keep away dust. Many will be installed in galleries soon.

“This is, I think right now, the single most exciting place in the entire museum,” he says, seemingly defying gravity as he rocks on the balls of his feet. He gently lifts the wrap off a Buddha from the Japanese Kamakura period from the 12th to 14th centuries. “This is wood, but its surface survives in a remarkable state.”

These trips are how he stays connected to art. With a job focused on managing a staff of more than 400, raising money and embracing technology, it’s easy to lose sight of the art.

Griswold is also on the front line when it comes to acquisitions, such as the pickup of a dozen pieces of pre-Columbian gold last year. On the suggestion of curator Susan Bergh, he went to inspect the pieces, which included a pendant, chest ornament and beaker in the shape of a head, at Sotheby’s in New York.

He motions toward the vessel. “I just thought, This is something that we absolutely had to have,” he says.

Griswold also hopes to use his savvy with artists, collectors and dealers to solve the Cleveland Museum of Art’s atrium problem. “There are a number of options,” he says. “One is to use it for contemporary commissions that could be suspended in that space.”

He’s already proved the idea can work. Part of the Morgan’s 2006 expansion included a four-story glass atrium connecting two existing buildings that serves as an extremely successful event space. 

The Morgan commissioned a work from Chinese artist Xu Bing for the atrium. Bing’s The Living Word incorporated Chinese characters for “bird” arranged on the floor in black and white that eventually took flight off the ground and morphed into a flock of colorful birds the higher they rose, flying suspended from the ceiling.

Not only did it bring art to the space, it attracted younger audiences and boosted attendance during its summer to fall run in 2011.

As for the bamboo here in Cleveland, Griswold dreams of replacing it with architecture — maybe parts of a Chinese courtyard house, Greek temple or a Frank Lloyd Wright building.

He takes the atrium task to heart. 

“To step into this atrium is to be persuaded that this is the museum where you want to be,” he says.

Griswold’s nervous about rain. Ahead of June’s collage of centennial events, a crescendo on a yearlong celebration that’s included exhibitions such as Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt and loans such as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), he’s hopeful Cleveland’s notorious skies remain calm. “It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he says. “I do hope we have good weather.”

Griswold’s beefed up on the museum’s history. He knew about the Hanna bequest during Lee’s time, “which of course made this institution a force to be reckoned with in the art market,” he says.

But he didn’t realize the museum’s centennial was timed so closely with institutions such as Playhouse Square’s in 2015 and the Cleveland Orchestra’s in 2018. “It’s really extraordinary what was happening here at the turn of the 20th century,” he says.

Perhaps Griswold’s fondest bit of museum history is from before it opened. Jeptha H. Wade II donated the land the museum sits on and is often credited with stating that the museum must be “for the benefit of all the people forever.”

“The concept is so remarkable,” Griswold says of the mission. “We mustn’t ever lose track of that history, because it’s a great legacy.”

As he hopped from museum to museum, Griswold was searching for an institution that felt woven into a city’s cultural urban fabric, somewhere that benefited its community. 

Griswold was the artist, and Peter Raskind had the canvas. The Cleveland Museum of Art trustee led the 2014 search committee that hired Griswold and was looking for a director who would relish the role of community leader.

“There’s been some sense historically that the museum can feel a little distant to the community at large,” says Raskind, the former CEO of National City Bank. “People want to engage and want to have someone who will engage with them on a personal level.”

Griswold hasn’t been shy about meeting museumgoers. He greets visitors when he’s out in the galleries, at its monthly Mix happy hour events and at last year’s Solstice party — which was his first.

This month’s centennial events, such as the June 6 member’s only day and June 25 Solstice party, will offer plenty more opportunities to connect with the public. 

In keeping with the museum’s mission, some centennial events will be free. The museum’s official June 7 daylong birthday party will feature free admission to the Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt exhibit, centennial chats in front of masterpieces, interactive family events and “of course ice cream and cake for the entire community,” Griswold says.

The Centennial Festival Weekend that kicks off with the Solstice party will end the next day with a free performance by the Cleveland Orchestra in the fine arts garden around Wade Lagoon. 

For Griswold, these events are icing on the cake. He’s excited about two new children’s programs, which will foster arts in the community. 

Studio Go will hit 50 locations throughout the city from June to October. The mobile studio gives kids a chance to learn about printmaking or portraiture. A new program called Art Explorers for ages 5-12 will let them earn points by visiting the museum. Eventually, they can redeem the points for a membership for their family.

“The young visitors today are our trustees of tomorrow, our curators of tomorrow, tomorrow’s artists,” he says. “Art should be an important part of people’s lives. It makes us better people.”

For Griswold, that’s more important than all the exhibitions, acquisitions, parties or atriums brimming with art. It’s key to the institution’s next 100 years.

“We have a great legacy here to celebrate,” he says. “But a centennial isn’t a moment to stop. A centennial is a pivot. We pivot from our first hundred years to our second.” 

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