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Assembly for the Arts lobbies for $10M in federal funds to support arts and culture in Cleveland

Assembly CEO Jeremy Johnson poses with artist/designer Stina Allah at her mural 'Lift Every Voice and Vote" on Cleveland's East Side. [Assembly for the Arts]
Assembly for the Arts CEO, Jeremy Johnson poses with artist/designer Stina Allah at her mural 'Lift Every Voice and Vote."

Deliberations continue in Cleveland City Hall over proposals for spending federal stimulus money. Monday night, Jeremy Johnson, president and CEO of Assembly for the Arts will make a pitch to City Council.

In recent months, Assembly has put together a proposal for a portion of the $500 million stimulus package the city will be receiving as a result of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

“The ARPA dollars are here to really help communities and cities and workers that have been walloped by the COVID pandemic,” Johnson said. “And no industry, in my point of view, has been hit harder than the arts and culture industry, which was forced to shut down immediately and is only now beginning to emerge. Three big buckets: artists, non-profits and creative businesses.”

Johnson's appearance in council chambers is part of a series of pitches he's made to city officials.

“Arts and culture is a part of this gigantic economy in Cleveland. To get it back on its feet, to get workers back to working, we need to continue to invest supportive dollars into that sector,” Johnson said. “And we are making a request of $10 million.”

Ultimately, if the request passes muster with the city, Johnson said distribution of funding would be done through a partnership between Assembly for the Arts and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC), the local agency that funds area non-profits, including Ideastream Public Media. Assembly for the Arts is set up to handle distribution to individual artists and creative arts businesses. 

“We previously worked together to disseminate $4.5 million in federal CARES funding to COVID-impacted individuals, businesses and artists,” Johnson said, adding that comparably-sized cities elsewhere in the country have lobbied for much more than $10 million to support the arts. “We could ask for 10 times that amount. But we're also cognizant of the fact that our elected officials are having to make decisions on all levels of emergency and priority concerns.”

But Johnson stressed that funding arts and cultural activities does more than provide an aesthetic diversion from the more serious problems the city faces. He argued that input from the city’s creative sector can help provide new solutions to long-term issues, like public safety, public health, infrastructure and infant mortality.

“Early childhood, for example, it's a big challenge in Cleveland,” he said. “There is so much research that shows the brain development of children, zero to five, is impacted more positively with early learning in the arts - the arts are a key tool. Take the issue of lead in paint and in our water. How are we educating the community around that? Is it just with websites and emails? Are we using arts and theater and dance and drama to get that communication out? The arts are a tool that touches all of those serious issues."  

Johnson said he’s encouraged about the potential of Cleveland’s next mayor.

“We are really excited about Justin Bibb's public commitment to invest in the arts,” he said. “ He has gone on record even before he was elected to say that he would have a cabinet level position committed to the arts and culture sector. He's gone on record to say that he will commit dollars, actual dollars, for the arts and cultural sector.”

Johnson suggested that having a bully pulpit for the arts in city hall puts Cleveland in line with sister cities across the nation.

“Cities are now a locus of political power in this country,” Johnson said. “Mayors are... really leading that way because there are challenges in Congress. I won't get into all of that, but cities are making a difference. So, mayors have more political clout than you can imagine.”

And Johnson said that only works to the benefit of the arts and cultural community. And he hopes it will help underline the fundamental importance of the arts.

“Yeah, it's great and fun to talk about artists and musicians, but this is not fun and games,” he said. “This is a serious part of our economy, especially in greater Cleveland and especially in the city of Cleveland. So, whether we're talking about its connection to health, whether we're talking about its connection to education, whether we're talking about its connection to neighborhood development, all of these are intertwined with the arts and culture industry, and we're sending that unified voice that $10 million, really is a beginning and not an end.”

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