Changes in Fellowship Program Prompt Questions About How We Put a Value On the Work of Artists

Raymond Bobgan at a Cleveland Public Theater rehearsal (PHOTO: Steve Wagner)
Raymond Bobgan at a Cleveland Public Theater rehearsal (PHOTO: Steve Wagner)
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When theater director Raymond Bobgan tells some his peers in other cities that he was awarded twenty-thousand dollars to write and produce plays in Cleveland, they are stunned.

RAYMOND BOBGAN: When they find out about it --- they are like, “Whoa! What is happening in Cleveland?”

In 2006, Cuyahoga County made news across the country for passing a 30-cents-a-pack sales tax on cigarettes and plowing that money back into competitive grants for area artists and arts institutions. It’s approximately a 20-million-dollar pie that is divided three ways. The lion’s share goes to operating support for organizations ranging from the Cleveland Orchestra to the Ukrainian Museum and Archives. We here at ideastream have received about a million dollars a year since 2008 from the cigarette tax. Another share is set aside for special projects in the county, like the Tri-C Jazz Fest. And Raymond Bobgan is one of 20 individual artists in Cuyahoga County awarded Creative Workforce Fellowships for 2014.

RAYMOND BOBGAN: Part of it just went to underwriting my own personal expenses as a human being. But, a lot of it also went to other people who I was working with. There’s no way that there’s no way that I could have afforded that without that grant, and I was able to underwrite projects.

Like a play he produced, called “Rusted Heart Broadcast”.

This past June, the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago rated Cleveland-area arts funding as better than Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities. Karen Gahl-Mills is Executive Director of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (also known as CAC), the organization created to distribute the cigarette tax proceeds. And she says, those funds are starting to shrink as fewer and fewer people smoke.

KAREN GAHL-MILLS: We’ve known since this resource was established, that the money was going to get smaller over time. All of our grant programs and anything that we do is going to see a cut in funding in 2015.

This past spring, the Fellowship program was put on pause. Earlier this month, CAC staffers recommended to their board of trustees that Fellowship awards be cut by almost 30% for the next round of applicants. The ground rules for the program are also being modified after a consulting firm published an evaluation that suggested changes. While praising the Fellowship, evaluators said competition for the award wasn’t as keen as it might be --- not enough people knew about it. The report also called on artists to specifically describe how their art would provide a public benefit.

KAREN GAHL-MILLS: When you’re using taxpayer money to make grants to organizations or to individuals, I think the taxpayers have a right to get something in return, and that is: a clear understanding of how their money is being used to make the community a little better.

Fellowship recipient Raymond Bobgan fears that a shift towards quantifying public impact of art works might promote a marketplace mentality.

RAYMOND BOBGAN: The best use of public funds is to create the greatest public value. And part of that value --- that the voters acknowledged --- was artistic excellence; that there is public value in artistic excellence. And not all of that excellence is going to be out on the street and seen by a thousand people. Numbers don’t determine artistic excellence.

RUBY LERNER: This is one of the challenges with public funding,

Ruby Lerner heads the New York-based Creative Capital --- a pool of private money for the arts. She says it’s tricky to balance the free expression of an artist with the need to justify the use of tax dollars.

RUBY LERNER: You can see how the needs of a political process is dictating that, “Look, if we’re not out there showing the impact that this award is having for the citizens of our community, how can we expect the citizens of this community to be in favor of renewing this award?

That day of reckoning is approaching. Come February, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s Board of Trustees is expected to decide how much all of its programs will be cut. Looming in the background of this discussion is the reality that the ten-year cigarette tax expires in 2016, unless voters renew it.

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