The exhibition entitled Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood is currently on view until October 9, 2022, at Poster House in the Flatiron District of NYC.
Look – art is an art, and everyone likes it for different reasons, but when you talk about vintage film posters, there is something about the emotional attachment that you don’t always get when collecting things like watches or cars. This is because film posters remind us of a story we once knew, a memory, an emotion, a moment captured in time.
Since the dawn of Hollywood, movie posters have been used as a medium to promote films with the intent of getting people to buy tickets. This was known as the ‘viral content’ of the generation. But creatively, it was art nouveau, with its floral lines flowing with feminine energy even if it may feel a little busy – almost quaint. Teeming with these dynamic, eye-catching designs, characters come to life on a page, hold your attention and never let go.
One individual who fell in love with his now greatest passion is Bronxville-born Dwight Cleveland, who for over 45-years has devoted his life to finding, sharing and educating others on vintage cinematic treasures. By profession, Dwight is a real estate developer and historic preservationist, but his true life’s obsession stems deeper than the foundations of any old building.
It’s what rose to the forefront of cinema houses, stood tall and proud on billboards, and drew attention to some of the most iconic female figures in movie history – film posters. Today, he now holds the title of the man with the most extensive collection of movie posters in the world.
He met his love at first sight – Wolf Song, a 1929 film poster starring Lupe Veléz and Gary Cooper back in high school and, since then, has never turned back. Before he began donating and selling pieces from his archive in 2016, Cleveland held a monumental 45,000 works collected from 58 countries worldwide.
But over the years, he keenly observed the narrative of women in early cinema and their historic contributions to film. Today this humanitarian has turned his attention to his beloved 9,000 lobby card sub-collection that advertises the 1910s and 20s scenes in Hollywood and East Coast movies, made mainly by women – for women. Cleveland is on a mission to bring the unsung heroes from all underrepresented communities to the forefront of today’s rapidly changing world.
“We have elevated this story to address the social issues the world now faces. Diversity is just so important. I aim to get that message out in the open and address it because it’s a huge issue holding us back here in the United States and globally.” – Dwight Cleveland.
Having observed powerful movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, Dwight felt empowered to reposition his collection around silent film lobby cards representing films where women and other underrepresented communities played pivotal roles behind the camera.
His pieces, which are currently on loan at the famous Poster House, offer a comprehensive look into the life of a collector and archivist who has elevated the art form to a level of respected recognition today, a story riddled with deep undiscovered meanings. In an exclusive interview, DDW sat down with Chicago’s poster boss to discuss why his collection is essential for hearing the unheard:
What does your collection mean to you?
(DC): “Yeah, I mean, they’re my babies. My children are a little worried about that. They remind me all the time, but poster collecting predates my eldest by 15 years In the beginning, I just wanted to amass early vintage stuff. Still, I like over the years how I’ve transitioned into learning to share this with people and not just through museum exhibitions, but through giving lectures and lending images, to magazines and books. Sharing is just another way of spreading the gospel. It’s the only way to get other people to appreciate this input of what I think is an important art form. These lobby cards are among the only tangible documentation that these films ever existed. It’s remarkable that these historical documents are still around since 90 per cent of silent films have been lost. The actual films don’t exist.”
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned so far in your career?
(DC) “Staying true to my heart. I’m a big believer in art speaking to collectors. When I saw my first poster by my art teacher, Mike King, he said: ‘Dwight, just always focus on the stuff you love, and everything else will fall into place’. And that’s been true for half a century. I’ve always gone after the stuff that I wanted, but staying true to my heart is kind of the key thing and being mindful of who you’re buying from and the circumstances.”
If someone had never heard of your Poster House show Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood, what important things would you want them to know?
(DC) “The biggest ‘takeaway’ is this concept of remarkable women behind the camera and how unrecognised they’ve gone for over a century. Their stories need to be treated with respect and brought to the forefront. The most important theme of the exhibition is the platform for these stories to take off and finally be told. There is also an incalculable educational value to these stories being disseminated at this time. They are a form of empowerment.”
What does the phrase ‘Don’t Die Wondering’ mean to you?
(DC): “What’s interesting is how it connotes the concept of immediacy; it’s like these are the things you need to find out about, like right now, today, this instant. We talked about how I buy things at auction and how they are buying opportunities of immediacy. It’s like, ‘you want this? Well, you better get your hand in the air because it’s selling now, and if you don’t bid, someone else will get it. That is how I live my life. DDW is also about being open to what’s happening around you and trying to help where you can.”
Since the exhibition’s opening, Cleveland has also gained massive success from his first solo show in 2019 at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Later that year, Assouline released Cleveland’s book, Cinema on Paper: The Graphic Genius of Movie Posters, displaying his favourite posters along with spirited commentary.
This star has also donated large amounts of his collecting odyssey to The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at The University of Exeter in the UK.
For more information check out The Poster House’s website here.