Evan H. Turner, Director, Cleveland Museum of Art


Evan Hopkins Turner’s first memory of the Cleveland Museum of Art—a story he loved to tell—was of a wintry day in the early 1930s when, as a boy of four and a half, he suddenly found himself on the front steps of that grand edifice. The restless child had been spirited away from a holiday gathering of his mother’s family by his uncle, William Rowland Hopkins, who had thought the little boy might find something here to quicken his heart and occupy his mind for a while. 

In 1924, three years before his nephew was born, Hopkins had been chosen by the other members of city council to be Cleveland’s first city manager. In this capacity he had overseen the building of Public Auditorium and the creation of the city’s parks, strengthened its welfare institutions and developed the municipal airport that now bears Hopkins's name. But little Evan was more impressed that day by the dazzling array of medieval armor that greeted him—along with the “rush of warm air”—upon entering the museum.

That Turner should return half a century later to take the helm of the art museum as it prepared to mark its 75s anniversary was, you’ll have to admit, more than a little poetic. Though both sides of his mother’s family, the Hopkinses and the Trowbridges, had deep roots in the Western Reserve, Evan, born in 1927, had grown up in the East, pursuing all three of his academic degrees at Harvard.  His father, “a classic New Englander,” was related to Emily Dickinson and the great landscape painter Albert Bierstadt.

Evan Hopkins Turner would bring that double perspective to his directorship of the Cleveland Museum of Art when he succeeded the legendary Sherman Lee in 1983. “My Cleveland was really the Cleveland of the second and third decades of the century,” he told writer Margaret Lynch. By this he meant the Cleveland that had thought in world-class terms, seeing no undertaking as too grand or too daunting to undertake. “Then Cleveland had a very considerable sense of superiority, which it lost.”

Turner had gained a distinguished reputation as general curator and assistant director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut (19551959), and director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (19591964), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (19641977) and Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (19781983), where he had concurrently held the position of adjunct professor of art history at the University of North Carolina. At 55, he had nothing more to prove. But he had something important, he realized, to tell Cleveland.

He would help a city that had, in recent years, suffered the humiliation of default and an exodus of Fortune 500 companies to rediscover pride in the glories of its own historic achievement—and its considerable treasures—and he would lead the effort to claim a place for the city on the map of contemporary public art. A series of striking exhibitions threw a bright spotlight on some of these things: in 1986, Progressive Vision: Downtown Cleveland, 1903-1930; in 1989, a photographic “essay” on the city of Cleveland commissioned from the renowned architectural photographer Cervin Robinson; and in 1991, Object Lessons: Cleveland Creates an Art Museum. The last was accompanied by a handsome boxed set consisting of not one but two books, the larger one bearing the same title as the show, the slimmer, but no-less-thoughtful and illuminating volume, the title, Cleveland Builds an Art Museum: Patronage, Politics, and Architecture 1884-1916. This pair of valuable and enduring contributions to Cleveland’s understanding and appreciation of its own heritage, which bore Turner’s stamp, was augmented by two other books, Masterpieces and Handbook, an overview cum guide to the museum’s collections.

Turner chaired the Cleveland Arts Consortium from its inception in 1987 and championed public art, taking aggressive steps to rescue Free Stamp, a huge construction by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen that had been exiled to a warehouse in Illinois by its commissioner, BP America. After the company's executives had decided that they were uncomfortable with having a huge “rubber stamp” on the front doorstep of the U.S. subsidiary of the British oil conglomerate, Turner secured a prominent site for the red-steel sculpture emblazoned with the word "Free" on the east lawn of Cleveland's City Hall.

Much as Sherman Lee’s reserved, dignified manner was undercut by his fondness for chewing gum and puffing away on a stogie, Turner’s patrician bearing and arch way of speaking was delightfully counterpointed by his colorful bow ties and an irrepressible exuberance that danced in his eyes. Once, walking through the museum with this writer, he stopped suddenly before a newly acquired untitled sculpture by the American Joel Shapiro. Turner’s face lit up like a little boy’s on Christmas Day.  “Don’t you just love that thing?” he exclaimed, indicating the rakishly tilting, man-sized assemblage of three rectangular bronze forms that suggested a human torso.  “I mean,” he said, as a slightly stunned security guard looked askance at us, “is it saying this”—the director’s big six-foot-plus frame leaned precariously forward in a lunging posture, balanced on one foot, with one arm flung forward, the other trailing behind, in a caricature of a runner—“or this?”—he rocked dangerously back on one heel, leaning backward, the other leg groping the air, his arms flung as wide as he could fling them.

He would remove his thick-lens eyeglasses and put his nose just a hair from the surface of a painting—you kept waiting for the alarms to go off—as he squinted myopically at a miniscule detail or brush stroke that revealed something fascinating about the painting under review.  It had been this kind of penetrating gaze, you realized, that had led him to purchase a crushed mass of bronze found at the bottom of an excavation pit in Italy. “We expanded it slowly, over many months, with just one little turn each day of”—glancing a look over his shoulder to see if anyone was listening—“a Renault tire jack!”  The result, which was displayed in the museum’s Greek and Roman gallery, was a magnificent life-size statue—missing a head—of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. “He has such a presence,” said Turner, smiling a satisfied smile, “he almost doesn’t need a head!”

Evan Hopkins Turner brought this kind of visceral enjoyment to each work of art he stopped to admire on his daily rounds. He yearned to share that experience with all the Clevelanders who had perhaps never set foot in the museum. During his decade-long tenure as director, annual attendance at exhibitions (which included the revelatory Picasso and Things and the exclusive U.S. showing of Pharaohs: Treasures of Egyptian Art from the Louvre) rose dramatically, from an average of 450,000 in 1983 to more than 600,000), while memberships nearly doubled, from 9,300 to more than 18,000. He threw festive parties at the museum—a practice that would have horrified his predecessor—and took his effervescent charm and enthusiasm out into the community, almost quadrupling the museum’s annual fundraising from $1.1 million to almost $4 million.

A number of important works were also added to the museum's collection under Turner’s leadership, including Picasso’s Bull’s Skull, Fruit, Pitcher, Pissarro’s The Lock at Pontoise, William Holman Hunt’s Pre-Raphaelite portrait of Mrs. George Waugh, the Japanese 14th-century treasure, Jar with Scenes of Frolicking Monkeys, and William Sidney Mount’s The Power of Music, which has been called the most socially significant painting of 19th-century America. Turner aggressively beefed up the museum’s contemporary holdings and moved to greatly expand its collection of photography, began the restoration of the museum’s galleries and built a new parking garage to bring in needed revenue.

At the same time, he fought to keep access to the museum’s permanent collections free—something few other major American art museums could boast. For Evan Turner, this was the birthright of Clevelanders, and those who journey here to experience the thrill of encountering great art. It had something to do, for him, with the vitality of a great city.

—Dennis Dooley


Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org