A Burning River Inspires Environmental Reform and Art

A Burning River Inspires Environmental Reform and Art


By Stephanie Foster, Interpretive Planner, and Emily Hirsch, Kress interpretive fellow

showcases three monumental gunpowder works — including one inspired by the Cuyahoga River — by contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Creation of the gunpowder work Cuyahoga River Lightning, 2018. Photo: Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.

In 2019, the city of Cleveland commemorates the 50th anniversary of the last Cuyahoga River fire (June 22, 1969) and celebrates the progress made toward clean water through a yearlong initiative called Cuyahoga50. At the CMA, as part of the #Cuyahoga50 commemoration, we are featuring two exhibitions that engage the legacy of environmental reform sparked by the burning of the river. In the essay below, Stephanie Foster, the CMA’s interpretive planner, and Emily Hirsch, Kress interpretive fellow, discuss the Water Lounge, an informative space that connects these two exhibitions.

Both in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery and in the Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Gallery examine the relationship between humans and water, exploring how human interaction can affect and change the water systems covering 70% of our planet’s surface. Both exhibitions are on view now through September 22.

showcases 13 hauntingly beautiful photographic images that encourage us to ponder whether current water-management strategies are among humankind’s great achievements or its most dangerous failures. Cerro Prieto Geothermal Power Station, Baja, Mexico, 2012. Edward Burtynsky (Canadian, b. 1955). Digital chromogenic print on paper; 121.9 x 162.6 cm. New Orleans Museum of Art, Gift of the artist, 2016.46.22. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Weinstein Hammons Gallery, Minneapolis / Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The interpretation team connected the content of these two exhibitions to the Cuyahoga50 celebration by creating a lounge space for visitors that provides information, further reading, and a comfortable place to reflect in the Parker Hannifin Corporation Donor Gallery (north court lobby on level one).

Images courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

In the Water Lounge, an illustrated timeline leads visitors through the history of the river, from decades of neglect until 1969, when it became a beacon for environmental reform in the United States. Important consequences of the fire include the passage of the Clean Water Act, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Concern for the environment was so pervasive that it even entered popular culture; in 1971 Dr. Seuss included Lake Erie in his book The Lorax:

“They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary
In search of some water that isn’t so smeary
I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie” — The Lorax,
Dr. Seuss

Image via The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

The timeline ends in 2019, not only with the celebration of Cuyahoga50, but also as the CMA examines its own relationship with its outdoor environment. An overview of the Doan Brook Project, which was implemented to realign and stabilize the banks of the brook along the CMA’s west side, is followed by an invitation to respond to the question: “How might we use the grounds around the CMA to make it a welcoming outdoor destination for both museum visitors and area residents?

The Doan Brook improvements are a collaboration between the CMA and NEORSD. This project aims to protect a valued water resource, to initiate and maintain effective environmental sustainability, to address erosion and flooding, and to rehabilitate and enhance the unity of the adjacent cultural landscape with improved pedestrian circulation and experiences. Left: Doan Brook, 2017. Right: Bird’s-eye rendering of the proposed Doan Brook Landscape Improvements.

After visiting the exhibitions and the Water Lounge, viewers are invited to explore the permanent galleries with the ArtLens tour Our Relationship with Water. Here visitors will find connections between a wide variety of objects engaging with the universal theme of water. Highlights include an elegant Korean water ewer and Joseph Mallord William Turner’s dramatic painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834, 1835. Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775–1851). Oil on canvas; framed: 123.5 x 153.5 x 12 cm (48 5/8 x 60 7/16 x 4 3/4 in.); unframed: 92 x 123.2 cm (36 1/4 x 48 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of John L. Severance 1942.647
Water Ewer for Rituals (Kundika) with Incised Parrot Design, 1100s. Stoneware with celadon glaze, incised and carved decoration; overall: 35.3 cm (13 7/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of John L. Severance 1921.631

We invite you to visit the Water Lounge to read, relax, and reflect on our relationship with the environment. Don’t forget to leave a response in the comment book to share your vision for the future of the CMA’s grounds.

Images courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.



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