Marjorie Talalay, Co-Founder and Director, Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 19212008


It is hard to imagine what the lives and careers of Cleveland artists, or Cleveland’s relationship to contemporary art and architecture, would have been like over the past four decades without Marjorie Talalay. In fact, her impact on the latter has been felt as far away as Bilbao, Spain, where architect Frank Gehry’s bold vision of that city’s Guggenheim Museum had its roots, like Case Western Reserve University’s stunning Peter B. Lewis Building, in abandoned concepts Gehry had developed at the request of Lewis, a forward-thinking Cleveland billionaire and art patron, for his home and corporate headquarters. After all, it was Talalay who first brought these two extraordinary men together.

But then, Talalay was in the business of introducing provocative new artists to people who are interested seeing their world with fresh eyes. Because of her determination and chutzpah, many Clevelanders discovered the works of  scores of artists and architects who transformed our ideas of beauty and what is meaningful in the second half of the 20th century.

For all that, Talaly entered the visual art scene in a modest way, with a storefront gallery that opened in December of 1968 in a former dry-cleaning establishment on Euclid Avenue where Mayfield Road veers off into Little Italy. The New Gallery, as it was unpretentiously named, was to become Cleveland’s window on the world of contemporary art, which was then bursting with fresh ideas. Roy Lichtenstein’s now immortal comic strip images rendered in huge Ben Day dots and Andy Warhol's commentaries on celebrity, rendered in multiple portraits of iconic figures ranging from Chairman Mao to Marilyn Monroe, were among the New Gallery's groundbreaking exhibits.

A key asset in the opening of this window was Talalay’s partner, Nina Castelli Sundell, whose father, the gutsy New York art dealer Leo Castelli, was an early champion of Pop Art. Sundell was living in Cleveland because her husband, Michael, had taken a job in the English department of Case Western Reserve University at around the same time as the New York City-born Talalay had relocated to Cleveland from New Haven, Connecticut, because her husband, Anselm, a chemist and inventor, had accepted a position with Akron's B.F. Goodrich. Company.

By 1971, the New Gallery had built up a sufficient following and clientele to enable it to move into a large Victorian home on Bellflower Road in University Circle. There, over the next 17 years, Clevelanders would be introduced to new work by Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Adrian Piper, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms; the latter created a room-size installation depicting the Cuyahoga River and downtown Cleveland in his trademark cartoon-cut out style. Talalay (Sundell left town in 1973) also championed—and showed—local artists, such as Don Harvey, John Pearson, John Moore and the Oberlin-based sculptor Athena Tacha. Her trailblazing eventually prompted the opening of other contemporary arts galleries and a growing interest in the work of area artists. Talaly, who also showcased contemporary dance and performance art, subsequently became the founding board president of David Shimotakahara’s GroundWorks DanceTheater.

After a brief three-year experiment with a downtown satellite of the New Gallery in the new Galleria shopping mall, both locations were closed, and the organization moved into spacious new quarters at the Cleveland Play House complex created by world-renowned architect Philip Johnson. The renamed Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art (now MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art-Cleveland) now enjoyed one of the largest exhibition spaces for new art in the entire Midwest. And Talalay, with the help of ardent and knowledgeable patrons such as Toby Lewis and Clevelander-turned-New Yorker Aggie Gund, who was to become president of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, proceeded to fill that grand space with cutting-edge work by local and internationally acclaimed artists.

The 25th anniversary of the center in 1993 brought together works by 98 of the more than 1,200 shown at the New Gallery/MOCA since its beginning, including such important figures as Georg Baselitz, Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer, Andres Serrano, Cindy Sherman, Frank Stella, Faith Ringgold and performing artist Laurie Anderson.  But the retiring Talalay said the thing she was proudest of was the lecture series she had organized in the late 1970s and ’80s,with national figures addressing a series of fascinating themes.

"American Pop Art and the Culture of the 60s" (1976) featured feminist film critic Molly Haskell and New Journalist Tom Wolfe. "Trends in Contemporary Architecture" (1978), a six-part series presented in collaboration with Cuyahoga Community College, brought New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger and five architects, including Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who were taking on the long-entrenched International (“glass and steel”) Style by championing postmodernism. “Each lecture attracted over 400 people,” Talalay would later remember, and Cleveland Magazine critic James M. Wood called the timing of the series and of the accompanying exhibition “inspired.” Cleveland was reeling from the embarrassment of default and was already gathering resolve to rebuild its reputation and its image.

"The Artist as Designer" (1982) brought to Cleveland the Harvard landscape architectural design team of Peter Walker and Martha Schwartz and the controversial architect Frank Gehry, who spoke on “Architecture as Art.” Peter Lewis was there and listening, and thus began what Plain Dealer art and architecture critic Steve Litt would call “one of the more fruitful architect-patron relationships of the late 20th century.”

Marjorie Talalay died in 2008, at the age of 87, having just moved back to her native New York City to be with family. But her legacy endures. “A studio can be a lonely place,” Cleveland artist Don Harvey once told writer Nancy Depke. “Artists can’t thrive without the community. Artists need to meet their audience.” Actually, Marjorie Talalay often observed, the need is mutual.

—Dennis Dooley


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