William E. Ward, Chief Designer, Cleveland Museum of Art, 19222004


The logo of an organization has much to do with its image in the community. Appearing on banners, letterhead stationery, envelopes, invitations, posters and printed programs, it sets a tone, conveying an almost subliminal message (if it is effective) about the character and spirit of the organization. Take, for example, the logo of Cleveland Museum of Art. Could it be any more perfectly suited to the task? Restrained but dynamic, elegant, self-assured, seeming to flow effortlessly, concerned as much with beauty as with information; it carries echoes of ancient Chinese calligraphy—or is it the graceful lettering of medieval monks bent over parchment folios, frost on their breaths? This distinctive “CMA” works with everything. It sets, one might say, a tone.

But the man who created it back in 1959 at the request of the museum’s new director Sherman Lee contributed a great deal more than that to our visual encounter with a world-class art museum—and the art it displayed— in the three-and-a-half decades between 1957 and his retirement in 1993 as the museum’s chief designer. During that time Bill Ward was also responsible for the layout and presentation of the paintings and other objects that fill CMA’s permanent galleries (including lighting, display groupings and custom-designed pedestals) and the installation of traveling and special shows. If you had the fortune to compare, as I did, the installations of the celebrated Impressionist collection of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza in Cleveland and New York, you would have seen in a flash the role Ward played in the presentation of those beloved works.

At the Met they seemed to have been hung almost matter-of-factly on unvarying off-white walls clearly in need of a fresh coat of paint. The same show, hung at the Cleveland Museum of Art, was electrifying. Ward’s inviting arrangement of paintings by Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley and company—hung on moveable walls freshly painted in warm hues of (if memory serves) mauve, forest green, rust red and plum—seemed to have been painted that same morning: You suddenly saw what the excitement had been all about back in the 1880s and ’90s when a handful of artists, energized by the invention of bright new pigments, rushed out of dimly lit studios to paint people picnicking, the reflections on water and the glitter of sunlight on leaves.

Working closely with three directors and their teams of curators, Bill Ward worked his magic on widely differing assignments—from Barbizon Revisited, a memorable Paul Klee retrospective, and The Private World of John Singer Sargent to Chinese Art Under the Mongols, Old Master Drawings, and the treasures of Amenhotep III. Ward supervised the lighting and designed the publicity, even the place cards for the press luncheon.

“A great piece of sculpture is a great piece of sculpture regardless of what you do to it or how you show it,” Ward explained in an interview that appeared in the programming guide of Cleveland's classical music station, WCLV-FM. “You can kill it completely, however, with the environment you put it in and the way you light it.  . . .It’s not a question of trying to keep the old looking old, but making the old available in a contemporary setting which is comfortable.”

Born in Cleveland in 1922 to Edward and Lura D. Ward and educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), Western Reserve University (B.S., 1947; M.A., 1948) and Columbia University (additional graduate work, 1950), Ward was a talented painter, photographer, lecturer and calligrapher. Introduced to the cultures of Ceylon, India and Japan during a four-year stint with U.S. Army Terrain Intelligence (1942–45), he became a master of calligraphy and taught that subject at CIA, beginning in 1960. (Ward himself had first studied art at West Technical High School under the legendary Paul and Jean Ulen, later with a Buddhist teacher in Ceylon and calligraphy at CIA with the great Otto Egge.) He was hired by Lee’s predecessor, William M. Milliken, to work under CMA education director Thomas Munro in 1939 and resumed his position at the museum after the war. It was Milliken's successor, Sherman Lee, the museum’s former curator of oriental art, who recognized Ward’s potential as a designer.

Smitten by the folk art of Mexico while honeymooning in Oaxaca in 1952, Ward and his wife, internationally renowned fiber artist Evelyn Svec, returned many times to that cit. The notable private collection of Mexican folk art they acquired over the years was featured in a stunning 1987 exhibition at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The Wards co-authored the exhibition catalogue, which including photographs by Bill. (Ward’s own watercolors, heavily influenced by the art of Mexico, were widely esteemed.) The couple also collaborated on a major exhibition of fiber art in 1978 that played an important role in winning a wider appreciation and knowledge of that emerging art form in northeastern Ohio.

—Dennis Dooley


Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org