Cheryl McClenney-Brooker, 70, of Germantown, a champion of the arts who built bridges between the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she worked, and the community at large, died at home Tuesday, May 7, of complications from multiple sclerosis.
Mrs. McClenney-Brooker had an elegant, commanding presence, and she used it in her role as the Art Museum’s director of external affairs, a job she accepted in 1987. She had joined the museum in 1983 after holding several posts in the art world.
She embraced and amplified the Art Museum’s vast collection, tapping areas of interest in a way that made the art accessible and fun for everyone, not just the elite. Those who might have felt intimidated to enter the museum found in Mrs. McClenney-Brooker a friendly face that drew them in.
She went so far as to ask that the wall labels interpreting abstract paintings on exhibit in the museum be made understandable to the layman.
“Cheryl understood the community-building power of the arts — she had it in her mind and heart and soul. That gave her extraordinary strength to build relationships for the Art Museum across the city,” said William R. Valerio, a friend and the CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill.
“There were so many community organizations that might not otherwise have found their way into the museum. She opened those big, heavy doors so they could come in. She put a welcoming face forward for the museum, always thinking about new ways to bring in children.”
“Year in and year out, Cheryl would initiate efforts that were inclusive,” said Gail Harrity, the Art Museum’s president and COO, and her boss for 15 years. “She started a Korean heritage group; she enlarged the museum advisory group, embracing and empowering it.
“When we had an exhibit on ‘Degas and the Dance’ in 2003, she had the idea that every community could embrace dance, so she reached out, along with our education department, and involved everyone, from small dance studios to the Pennsylvania Ballet. They came and performed at the museum. All ages from all neighborhoods attended.”
Not only did Mrs. McClenney-Brooker maintain cultural engagement with community and neighborhood groups outside the museum, but her very presence also encouraged an atmosphere of diversity within its walls, her friends said.
Born in Chicago to Gwendolyn and Samuel McClenney, she graduated at age 16 from Marshall High School and earned a 1969 bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
She moved to New York to pursue a career in the arts and taught high-school English before becoming a curatorial coordinator at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970.
From 1974 to 1976, she was assistant director at the nonprofit Museum Collaborative Inc., where she managed partnerships between New York’s museums and community organizations.
For two years starting in 1976, she was an assistant commissioner for the New York Department of Cultural Affairs.
In 1978, she went to work in Washington at the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1983, she was hired by the Art Museum. She retired in 2012.
In 1985, she married Philadelphia artist Moe Brooker. She earned a master’s degree in organizational dynamics from the University of Pennsylvania while raising a family.
In 1989, she co-founded the Philadelphia World AIDS Day/Day Without Art. The event memorialized artists who had died of HIV/AIDS.
“I think we are well aware of the effects this epidemic has had on our particular community,” she told the Daily News. “That’s why we’re having a moment of silence and draping the LOVE sculpture in black, to symbolize the loss of loved ones and the loss of the artist.”
She was also a board member of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, Citizens for the Arts in Pennsylvania, and the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by a daughter, Misha Brooker; a stepson, Musa Brooker; a sister; and many nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 25, at First African Baptist Church, 700-98 N. 67th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19151. Burial is private.