Clara T. Rankin
2021 Barbara S. Robinson Prize
Surrounded by music in her home as a child, Clara Rankin loved listening to her mother and two brothers play the piano, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and drums or to the Caruso recordings her father treasured.
“I had music in my life all through school. I sang in the glee club, so voice was always my thing,” she recalls, adding with a laugh: “The piano was the only instrument I tried, and that didn’t work very well.”
She studied voice at Smith College, where she earned a degree in history, and sang in the choir and glee club and sometimes soloed. She also helped found a group known as the Smiffenpoofs. “Several had friends in the famed Wiffenpoofs at Yale, so we had a lot of fun, and I sang a lot throughout college,” she says.
After college Clara moved to New York, where she studied with a retired opera star for a year. She then got engaged and married to Alfred Rankin, who soon joined the U.S. Navy and went on to serve as a Naval intelligence officer aboard the carrier USS Tripoli during World War II. The war curtailed most of her singing opportunities, but Clara was occasionally invited to sing popular songs onboard her husband’s ship when in port.
Upon returning to Cleveland after the war, she studied with Marie Kraft, head of the vocal department at the Cleveland Institute of Music. That began a lifelong relationship with CIM, where she joined the Board in 1951, serving until 2004 when she was elected Trustee Emerita, a position she continues to enjoy today. Clara contributed both to the selection of legendary pianist Victor Babin as president in 1961, and the fundraising for CIM’s new building in University Circle. At a celebration in 2019, President and CEO Paul W. Hogle said, along with the Board of Trustees and Women’s Committee, “she has worked tirelessly to ensure students have opportunities to pursue their dreams of becoming the world’s most talented classical musicians.”
Clara was exposed to art as a child, and many years later joined the Women’s Council at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1950. She and Alfred, who went on to become a senior partner at the law firm of Thompson, Hine & Flory, collected pre-Columbian art. After Sherman Lee took over as director of CMA in 1952, she had an opportunity to learn from him about one of his specialty areas, Asian art. In 1967, she was asked to serve on CMA’s Board of Trustees and later became a life trustee.
“Sherman presented such an enormous opportunity for me, inspiring me to learn as much as I could,” she said in a 2009 interview with CMA. “I couldn’t have been exposed to the beauty of Asian art and culture in any better way than through Sherman’s mentorship.” The galleries of Chinese art in the new west wing were named in her honor in recognition of Clara’s and her family’s long and generous support of the museum and the Campaign for the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Clara was about 19 when she began attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts in its new Severance Hall. Her late husband Alfred enjoyed a long relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra, joining its board in 1948, becoming the Musical Arts Association’s president in 1968 and chairman in 1983. They befriended conductors George Szell, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Mazel, Christoph von Dohnányi, Franz Welser-Möst and many of the Orchestra musicians. In 1999, she became a trustee. In 2017, on her 100th birthday, the Orchestra played “Happy Birthday” for her.
“Clara is quick to brush off any attention on what her support has meant for the arts in Cleveland, preferring to appreciate the gift of a performance, an artist or a work of art,” comments Sangeeta Prakash, Cleveland Arts Prize Trustee and Co-Chair of Women’s Council Advocacy Committee of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Her decades-long stewardship of the arts has led to access and opportunities for artists and has helped bring focus to those organizations - large and small - that bring a raison d’être to our lives.”
Clara’s deep, lifelong commitment and contributions to arts institutions makes winning the Cleveland Arts Prize meaningful. “Cleveland is fortunate because it has such a long history of philanthropy, which is why the arts are top-notch here, so we all want to support them as well as we can,” she says. “Because of the arts, nobody’s life could be richer than mine.”