Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the CMA: Q&A with Deidre McPherson, Director of Community Programs

Cleveland Museum of Art
Jan 3 · 6 min read

Q&A with Deidre McPherson, Director of Community Programs

Portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. Flip Schulke (American, b. 1930). Gelatin silver print; 19.7 x 30.5 cm. Gift of George Stephanopoulos, 2015.370.

The CMA has been celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day with activities since the 1970s and opened the museum on the holiday beginning in 1999. At this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration on Monday, January 20, visitors can honor his legacy through art, dance, theater, spoken word, and music.

Images courtesy Robert Muller for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Enjoy art activities led by guest artist Van Monroe and gospel and jazz music by Hubb’s Groove, as well as a Martin Luther King & Black History Tribute featuring the young artists from the Cleveland Foundation’s Arts Mastery initiative, including Cleveland Public Theatre’s Cleveland Act Now, Rainey Institute’s El Sistema@Rainey (music), Sisterhood and Twelve Literary Arts (poetry, creative writing, and performance), Tri-C’s Vocal and Dance Mastery programs, and the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society Education Program.

To learn more about this year’s program, check out the Q&A below with Deidre McPherson, director of community programs.


How long have you been planning the CMA’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration?

DM: I have had the honor of planning our annual MLK Day celebration since 2018, with the help of numerous staff and community members.

Deidre McPherson, director of community programs, (right) at last year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Image courtesy Robert Muller for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

What does this event mean to the CMA?

DM: Following his death, Dr. Martin Luther King came to represent black courage and achievement, high moral leadership, and the ability of Americans to address and overcome racial divisions. On this day we will honor one of the most famous civil rights activists with programming that reminds us of Dr. King’s fearless activism, as well as the actions taken by many others in the struggle against racial discrimination and poverty in this country.

As the CMA is an encyclopedic museum with art from all periods and cultures of the world, this event reminds me of our duty to be an affirming, accessible, liberating, and welcoming place for all communities throughout Greater Cleveland to experience art in transformative ways that inspire critical thought and reflection.

Image courtesy Robert Muller for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

How has this event changed over the years as you’ve been planning it?

DM: Each year the event has included artist-led activities, in-gallery experiences (stories, talks, and tours), and performances by young artists affiliated with the Cleveland Foundation’s Arts Mastery initiative, though there have been some changes from year to year. For example, last year the Ingalls Library and Museum Archives offered an open house and Wikipedia-edit-a-thon, which was wonderful because many Clevelanders don’t realize that the museum has a library and that it’s open to everyone. The edit-a-thon empowered people to use the library as a resource to contribute content on Wikipedia (a free online encyclopedia) about artists of color in the museum’s permanent collection. This year, Ingalls Library will offer an atrium book display featuring artists in the museum’s collection who were highly energized by themes central to the civil rights movement. Also, this year art activities will be designed and led by Cleveland-based artist Van Taylor Monroe. Monroe became a social media sensation in 2008 when a pair of his hand-painted, customized sneakers featuring Barack Obama went viral. Today, the celebrated sneakers are on view at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and his artistic practice has grown to include photography, film, murals, and more. You’ll be able to see a display of Monroe’s work and pull up a seat to design a hat you can wear (limited supply) or a paper shoe template inspired by the civil rights movement.

Van Taylor Monroe’s shoes on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Directly behind the shoes is a replica of The Harp, a sculpture by Augusta Savage.

How are you incorporating the Cleveland community in the celebration this year?

DM: Community inclusion is a cornerstone of our MLK celebration each year. This will mark the third year our day will include a series of performances from young artists affiliated with the Cleveland Foundation’s Arts Mastery initiative. We are continuing this tradition because this initiative represents an action toward a bigger dream for equality by helping to ensure that students in every community have access to the same opportunities to succeed, including high-quality arts education programs. The museum is proud to be among a group of cultural institutions that deliver year-round, mastery-level arts training in theater, dance, creative writing, music, and visual art.

Performances include those by the young artists of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Cleveland Act Now (an original short play), Rainey Institute’s Dance Mastery, Rainey Institute’s El Sistema@Rainey music program (two contrasting works by African American composers), Sisterhood (original poems in the spirit of black courage), Twelve Literary Arts (original work by young poets), Tri-C’s Vocal and Dance Mastery programs, and guitarists from the Cleveland Classical Guitar Society Education Program (Beyond Ferguson by Thomas Flippin). Beyond Ferguson was written in response to the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The music is based on a melody used in Michael Brown’s original music. Flippin incorporates musical elements of Negro spirituals, jazz, hip-hop, and African music, as well as an excerpt from a W. E. B. DuBois reading to create a historical context to the outcry to recent police shootings. Young photographers of the Cleveland Print Room’s Teen Institute will document the day’s activities by taking photographs.

Lastly, the day will begin with live gospel and jazz music from acclaimed band Hubb’s Groove, which has performed with Gerald Levert and opened for Earth, Wind & Fire, among many more.

How are you incorporating the CMA’s collection in the celebration this year?

DM: The CMA’s collection will be incorporated in this year’s celebration with the help of poets/educators Naazneen Diwan, PhD, and Michelle R. Smith, who will lead Conversation Starters from the Collection. Designed for ages 12 and up, this program reveals how artworks can relate stories that enable conversations about our history, experiences, and identities. Participants will also learn about artists in the museum’s collection who were energized by themes central to the civil rights movement, including Edmonia Lewis and Norman Lewis.

Dr. Naazneen Diwan is a queer Muslim poet, social justice educator, spiritual activist, and current artist-in-residence at Twelve Literary Arts. Michelle R. Smith is a writer, blogger, educator, cultural facilitator, and author.

In addition, enjoy children’s stories about African American artists in the museum’s collection, including In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage and Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, an Artist in Harlem, read by Key Jo Lee, CMA associate director of academic affairs.


Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a University Circle–wide celebration, with multiple area institutions offering free admission. University Circle Inc. is providing a free shuttle bus on January 20 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. to take guests to the museums and organizations offering special activities. Additionally, the Rink at Wade Oval will be open from noon to 7:00 p.m.

CMA Thinker

Art from another angle: Stories from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Cleveland Museum of Art

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CMA Thinker

Art from another angle: Stories from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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