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Cuyahoga Arts & Culture ends contentious 2023 with apology and extra artist funding

Artist Liz Maugans (right) has been critical of how grants are awarded by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, as well CAC executive director Jill Paulsen (left).
Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Artist Liz Maugans (right) has been critical of how grants are awarded by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, as well as CAC Executive Director Jill Paulsen (left).

The Cuyahoga Arts & Culture board closed a tense year with more tension, but also an apology to artists and a vote to increase artist funding.

The board approved an additional $100,000 for artist support for a total of $500,000, granted to Assembly for the Arts.

Assembly for the Arts was formed in part to administer funding from CAC to individual artists, as it can only grant to nonprofit organizations. In previous years, CAC has awarded grants to several organizations to pass to individuals.

CAC receives its funding from a 30-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, and revenues have fallen by half since the tax’s inception in 2007. Board members have sparred during the past year over how and when to ask voters to renew the tax, as well as post-COVID challenges for the arts sector and the amount of funding going to individual artists. A series of listening sessions this fall found that artists in Cuyahoga County would like an apology over how these issues have been handled.

Board President Nancy Mendez opened Wednesday’s meeting with just that, saying that while the board has changed almost entirely over the past six years, she takes ownership of the need to “heal and move forward.”

“We are sorry that relations between too many of our local artists and CAC have become strained,” she said. “We know that any apology must be backed by action. We are determined to show everyone that while disagreements still will occur, and the tension that naturally accompanies the creative process will still arise, we will work together to help the arts thrive in our community.”

Artist Liz Maugans has been critical of CAC for several years and said she was “disappointed” that the apology was not read by CAC Executive Director Jill Paulsen directly. Still, she said she was cautiously pleased that the grant-making process seems to be changing.

While the board approved additional money for artist support, there was disagreement between members on where best to draw the funds from, ranging from grant support to the largest non-profits to professional and marketing costs.

Another area of contention among board members is the size of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture’s staff. In presenting the 2024 budget, Paulsen noted that it was 8% lower than 2023’s approved budget. Overhead is also down 24% over the past five years. Board Member Charna Sherman said overhead is still too high, while Michele Scott Taylor, board vice president, commended CAC’s financial stewardship.

Both Sherman and Maugans expressed concern that the audio quality of online CAC meetings was sub-par. Maugans also said the meetings should be archived online and possibly held at different times and venues to make them more accessible for working artists.

The board also approved support for resident-led initiatives with $60,500 to Neighborhood Connections for projects in Cleveland and East Cleveland. Applicants can get up to $5,000, with CAC matching up to half. The Cleveland branch of New York-based ioby is receiving $100,000 for projects throughout the county.

In November, the CAC board approved $10.75 million in grants to nonprofits of all sizes, including Ideastream Public Media.


Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.