He donated art, sound and movement to the Morris Museum. Now he’s moving on.

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

Now he comes out.

Cleveland Johnson, the Oxford-educated music scholar hired in 2017 to reinvent the place of Morris Township, is retiring as the museum’s president and CEO.

Director Cleveland Johnson welcomes you to ‘Curious Characters’ at the Morris Museum, March 15, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“If I were at any other stage in my career I would happily spend another decade at the Morris Museum. too long,” Johnson, 65, said.

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

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

“He was a godsend when he arrived. He transformed this museum in an incredible way, in record time,” the President Emeritus said. Gerry Horn.

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

Johnson worked to transform a century-old museum – known to generations of school children for its teddy bear, toy trains and gem collection – into a cultural destination devoted to “art, sound and movement”.

The reboot included graffiti and punk rock picture and steampunk shows, a conference of Johnny on the south side, and programs by composer Robert Sirota and choreographer Kyle Marshall.

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 parking lot of the Morris Museum, September 25, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One evening, a trapeze artist swirled above a socially distanced crowd to live cello music accents.

“Institutions that are as old as us…can either try to die a graceful death and just fade away with dignity. Or you can decide how you will embrace the future, grow and adapt. And that’s what our board chose to do, I think with great bravery and courage,” Johnson said. tells customers via Zoom earlier this month, announcing an upcoming exhibition of black quilt artists with Art in the Atrium Inc.

As the museum emerges from the pandemic, two 2019 milestones should be better off, which bodes well for the future, Johnson says.

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

Executive Director of the Cleveland Johnson Museum at 'Simply Steampunk' at the Morris Museum, March 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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 council articulate a vision, with the museum’s 150 pieces Murtogh D. Guinness Collection 19th century music boxes and automatons as a primary objective: Interpreting the past, discovering the future, through art, sound and movement.

A series of innovative exhibits showcased “kinetic art”. AutomataCon bring robotic flowers and mechanical horses at the Frelinghuysen family’s former Twin Oaks estate.

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

“It’s historic technology that paves the way for today,” Johnson said of the Guinness collection, which the museum acquired in 2003.

A piece of the Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum.

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

“We no longer need to play the piano. We just have a machine playing it for us. It points the way to Spotify, the idea that we have music on demand… Automatons paved the way for robotics,” said Johnson, music professor emeritus at DePauw University.

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


A pipe organ expert, Johnson was hired at the University of South Dakota. national music museum during a turbulent time at the Morris Museum.

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

Morris Museum Executive Director Cleveland Johnson 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 cabinet of curiosities at the Morristown Neighborhood House in 1913 to an eclectic collection of 50,000 items including Native American dolls and replica dinosaur bones, on a budget of $2.5 million and 25 employees.

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

Living Arts Curator Brett Wellman Messenger enjoys the photo of Tina Turner at the ‘Bob Gruen: Rock Seen’ exhibition, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Some tough decisions were made under Johnson’s watch. Locally produced shows were phased out at the Bickford, and its longtime artistic director was fired.

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

The museum lost four people from its education department during the pandemic but stayed afloat with government help, Johnson said.

Brett King from North Carolina with his Steam-Punk version of Apple's Siri,
North Carolina’s Brett King 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 discover how cultural institutions are struggling in such a prosperous region.

Still, Johnson feels he’s leaving things better than he found them, for whoever follows.

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

As for retirement, Johnson is looking forward to completing his university 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 that I had to put on hold for a very long time,” Johnson said.

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