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Arts Access and Community Health

A Denison Elementary student creates the next "masterpiece" at the Art House [photo / Art House]

If you live in Cleveland Heights, then you have access to dozens of arts events and nearby cultural institutions.  But in many urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout Northeast Ohio, the cultural opportunities are more sparse.  Recent research suggests that can make such communities less healthy.  But, it can be tricky to define what access to the arts really means. 

During a visit to the Art House, a non-profit started in 1999 on Cleveland’s west side, some anxious 10-year-olds gather around a worktable, as a two-by-three-foot mosaic panel is unveiled.  It’s an illustration of a colorful dragon, fashioned by fifth graders.

“The tree is the dragon’s feet now,” observes one of the young creators. 

Art House resides in a former industrial building in this working class community, located about ten miles from a more traditional place for arts and culture in University Circle.  The Circle is home to a dense collection of museums, galleries and performing arts venues, all clustered within one square mile on the east side of town.   But in this zip code, the cultural options aren’t so rich.

“There isn’t a lot here,” says Laila Voss, executive director of Art House.  It’s one of the few arts organizations in the Brooklyn Centre community.

“And it isn’t always that easy to get to other areas where there are bigger cultural institutions,” Voss adds.

Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania published a report suggesting that communities with many cultural resources are healthier and more secure.  So, does that mean Brooklyn Centre is more of an "arts desert?"

“The term ‘arts desert’ makes me just a little bit crazy,” says Jennifer Coleman, the Gund Foundation’s Senior Program Officer for the Arts.

“It’s not about areas where art does not exist,” she notes.  “It’s about areas where art does exist, but it’s underfunded, it’s under-resourced, it’s under-organized.  And those reasons have to do with poverty, they have to do with racism.”

The Art House is one of many neighborhood arts groups that operate just below the cultural radar of a city known for more famous institutions like the Cleveland Orchestra or the Museum of Art.  Coleman says there are many other programs offered by recreation centers, churches, and an uncounted number of ambitious grassroots efforts.

“A lot of the arts activities might be in a grandma’s house who for the summertime runs a very unofficial camp for neighborhood kids where they come over and she reads them stories or gets somebody to do some sort of physical fitness or dance.” 

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) is one of the nation’s largest public funders of arts and cultural activities through revenues from a sales tax on cigarettes.  But, at present, that money only goes to registered non-profit groups.  CAC executive director Karen Gahl-Mills says her organization is researching ways to help support more non-traditional arts activities outside of cultural meccas like University Circle.

And she thinks there’s a bigger question: “Rather than, 'are you advantaged if you live next to one of those places,' is... 'are you as a resident connecting to arts and culture in the way that you want?”

A number of well-established cultural institutions have made concerted efforts in recent years to reach outside the confines of University Circle.  For example, in 2013 the Cleveland Orchestra started annual residencies in different neighborhoods.  And in 2016, the art museum introduced a new van to bring art supplies and projects to regional public events.

Back at the Art House, the mosaics created by neighborhood students will head to hallways at Denison Elementary, across the street.  One of the artists looks at the finished product with pride.

“Here is a masterpiece,” he says.

It’s a small moment that testifies to the power of art, even if it isn’t hanging on the marble wall of a more traditional cultural institution. And, like a gallery showcasing local work, this display in a community school will present some evidence that there is art to be found in places that others might see as deserts. 

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.