Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space

June 5, 2020September 6, 2020

Events and Timeline

The Breath of Empty Space, a traveling exhibition of drawings by Shaun Leonardo organized by independent curator John Chaich, was scheduled for moCa’s 2020 summer season by former Executive Director Jill Snyder and Chief Curator Courtenay Finn. This was to have been moCa’s second engagement with Mr. Leonardo, who had collaborated on a project with the museum in 2018.

In March 2020, moCa under former management cancelled the presentation of The Breath of Empty Space after people both inside and outside moCa expressed concerns that the museum was not prepared to support the show responsibly and that its impact could be harmful to our community. These concerns included ethical questions about the representation of Black trauma and death, and criticism that moCa was not in a position to center the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color before tackling issues such as anti-Black, state-sanctioned violence. That same month, the Executive Director issued an institutional statement about the decision to Mr. Leonardo for his use. 

Mr. Leonardo responded publicly to the cancellation in June 2020. He wrote that he had not been given the opportunity to engage members of the community about the exhibition, that he believed communications about The Breath of Empty Space had been mishandled, and that he regarded the cancellation as an act of censorship. Mr. Leonardo made his comments on the date when The Breath of Empty Space had been scheduled to open at moCa. In response, moCa's Executive Director issued a statement of apology to the artist, the curator, and the press.

Ms. Snyder resigned from her position in June 2020. In a public statement about her decision, she stated: “Through recent programming, moCa has demonstrated a desire to work in the territory of inclusion, equity, and community. Now it is time to select a progressive and innovative leader for the next phase in our history who will carry forward this work with new passion.”


From moCa’s Interim Executive Director and Chief Curator:

As we face the serious issues within our institution and the museum field-at-large, we as senior leaders acknowledge our failures in and around The Breath of Empty Space. Prior to accepting this traveling exhibition, we did not engage in critical research and investigation of its content, requirements, and potential impact on moCa staff and the Cleveland community. Our flawed processes in this early stage and during the exhibition’s cancellation had a negative impact on many individuals and revealed our roles in perpetuating institutional practices that reinforce structural racism and implicit bias. We apologize for the harm caused by our actions and these practices. 

We appreciate those who continue to speak to these issues and for their work in addressing how the institution can come together to reimagine new ways of moving forward. We pledge to help transform our systems, processes, and governance, starting with advancing the actions below over the next 6-9 months. Informing this list is the ongoing, cross-departmental work by moCa staff members to address previous exclusionary practices and embody greater diversity of experiences and perspectives. moCa will continue to develop, expand, evaluate, and share this work. As is the museum’s mission, moCa will involve and prioritize the vision and voices of artists throughout this ongoing practice.  

  • Provide consultant-led equity training and anti-racism education for the full staff and board 

  • Prioritize and clearly define our current values for the community through internal and external conversations and workshops

  • Establish a staff & board committee who will support audits of our internal processes and practices through an anti-racism lens and make ongoing recommendations for tangible change in areas including but not limited to governance, communications, fundraising, governance/succession planning, hiring/wages/structure (increasing Black, Indigenous, and People of Color representation on our staff and board), and work culture

  • Develop a series of public-facing events that address topics including but not limited to racism in museums and the art world, the role of art in justice, and the ethics of representation, providing time, space, and resources for artists, community members, arts professionals, and students to talk honestly and openly together

  • Create a paid community advisory committee that will help guide the museum on its strategies for public-facing engagement and programming 

  • We commit ourselves to learning and growing and will hold ourselves accountable for this critical work. 

Megan Lykins Reich, Interim Executive Director

Courtenay Finn, Chief Curator


Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition The Breath of Empty Space is a collection of drawings and video by the Brooklyn-based artist that critique how mediated images of systematic oppression and violence against young African American men in contemporary American history have shaped our fear, empathy, and perception. In a series of intimate drawings based on images widely circulated in popular media, Leonardo calls on the additive nature of drawing to address the reductive nature of memory, addressing how time and circulation affect what is recalled, seen, forgotten, or ignored. 
In drawings depicting scenes of judicial injustice and police violence, for example, he removes details while highlighting others in white graphite and blurring information. In other portraits and landscapes, he uses highly reflective semi-opaque glass to return the gaze and redirect the eye. Exploring the negative space contained in a frame, Leonardo recalls how racial biases frame the information viewers provide when details are omitted, the wall between artwork and gallery frame is interrupted, and comfort and safety are compromised. Accompanying the drawings is a video installation of Leonardo’s public art performance, The Eulogy (2017), which recreates a New Orleans Jazz Funeral against the spoken words of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, holding space for bodies who no longer physically can. Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space is organized by independent curator John Chaich.