Plotting a New Course for Public Funding of Artists

Cuyahoga County has earned national accolades for enacting a 30-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to fund arts and culture.  But, a recent move to change the way that individual artists get support has prompted a heated community debate.  Cuyahoga Arts and Culture --- the county agency charged with distributing the tax money --- rolled out a new roadmap for the future, this week, and one of the goals is charting a new path towards a new artist funding program.  

For the past decade, about $15 million a year in arts funding has been distributed across the county. Recipients include museums, orchestras and other cultural organizations, including us here at ideastream. A separate pool of money has funded a grant program for individual artists.  But, in more recent years, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture - also known as CAC - has gradually tightened the qualifications for receiving these funds.  Executive Director Karen Gahl-Mills says the major focus now is a demonstration of public benefit.

"And what you have to do as an organization --- and you’ve had to do this since 2012 --- is tell us who your community is," she says.  "Tell us how you serve them.  Tell us what you are doing to connect your work to the public."

And that includes everyone from marble-walled concert halls, to introspective artists living in drafty apartments. 

The most vocal pushback to this modified policy has come from the individual artists.  Cleveland businessman Sean Watterson has become a spokesperson for a nascent coalition of artists and community activists who are questioning the changes.  Watterson’s Happy Dog Tavern is one of several venues for public discussion about the future of arts funding.

"The group that attended the CAC Board meetings in November and December," he says, "and the folks who came to the conversation that we hosted at Happy Dog, have sort of come together in a loose alliance - in Facebook, mainly -called the Alliance for Artists in Cuyahoga County."

Previously, individual artists got a relatively unrestricted grant known as the Creative Workforce Fellowship.  CAC planners are looking to steer towards a program that fosters social change.  2016 Fellowship winner Darius Steward says that’s a tough thing to measure.

"That phrase is like, huge," he says.  "I think it’s great to make more meaningful, potent work.  And to make art actually operate to a higher level.  Because we’ve seen it, and we know it can.  I think that’s a great concept.  My issue is -that’s too broad of a concept." 

And some critics object that voters didn’t sign-off on a social change agenda for their tax dollars. Karen Gahl-Mills argues that the Ohio Revised Code gives CAC the authority set the terms and conditions of grants.

"It doesn’t say 'social change' in the ballot language," she says,  "but that’s not to say that our board doesn’t determine the direction that our grant-making should go --- and has for our past ten years."

Another new direction indicated by the CAC roadmap is a push toward greater equity.  Both the funding agency and its critics seem to agree on the need for better outreach to emerging artists and artists of color.  Darius Steward says he hadn’t heard about the fellowship program until a local gallery owner mentioned it.

"Here I am," he says, "an art person, that’s been in art since 2010 in Cleveland, and I didn’t even know about it.  So, that’s a problem."

Both CAC and the artist coalition are calling for more dialog about the best way to build an equitable funding program.

"I would love it," says Sean Watterson,  "if, in this process, CAC is open to hearing from all members of the community - including artists - about what those elements should be." 

"Sometimes the voices who are the loudest are the ones that you want to have around the table," says Karen Gahl-Mills.  "They wouldn’t complain if they didn’t care.  We really do want to have more voices."

One voice that may help bridge the divide is Cuyahoga Arts and Culture board member Gwendolyn Garth who attended the gathering at Happy Dog.

"And that was awesome," says Watterson.  "I was so glad that we had Gwendolyn there; I think that was a really positive step."

Karen Gahl-Mills says the current goal is to re-establish some form of individual artist funding by the end of the year. For their part, the artists' group says it plans to attend meetings and take an active role in the community conversation.

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