Cleveland Museum of Art renovations take wing

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art
and architecture critic

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Tomb Guardians, early 8th century, China, Shaanxi province, Xian; Tang dynasty (618906). Glazed earthenware, sancai (three-color) ware; 92.3 x 43.8 x 41.9 cm left; 88.9 x 41 x 50.8 cm right. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of various donors to the department of Asian Art (by exchange) 2000.118.12

The trucks have left. The construction crews have packed up. Finally, the Cleveland Museum of Art is all back together and ready for prime time.

Beginning with ticketed events on Tuesday and continuing through the first week in January with free offerings, the museum will celebrate the opening of the last of its new wings, the West Wing, housing incredible works of art from China, India, and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas.

In 2002, the museum embarked on a $350 million capital campaign to modify the institution’s blueprint while reorganizing and renewing the presentation of its unrivaled collection.

While bringing the overall museum size to nearly 600,000 square feet, including a 33 percent increase in gallery space, the museum has also updated access to the collection through state-of-the-art technology as well as installations that engage both the first-time visitor and the longtime devotee.

This includes:

• The addition of Gallery One, a 12,000-square-foot interactive learning center.

• A new glass-enclosed atrium, which, at 39,000 square feet, is Cleveland’s largest free public space.

• Fine dining at Provenance, a 76-seat restaurant and lounge, as well as Provenance Café.

• Expansion to the east and west with two new wings, restoring symmetry and providing spectacular views of Rockefeller Park.

• Improved and expanded special exhibition spaces that will make Cleveland a desirable destination for pre-eminent loan exhibitions.

Buffed, dusted and polished to perfection, objects in the new galleries are being shown for the first time in galleries designed for them.

Rarely on view in the past, some of the objects, such as the fragments of a stupa, can now be seen in context.

Buddhist stupas were originally built to house the earthly remains of the historical Buddha and his associates and are almost invariably found at sites sacred to Buddhism. The concept of a relic was afterward extended to include sacred texts.

The museum has erected the fragments so that visitors can grasp the concepts that led to their construction more fully.

“The more you come to the worship site, the more spiritual merit you accumulate,” said Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the museum’s curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art.

“Buddhism said ‘there is no god; you reach liberation through your own acts.’ Budd­hism needed an organization because there was no priesthood, so they had to attract people to come to these wondrous sites,” she said. “They’re like tourist sites. The early Buddhists worked hard to make their sites wondrous. When you attract people to come, then maybe they’ll convert and if they have money, then the movement will survive.”

The Indian conception of the stupa spread throughout the Buddhist world and evolved into such different-looking monuments as the bell-shaped dagaba (“heart of garbha”) of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the terraced temple of Borobudur in Java, the variations in Tibet, and the multistoried pagodas of China, Korea and Japan. The basic symbolism, in which the central relic is identified with the sacred person or concept commemorated and also with the building itself, is retained. Worship of a stupa consists of walking around the monument in the clockwise direction.

Around the 5th century, the image of the Buddha became canonical. In earlier galleries, Quintanilla pointed out, Buddha’s image changed a lot, but by the 5th century his image had become set.

It’s also at this point that the sculptures on the east side of the gallery (Gallery 246), which are Indian sculptures can be clearly seen to have an influence on the sculptures on the west side, which are Southeast Asian sculptures, of the Gupta or Medieval periods.

“I wanted to keep the Indian Buddhist art near the Chinese Buddhist art so you can see where it came from,” Quintanilla explained. “Then I can show how Indian sculpture translates into Southeast Asian sculpture.

“It’s not a straight, linear program that you have to follow, but it is organized chronologically and geographically.

“This gallery reflects the Buddhist temple, whereas the previous gallery reflected the stupa. The temple also holds the cremated remains of the Buddha or a high-level holy man.”

The small, bronze effigies of Buddha also made it possible to move Buddhism out of India and into China, the Himalayas and Southeast Asia.

“Today, there is no Buddhism in India,” Quintanilla said. “It all disappeared after the 13th century A.D. The Buddhist monasteries became extremely wealthy, so they were attacked for their treasures. So they left and went to areas where Buddhism was state-supported.”

The galleries that display the art of China contain 5,000 years of materials — “a long, long history,” said Anita Chung, the Cleveland museum’s curator of Chinese art. I tried to organize it in such a way as to bring objects of similar context and similar meaning together.

“This first gallery is about ancient Chinese art from the Neolithic period to the bronze age and early antique period. The Neolithic period works were made for various reasons. They all have symbolic meanings.

“This very abstract design could be related to a bird, a totem or an early idea about the forces of nature.”

“This is the earliest painted pottery. That is early jade, a jade blade made four to five thousand years ago almost two millimeters thin — ceremonial pieces because jade has always been a precious stone. …”

“The beauty is in the very fine carvings and the symmetry,” she pointed out. “The Cleveland collection is really an outstanding and distinctive collection. “Every piece is a masterpiece, reaching the highest artistic achievement of the time.”

Read more on West Wing art at

Those who are 21 or older and willing to pay to get a first look at these wonders will be able to do so from 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, as 2013 fades into memory and 2014 puts its best foot forward. Participants will dance to the music of disc jockeys, the Dustbin Brothers and the Burnt Sugar Arkestra, a 17-piece jam band founded by groove bassist Jared Michael Nickerson and Village Voice icon Greg “Ironman” Tate. Tickets include open bars and hors d’oeuvres all night.

On Thursday, the museum will focus on family fun events, including a 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. scavenger hunt, story times, guided tours, art making and more.

Friday’s events include a 10-11 a.m. meditation in the Indian and Southeast Asian galleries with Buddhist nun Ani Palmo Rybicki and an 11-11:30 a.m. tour of the new West Wing galleries (tickets at North Lobby Welcome Table) by Anita Chung, curator of Chinese art.

On Saturday, delve deeper into the new Chinese and Southeast Asian art galleries through special talks and tours: Russian Ark Nonstop from 10:15 a.m.-4:50 p.m. in the Lecture Hall; Scholar’s Talk: Collecting China in Cleveland: Ink Painting and Buddhist Sculpture with Noelle Giuffrida, assistant professor of East Asian Art at Case Western Reserve University, from 1-2 p.m. in Gallery 244 and more.

A schedule of events can be found at

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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