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Arts Organizations On Impact Of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture Funding Cuts

The Cleveland Opera's June 2017 production of La Boheme [image / Cleveland Opera]

Cuts to programs, cuts to equipment or cuts to staff --- those are some of the options local cultural organizations face.  Next month, over 60 arts non-profits, including museums, arts schools, and orchestras, will learn their share of funding from a tax on cigarette sales from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC).  The arts funding agency, provides support to area cultural groups, including ideastream, based on revenues from a 30-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes. Those tax revenues are down, which may lead to some hard choices due to a reduction in general operating support grants.

Dorota Sobieska loves to promote her musical passion through the Cleveland Opera.  As the company’s executive artistic director, the Polish émigré has staged operatic performances across Northeast Ohio for the past two decades.  But, Sobieska knows this old world music is a bit off-putting for many Americans, so she recently launched a new audience outreach project called “Opera Free To All” --- a free series of educational performances.

“Opera isn’t necessarily the most popular art form,” Sobieska admits.  “And it requires a little bit of an introduction so that people get excited about it, and at least know about it.  It can make a difference.”

But, she’s not sure about the future of that program, because of recently announced reductions in grants from CAC. 

Next year, over 60 arts groups will share about $10.2 million of tax revenue for general operating support.  That’s about a 20-percent decrease from the last funding cycle.  Dorota Sobieska says the CAC funds are a significant portion of her budget.

“That percentage makes a lot of difference, there’s no question about it,” she says.

News of the reduced revenues and the possible impact to general operating support grants was announced at the October 16th meeting of the CAC board of trustees, prompting some tense exchanges between board members and representatives from arts organizations in attendance.  Critics say the potential funding cuts aren’t in line with the actual reduction in tax revenues, which is more like 2.6 percent. 

CAC executive director Karen Gahl-Mills says "the average decrease looks like 14 percent".  Although still significant, CAC says this year’s reduction is part of a ten-year program that will soften over time and promote a level of budgeting predictability for the grantees.  Gahl-Mills adds that another 13 organizations are losing between five and ten percent, while several others will likely get increases.

Lee Lazar, executive director of the Rainey Institute says he knew the cigarette tax was a dwindling resource and that CAC funding cuts would come eventually.  If he had to trim any expenses, Lazar says he'd try to make-up for any losses with support from other sources.  His century-old performing arts education organization, is located in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood.

Ken Koblitz is executive director of the Bedford-based Cleveland Jazz Orchestra.  He says a 15 to 20% cut for any non-profit is a tough blow to absorb.  He speculates that any belt-tightening would come in his educational programs.

“We would continue on with our performances, because we try to make a little money on those, but outreach is where it would hurt us the most.”

Koblitz predicts the CJO would likely have to double down on pursuing donations from businesses and individuals.  He says it’s never been easy for non-profits, especially now in a time when other funding sources are also dwindling.

“I don’t know what the federal government is going to do in terms of federal funding for the arts.”

Michael Obertacz recently stepped into the role of managing director of Near West Theater, though he’s worked in Cuyahoga County’s arts scene for years.  He says 2017 is one for the record books.

“It’s been a year of challenges and reductions and a climate of not knowing what is safe and what is not any longer,” says Obertacz.  

Obertacz says he doesn’t think he’d reduce the number of productions Near West puts on.  The reductions would come offstage.

“It would be looking at equipment, maintenance, independent contracted employees, people on the production staff.  We’re going to have to think very creatively about how to maintain the same level of service to our community and our participants while operating on such a shoestring budget that we already are operating on.” 

But, all these projections are just speculation.  Michael Obertacz says he’s not making any cutback decisions until the actual funding numbers are released.

Cuyahoga Arts and Culture is due to announce how the money will be divided at their November 13 board meeting at the Cleveland History Center


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