Letter to the editor: an open letter to Cleveland area artists, educators, and arts organizations

Joseph Tanke

Professor of Philosophy

University of Hawaii, Mānoa


As an alumnus of John Carroll University, I was dismayed to learn that administrators will shutter its Art History Department (effective August 31, 2021) and terminate two tenured professors. According to the Carroll News, this decision was carried not only against the will of the faculty, but in violation of the Faculty Handbook and contract. 

As a first-generation college student, I was not supposed to study art history; I was expected to major in something more lucrative. Nevertheless, I was excited by the kinds of ideas that I found in art, and inspired by the teaching I discovered in the Art History Department. 

As fate would have it, the universe met me halfway. Or, rather, I should say that the city of Cleveland met me halfway. I gave my first academic presentation during my sophomore year at Case Western Reserve University; I earned a paid internship at the Sculpture Center that same summer; and another at the Cleveland Museum of Art the following year, thanks to a program sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation. As a result of these experiences, the city of Cleveland opened itself up to me in a new and wholly unexpected way. I still remember the excitement of rushing from campus to film screenings at the Cinematheque, openings at the old Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art (now Cleveland MoCA), and exhibitions held in different galleries, studios, and even houses throughout the city. 

I mention here these things about my background in order to help dispel the myth that an art history degree is practically worthless, and because I fear that if the administration is successful in closing JCU’s Art History program, stories like my own will become increasingly rare. As an educator, I worry about what this decision says about the quality and breadth of education on offer at my alma mater. What is a liberal arts education without art? This decision seems particularly ill-considered and badly timed, given that we live in a globalized world increasingly defined by visual communication and creative capital.    

But as a native Clevelander, I worry about the long-term fate of the arts scene in Cleveland if local colleges and universities decide that they can no longer be bothered to teach their students how to appreciate art. As a community, we are at risk of becoming less imaginative and more one dimensional.  

The renaissance that Cleveland has experienced in recent years would not have been possible without strong arts organizations like the CMA, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cinematheque, Cleveland MoCA, the Cleveland Public Theatre, and Spaces leading the way. Even during lean years, down times, and yet another “wait-until-next-year” Browns’ season, Clevelanders could be proud of the culture that was being created on the shores of Lake Erie. We must recognize, however, that these institutions depend upon local colleges to train their workforce, and, most importantly, to create the next generation of art enthusiasts. If you have enjoyed or benefited professionally from one of the aforementioned institutions, then you have been the beneficiary of these in-expendable programs in art history.  

For these reasons and more, I hope that all Cleveland area artists, arts educators, and arts organizations will raise their voices in opposition to JCU’s decision to dissolve its Art History Department. And that all those who support the aims and aspirations of liberal arts education will stand with those professors who have been terminated without cause.  

A gofundme page has been established to support the legal expenses of these faculty members: https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-teaching-excellence-support-gerry-amp-bo