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Adding the Arts to Cleveland’s Political Agenda

Wednesday, September 5, 2001 at 2:50 PM

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With a month to go before Cleveland's primary election, mayoral candidates are putting out position papers on their building blocks for a better city. Stronger schools, safer neighborhoods and more jobs are common themes. But, members of the local arts community think that their needs are being ignored. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett reports on a call to add arts and culture to Cleveland's political agenda.

David C. Barnett- Cleveland’s oldest theater is getting a face-lift. The 94-year-old Gordon Square on Cleveland’s west side was bought five years ago by Cleveland Public Theater to give the group a street-level performance space that doesn’t require a healthy hike up some steep steps. But, restoration work seems to move at the pace of cathedral construction, due to lack of funds.

The popular fundraising device of selling personally-inscribed paver bricks brings in some money, which workers are positioning in front of the building. At fifty bucks a crack, it’s one of many ways that local arts organizations bring in nickels and dimes

James Levin (talking with workers)- We do them in droves… we’ll try to sell 20, 30 of them and then we’ll… When’s the next shipment coming?

DCB- James Levin is the Artistic Director of Cleveland Public Theater - an organization that survives on a revenue base pieced together from local foundations, classroom programs, ticket sales, memberships… and bricks.

Levin says arts organizations in most other major American cities have the advantage of local arts councils that help create a continual, dependable source of public funding and tax breaks.

James Levin- The New York Public Theater pays one dollar a year in rent to the City of New York for the building - the city pays for utilities. So their money goes directly to product, not to the facility.

DCB- The Brooklyn Academy of Music has a similar relationship to the city of New York. Traditionally, public money for Ohio groups has come from federal and state funders, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. In recent years, the trend in other cities has been toward local support of arts and culture, because federal funds, especially, are pretty lean these days.

Thomas Schorgl- The federal investment has gone down precipitously. It was cut in half about eight years ago.

DCB- Thomas Schorgl heads the Cleveland-based Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. He notes that state funding has gone down across the country, as well, leaving local public money to fill in the gap. For instance, the tourist mecca of Anaheim, California gives arts and cultural organizations part of the money it charges visitors through a “bed tax”. St. Louis re-distributes a portion of its property taxes. Tuscon shaves off some revenue from users of local golf courses.

Kathleen Cerveny- I think we’re facing the fact that there’s significantly more competition for fewer discretionary dollars from people.

DCB- Kathleen Cerveny is a senior program officer at the Cleveland Foundation. She says the competition is growing.

KC- I think there are more entertainment options - video games, DVDs, Gund Arena, Jacobs Field. So many more things people can do with their leisure time, and there’s less leisure time!

DCB- Local arts heavyweights like the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art have multi-million-dollar endowments to float them through hard times. But, there are many smaller groups that continually worry about rent payments.

JL- The issue for me is that whenever this discussion comes up, it always seems to be piggy-backing on something else - library funding, Metroparks funding - like we’re the crazy aunt in the attic that everybody’s trying to hide. I think it would be great if politicians would recognize the economic benefit that the arts provide to this city, and say this is as important as a football stadium, this is as important as the Browns.

DCB- The Greater Cleveland Growth Association recently acknowledged this in an analysis of what factors cause local businesses to locate and to stay in Northeast Ohio. The survey of some 400 business executives put “Arts and Culture” at the top of the list, over the quality of schools, community safety and even sports. The Community Partnership’s Thomas Schorgl says you can see the dollars and cents of it by stacking sports and culture next to each other.

TS- What is the cost, say, for a saxophone player, who’s gone through Julliard and all the levels of professional development. And what’s the cost of a second-string tackle? On a dollar-for-dollar investment, one comes at a very, very high cost compared to the other one. Dollar-for-dollar, you’re going to get a much higher rate of return from professional arts and cultural institutions.

DCB- The over-riding argument is that arts and culture are far more than something in the background of a city - an interesting painting hanging on the wall, or a diverting piece of theater.

The paver bricks in front of the Gordon Square theater are laid tightly against each other, without any cement holding them together. The challenge for the local arts community is to convince political leaders that Northeast Ohio’s cultural assets are prominent among the many building blocks, such as quality schools and safe neighborhoods, that are all important in rebuilding our region.

TS- From my point of view, I’m more interested in a mayoral candidate who has a position on all of those things that make up a progressive community.

DCB- In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.

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