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Bibb administration aims to add a senior-level Cleveland arts leader

Mural of a young Black woman wearing feathers in her hair, holds a bouquet of flowers and a cardinal on her shoulder. Another cardinal beside her says, "try a little tenderness." Artist Tatiana Suarez stands on a boom to add the finishing touches.
Annie Wu
Ideastream Public Media
Artist Tatiana Suarez completes her mural for the Cleveland Walls! series in the Midtown neighborhood on Aug. 28, 2021.

Bureaucracy busters rejoice: The city of Cleveland is planning to create a senior-level position for the arts, culture, and the creative economy to serve as the point person for the arts at city hall and help bridge the gap with local artists, according to a presentation to city council by planning director Joyce Huang earlier this month.

Huang told the city council’s development, planning and sustainability committee on February 7 that the city is submitting a letter of intent for a two-year, $250,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation to fund the position, which is modeled after similar jobs in other cities (for example, Newark, New Jersey’s department of arts and cultural affairs).

“This is the first time, I believe, that such a position will be part of the administration,” Huang told the committee. “The purpose is to elevate culture and the creative economy which is so rich in our neighborhoods, as well as connect folks who are part of this economy.”

That’s music to the ears of arts advocates like Jeremy Johnson, CEO of Assembly for the Arts, who has long advocated for an arts leader to be ensconced in the bureaucracy of city hall, where artists often need a helping hand getting public art projects approved or just knowing who to call. Johnson said that in surveys completed by Assembly, artists have consistently identified putting an arts leader in city hall who will work with them to get things done as a top priority.

“We need this person now more than ever,” said Johnson, citing the difficulties artists have faced in the wake of Covid-19 and Mayor Justin Bibb’s promises to change the culture of city hall. “This point person can be the glue that helps with connectivity. Without the glue it’s like the movie Ghostbusters, ‘Who you gonna call?’ Who are you gonna call at city hall about the arts? But city halls can serve as dot connectors.”

Johnson likened the new arts leader position to that of West Side Market senior strategist Jessica Trivisonno, who has helped speed up the market’s transition to nonprofit management. He said the new arts leader at city hall could play a similar changemaker role, helping to infuse arts and culture into projects ranging from lakefront development to redevelopment of the city’s southeast side.

Huang said if approved, the funds will be used to create a two-year, senior-level position at city hall. According to the description, the individual will oversee a strategic planning effort for how to integrate the arts into city hall, oversee distribution of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to artists, plan potential public art projects, uplift the city’s BIPOC artists, and study how Cleveland can grow its arts economy moving forward. A portion of the funds may also be used to hire a consultant to study how other cities have integrated the arts into government.

Council members who attended the meeting liked the proposal and stressed the need to further build up Cleveland’s arts and culture sector. “You have to have someone to champion the arts at city hall,” said Ward 9 council member Kevin Conwell. “When you look at other economies, the arts is moving it.”

Council members also asked to provide feedback on any proposals that are developed to integrate the arts into city hall. Huang said if the grant is awarded, she hopes to create a formal position description next month and hire someone by May.

Corrected: March 2, 2023 at 11:19 AM EST
This story was updated to reflect the fact that the grant is for $250,000, not $200,000 as originally posted.