He gave the Morris Museum art, sound and movement. Now he is moving forward.

He got the Morris Museum a coveted affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution. He got a mission statement from the museum. It got the museum through a pandemic.

Now he comes out.

Cleveland johnson, the Oxford-trained music specialist hired in 2017 to reinvent the Morris Township venue, is retiring as the museum’s chief executive officer.

Director Cleveland Johnson welcomes guests to “Curious Characters” at the Morris Museum on March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“If I was at a different stage in my career, I would happily spend another decade at the Morris Museum. But I actually have plans in advance… things that interest me and things that have been on the back burner for too long, ”said Johnson, 65.

He has offered to stay until the end of the year, while the museum’s board searches for his successor. Johnson will leave a few admirers behind.

“He transformed the museum. He was not in very good condition when he arrived, ”said the vice-chairman of the board. Nelson Schaenen Jr.

“It was a godsend when he arrived. He transformed this museum in an incredible way, in record time ”, declared the president emeritus Gerri Horn.

Artist with his graffiti art at the Morris Museum, October 3, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler

Johnson has worked on redesigning a century-old museum – known to generations of schoolchildren for its teddy bears, toy trains and gemstone collection – into a cultural destination devoted to “art, sound and movement. “.

Reboot included graffiti art and punk rock pictures and steampunk shows, a conference by Johnny South, and programs by composer Robert sirota and choreographer kyle marshal.

When the pandemic closed the galleries and its 312-seat Bickford Theater, the museum moved jazz ensembles, classical concerts and small plays to its parking lot.

Nicole Burgio in “xoxo moongirl”, in the Morris Museum parking lot, September 25, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One evening, one trapeze artist circled above a socially distant crowd to the sound of live cello music.

“Institutions as old as us… can either try to die a graceful death or disappear with dignity. Or you can decide how you are going to seize the future, grow and adapt. And that’s what our board has chosen to do, I think very bravely and courageously, ”Johnson told customers via Zoom earlier this month, announcing an upcoming exhibition of black quilting artists with Art in the Atrium Inc.

As the museum emerges from the pandemic, two 2019 milestones are expected to become more fully realized, which bodes well for the future, Johnson argues.

Most important is the designation of the museum as a Smithsonian Affiliate. As the only New Jersey nonprofit to receive such recognition, the museum can tap into a universe of simulcasts, traveling exhibits and staff training opportunities, Johnson said.

Museum Executive Director Cleveland Johnson at
Morristown artist Kenneth MacBain with Museum Executive Director Cleveland Johnson at ‘Simply Steampunk’ at the Morris Museum, March 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

He also helped the board of trustees formulate a vision, with the 150 pieces of the museum Murtogh D. Guinness Collection 19th century music boxes and automatons at the center of his concerns: Interpret the past, discover the future, through Art, Sound and Movement.

A series of innovative exhibitions showcased “Kinetic Art”. AutomataCon bring robotic flowers and mechanical horses at the former Twin Oaks estate of the Frelinghuysen family.

Video: “Curious Characters” at the Morris Museum in 2018:

“It’s historic technology that shows the way to today,” Johnson said of the Guinness Collection, acquired by the museum in 2003.

A piece from the Morris Museum’s Guinness Collection.

The challenge, he said, is to examine these complex mechanical musical instruments through a contemporary lens, asking how humanity has used technology for entertainment throughout history.

“We don’t need to play the piano anymore. We just have a machine playing it for us. This shows the way for Spotify, the idea that we have music on demand… Automatons paved the way for robotics, ”said Johnson, professor of music emeritus at DePauw University.

Such explorations are meant to produce a contemporary and relevant museum “with a very unique way of seeing things that sets us apart from the tens of thousands of other museums out there,” Johnson said.


Pipe organ expert Johnson was hired by the University of South Dakota National Museum of Music during a turbulent period at the Morris Museum.

A director had left after six years. A new hire has been announced, only to be abandoned a few days later without explanation.

Cleveland Johnson, Executive Director of the Morris Museum, at the “Bob Gruen: Rock Seen” exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Johnson took control of an organization that grew from a curio cabinet at Morristown Neighborhood House in 1913 to an eclectic collection of 50,000 items including Native American dolls and dinosaur bone replicas, on a budget of $ 2.5 million and 25 employees.

The venue was struggling to recover from the recession, which followed a costly expansion in 2007 to accommodate the Guinness Collection. Staff turnover was high and the museum had lost the Friends of the Morris Museum, fundraising volunteers who faced off against Johnson’s predecessor.

Brett Wellman Messenger, Director of Performing Arts Curatorship, enjoys the photo of Tina Turner at the “Bob Gruen: Rock Seen” exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Some tough decisions were made under Johnson’s watch. Locally produced shows were cleaned up at Bickford and its longtime artistic director fired.

To inject new energy, Ronald labaco was hired by the Museum of Arts and Design in New York as a curator, and Brett Wellman Messenger came on board as an event programmer.

The museum lost four people from its education department during the pandemic, but has remained afloat thanks to government relief, Johnson said.

Brett King from North Carolina with his Steam-Punk version of Apple's Siri,
Brett King from North Carolina with his Steam-Punk version of Apple’s Siri, “The Aetherologist,” at “Curious Characters” at the Morris Museum in 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

When he arrived from a small town on the Prairies, he was surprised to find out how much cultural institutions struggle in such a rich region.

Still, Johnson feels like he’s leaving things better than he found them, for anyone following.

“A lot of things are kind of on hold and really waiting for someone with the energy and interest to get things done,” he said.

As for retirement, Johnson is eager to complete academic research. And maybe become a concert organist again.

“The idea of ​​having time to spend two or three hours a day practicing and playing is something I had to put on hold for a very long time,” Johnson said.

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