The show was advertised as a series of stark drawings by artist Shaun Leonardo, each offering an unflinching look at a different Black or Latino man whose life was taken by police violence. It would have opened less than two weeks after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, just as nationwide protests were cresting.
But in March, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland scrapped the show after activists and museum staff raised concerns it would retraumatize a community still hurting from the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of Cleveland police in 2014.
Now, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is one of two institutions that have helped salvage the show, which opens in North Adams Wednesday.
“They reached out in the height of what I’ve been calling the heat,” said Leonardo, referring to the controversy in Cleveland. “The willingness to invite the tension and tackle the various debates surrounding the work, that was evident from the jump.”
The show, titled “The Breath of Empty Space,” had been well reviewed at the Maryland College Institute of Art, where it was originally organized by independent curator John Chaich.
But things went awry in Cleveland, where according to a museum statement, the organization “encountered [a] troubling community response that suggested . . . we were not prepared to engage with the lived experiences of pain and trauma that the work evokes.”
“We were completely ambushed by the cancellation,” said Leonardo, 40, who learned the news in a call with the museum. “We were under the impression that that phone call was in regards to strategizing for community outreach. There was no indication that any process had started.”
In early June, Leonardo circulated a note charging that he “never had a moment to engage any community member regarding the show.”
“After grave mishandling of communication regarding the exhibition, institutional white fragility led to an act of censorship,” wrote Leonardo, who is Afro-Latino. “I seek in my work to break white silence and force us, collectively, into a difficult, yet necessary process of interrogation.”
In the ensuing fallout, the Cleveland museum’s executive director, Jill Snyder, issued a second public apology, acknowledging the museum had failed to work through the exhibition’s challenges with Leonardo.
“[W]e failed the artist, we breached his trust, and we failed ourselves,” wrote Snyder. “We prevented ourselves and our community from having the difficult and urgent conversations that contemporary art seeks to advance.”
Snyder, who had run the museum for more than two decades, resigned later that month.
“[I]t is time to select a progressive and innovative leader for the next phase in our history,” Snyder said in a statement. “For that new leader to have a seat at the table, I willingly give up my chair.”
A spokesperson for the Cleveland museum referred the Globe to its official statement, posted on the organization’s website.
The episode came as a number of museums across the country have struggled in recent years to address longstanding issues of systemic racism. The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis faced fierce criticism four years ago after presenting a white conceptual artist’s show depicting police brutality. Similarly, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis removed a sculpture in 2017 following objections from the Dakota community. More recently, employees at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and others have decried what they say are racially fraught work environments.
Learning of the Cleveland controversy, Laura Thompson, a curator at Mass MoCA, reached out to Leonardo, who previously conducted an artist residency at the North Adams museum, and whose work has been featured at both the Guggenheim and the New Museum in New York.
Thompson, who is Mass MoCA’s education director and Kidspace curator, said the museum was already planning to present other work by Leonardo in the coming years.
“When we learned of the canceling, we decided that this would be a really great opportunity for us to get our work going with him,” she said. “What he’s trying to do with this work is to elongate it, asking us to take time and really think about what is happening in these images and to bear witness to them.”
For Leonardo, who began the drawings as he and his wife were considering having a child in the years immediately following the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, the works are deeply personal.
“Much of the fear that I had clearly buried stemming from my experience growing up in Queens and being fearful of authority and the police came rushing back,” said Leonardo. “It was really foreseeing that my child would have to embody that same fear that I grew up with.”
The result is a powerful series of drawings based on images of unarmed Black and Latino men and boys who were felled or brutalized by police, shot by vigilantes, or wrongly imprisoned: Michael Brown. Rodney King. The Central Park 5.
In the show’s largest work, “Stephon Clark,” whose subject was shot by police in 2018 while in his grandmother’s backyard, Leonardo draws on footage from one of the officer’s body cameras. The drawing, which captures the moment just before police opened fire, is dominated by a ring of light from an officer’s flashlight.
“It didn’t matter who Stephon Clark was in that globe of light, all [the officer] saw was his own fear,” said Leonardo, who added that by drawing individual frames, he hopes to scrutinize aspects of these killings that are often obscured as videos go viral. “The risk there is that it quickly gets swept aside, and that these names and lives just get buried as a statistic.”
The show at Mass MoCA will run through Dec. 22, before heading to the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Thompson said Leonardo’s Mass MoCA show will feature related social justice programming for teens and college students and would be followed by other programs over the next two years.
“There’s so much social upheaval going on right now and I think this is an opportunity for us . . . to use art as a vehicle for discussion,” said Thompson. “How can we get you to slow down and really pay attention to what’s in front of you?”