Cuyahoga Arts and Culture Rolls Out Changes in Artist Funding

Musician and photographer Vince Robinson was on the Support for Artists Planning Team [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
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Cuyahoga County has a national reputation for its public funding of arts and culture.  That has included support for local painters, writers, photographers and other individual artists.  But two years ago, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), the agency that doles out revenues from a cigarette tax, put the brakes on an annual fellowship for artists. 

The arts community has been anxious about how individual artists will be supported through public dollars going forward. Meanwhile, CAC began rolling out new ways of funding individual artists this year.

Background

After Cuyahoga County voters passed the cigarette tax to support arts and cultural activities a little over 10 years ago, a program began that awarded individual artists unrestricted cash.  It was called the Creative Workforce Fellowship (CWF), and the judging process was setup to be blind to race.  But, musician and photographer Vince Robinson said it didn’t work out that way. 

"I think that the evidence of that is those who received the awards,” he said.

Robinson was also recently part of a planning team that CAC organized to examine the artist awards program and recommend changes.  That team found over 70% of the grants given over the course of the CWF program went to white artists.  Robinson applied for but never won a fellowship, and he feels that discrimination was baked into the judging process.

“When you look at the people who received the award, many of them had masters of fine arts, they had academic aspects to their experience,” he said.  “And they were favored over someone like me, who is basically a self-taught photographer, but I’ve been doing what I’m doing for over 40 years.”

Concerns about equity and inclusion in CAC’s public funding came up in 2016.  That same year, the CWF was put on hold in order to reshape it. That led to some heated meetings.  Attending one of those meetings was David Bergholz, who had helped launch Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.   He said he wasn’t surprised by the passion he heard that evening.

David Bergholz [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

“I think it bubbled-up out of all the stuff that’s going on in this country about issues around race and equity – and legitimately so,” Bergholz said.

Bergholz was one of the key figures in setting the table for tax-supported funding of the arts.  The former executive director of the Gund Foundation knew that the distribution of millions of dollars generated by the cigarette tax would become very political, but said he always kept his eye on the end goal.

“The most exciting part of the program to me was the notion that you could create a mechanism in a relatively small community that could fund individual artists and survive,” he said.

What now?

So, what has Cuyahoga Arts and Culture done to revamp its artist funding?  Recently, it allocated money to six local non-profit arts organizations, which, in return, will support a diverse range of individual artists.  This involves stipends as well as access to working space and mentorship for artists. For example, SPACES gallery in Cleveland is getting just over $42,000 for what executive director Christina Vassallo calls an urgent art fund, “…which awards artists grants so that they can create new works that are socially, politically and culturally responsive, and where time is of the essence,” she said.

SPACES executive director Christina Vassallo and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture board chair Charna Sherman [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

So at SPACES, rather than go through a lot of paperwork and wait months for approval, an art project that responds to current events could be funded in two weeks.  Similar grants were awarded to Karamu House, the Hispanic Business Center, Cleveland Public Theater (CPT). the Cleveland Arts Prize, and LAND Studio.  CPT executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan has long championed public support of individual artists.

“When you invest dollars in artists, and you make sure artists are compensated for the work they are doing in our community, you get big payoff,” he said. 

Raymond Bobgan [Steve Wagner / Cleveland Public Theater]

Bobgan was a fellowship winner under the old system, and he will now oversee the distribution of this new source of funds to a new generation of theater artists.  He’s a big proponent of unrestricted funding. 

“People always want to draw this easy line of: you do this, and you do this, and the next thing you know, you have the cure to some disease,” he said.  But, that’s not how research works and that’s not how art works.” 

CAC’s new ways of funding individual artists grew out of the work of its Support for Artists Planning Team, which included several local artists. Earlier in 2018, the agency also announced support for a learning lab for artists. CAC plans to name a new executive director this spring.

ideastream receives support from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

 

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