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Arts Advocate Returns to Cleveland to Launch Assembly for the Arts

a photo of Jeremy Johnson
Ryarmo Photography
Jeremy Johnson returns to northeast Ohio to lead the new Assembly for the Arts.

Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of greater Cleveland is the multi-billion dollar impact of arts and culture. A new organization, Assembly for the Arts, debuts next month and is looking to showcase that economic might by bringing local arts groups together to speak with one voice.

Assembly will be led by Jeremy Johnson, a former Northeast Ohio resident who’s returning home with some fresh ideas about the power of collaboration.

“We have all the right ingredients, but we need to sort of bust some silos, bring institutions together and make sure arts and culture are at the center of the conversations,” he said.

Johnson’s love of the arts dates back to his days as the child of a Youngstown steel mill family that moved to Cleveland when he was a boy. They lived on East 90th Street in the years following the Hough uprising of the 1960s, which put him in proximity to the cultural offerings of University Circle. He took piano lessons at the Cleveland Music School Settlement, though that was not without its challenges.

“So, I'm taking classical piano lessons,” Johnson said. “And I would literally have to hide my music books under my shirt to keep the local bullies from beating me up."

But that couldn’t dampen his growing passion for arts and culture, which would eventually lead to earning a Masters degree in arts management at the University of Iowa. Most recently, Johnson has served as the executive director of Newark Arts, a New Jersey arts advocacy organization.

“Newark was an underdog city, much like Cleveland,” he said. “I don't have to tell you about how Cleveland, for decades, has been sort of that underdog trying to fight to get the respect it deserved. Newark was in a similar place, so I saw that potential in Newark and I ended up helping to build a great performing arts center.”

Speaking by Zoom from his Newark office, Johnson said both cities have diverse artistic cultures, including small institutions, big institutions, individual artists in their studios and activist artists on the streets.

And part of my role here has been: How do we bring those different sectors together,” he said. “How do we bridge communication, and how do we assemble those parties to be a greater force?”

After two decades in New Jersey, Johnson said he’s come to understand the challenges and the secrets of making that happen.

“In the world of nonprofits, everyone talks about coordination and collaboration, and that is a key. But that's hard,” he said. “Collaboration is hard because, first of all, it takes time, and time is money. So, if you have your own organization with a wonderful mission and you want to be a part of something bigger. Yeah, you will go to the meetings. But how much time can you commit to that unless someone actually makes it worth your while? And they’re already small organizations, individual artists, and they're trying to really pay their light bill.”

Johnson said the key is to recognize the economic underpinnings of collaboration. The needs of historically disinvested groups have to be addressed. He sees this happening across the country.

“So, how do we make it possible for them to be at the table,” he said. “It takes more than just an invitation. It takes an investment. It takes patient capital. And I believe that's really the wonderful challenge ahead of us as we create this thing called the Assembly for the Arts.”

The Gund and Cleveland Foundations are helping to underwrite the planning of the new organization. A news release says Assembly will look to establish racial equity, arts research and cooperative marketing across the region, along with other forms of help for nonprofits, artists and creative businesses.

Much of the planning has been done by three arts groups. Those include the funding agency Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), from which ideastream receives financial support, as well as Arts Cleveland, which specializes in research, and the Arts and Culture Action Committee, a political advocacy organization. The latter two groups will be folded into the new Assembly, according to the news release. CAC will also have a seat on its board.  

“The pandemic has been devastating on the creative economy in Cuyahoga County, and it has exposed how much our community counts on arts and culture for quality of life and as an economic engine. By working together, we can do so much more,” said CAC executive director Jill Paulsen in the release. “As we look for new sources of funding, Assembly for the Arts will provide the structure for a new level of collaboration and shared commitment to a vision for our arts sector.”

An example of the economic power of collaboration was on display late last year when several organizations banded together to secure $4.5 million in CARES relief funding from Cuyahoga County for the arts and culture sector.

A 2018 study from Ohio Citizens for the Arts reported that the economic impact of the creative sector in the Cleveland MSA exceeded $9 billion, with $3.3 billion in labor income and 65,500 jobs.

Assembly for the Arts
ChiChi Nkemere will be a member of Assembly for the Arts board.

The release notes the board that oversees Assembly will model the kind of diversity it hopes to nurture in the local arts community, stating "at least 50% of board members will be women or non-binary people and at least 40% will be BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).”

Cleveland native ChiChi Nkemere is one of those board members. Nkemere said, like Jeremy Johnson, she was also immersed in the arts growing up. Professionally, she’s the co-founder and director of strategy for Enlightened Solutions, an equity advocacy firm. She also brings an education in public policy and politics to the table. Nkemere said that the reason for supporting the arts is larger than promoting a strong local economy. She sees it as a moral choice.

“I truly do believe that if we are to really fuse ourselves together as a country and to start to really heal the wounds of some of the very, very deep divides that we have in this country, we have to start investing in things that are our cultural passions,” she said. “And that's why I'm so passionate about being a part of this board and being a part of this Assembly, because I actually have, you know, a seat at the table to make sure that we are protecting this for future generations.”

Nkemere said another reason she joined the board was strictly personal. She grew-up here and got her cultural grounding here. And she likes the fact Jeremy Johnson’s a hometown guy.

“I was really compelled by that, especially after a lot of the upheaval of 2020,” she said. “A lot of people ended up going back to their hometowns, you know, and trying to find a sense of stability. And I really do believe that Jeremy is doing the same thing here... It’s really nice to be able to look at somebody and to know that they're proud of their hometown, and they're so ready and willing to come back home to build on the work that we have already done here.”

Assembly for the Arts is due to launch in mid-June. Johnson said he looks forward to expanding the work he did in New Jersey, bringing together organizations and individuals that haven’t always worked harmoniously.

“There's so many riches among our major anchors, but also among are those who have been unsung,” he said. “So, we're going to sing them. ‘I sing America,’ said Langston Hughes. So, we're going to sing Cleveland.”

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

David C. Barnett IPM
David C. Barnett is a senior reporter/producer who focuses on arts and cultural stories.