Urgent Art Fund Helps Local Artists Respond To The Latest Headlines

A a cameraman, light and sound operators shoot a scene from the documentary, "Black Buckeyes: A Tale of Two Cities."
The documentary "Black Buckeyes: A Tale of Two Cities" is being supported by the Urgent Art Fund. [photo: Rian Brown]
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Many artists like to create works in response to current events.  But sometimes, the cost of materials, equipment and studio space are too high, and it takes forever to jump through the hoops necessary to get financial backing.  A new fund aims to help local artists react to the latest headlines.

Filmmaker Cigdem Slankard, an assistant professor of film and media arts at Cleveland State University, is one of those artists. In her studio, she smiled at a scene from her latest production, playing out on the editing screen.

A family of refugees from Burma gathers around a Cleveland dining room table, keeping tabs on squawking babies and talking about the hard life back home, while passing plates of food. A child chatters in a high chair.

“When you see that, that’s intimacy,” she said.

Cigdem Slankard [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Slankard plans to give viewers an intimate look into the lives of four local refugee families, in order to humanize a misunderstood population.  For her series, called "Breaking Bread," each of these stories is told using virtual reality technology that puts the viewer right at the table.

The virtual reality camera in the middle of the dinner table captured an intimate portrait of a refugee family [photo: Cigdem Slankard]

“[It’s a way to approach] the refugee community in Cleveland not as a monolithic entity, but really looking at them as interesting people with interesting stories, with a lot to offer - including great food,” she said.

This story is being told with the help of a pool of money called the Urgent Art Fund, distributed by SPACES, an arts center on the city’s west side.  Executive director Christina Vassallo said this project is one of five to get funding in 2019.

“We’re really looking for projects that really respond to what people are reading in the newspapers and hearing on the radio,” said Vassallo.

She created the program thanks to a grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the agency that funds area arts activities through revenues from a cigarette tax. Each of the chosen artists will get $5000, plus access to equipment and studio facilities. Vassallo said it’s a way of providing a more nimble response than a typical foundation can.

“We are the boots on the ground,” she said. “We are an organization that is incredibly close to artists.  We have always been artist-driven, and so we have a really good sense of what artists need.”

And instead of waiting a year for approval, Urgent Art Fund recipients get a response in two weeks. Cleveland cleric Leah Lewis is using her grant to produce a documentary that will compare and contrast the histories and present day realities of African Americans living in Cleveland and Cincinnati. She's calling it “Black Buckeyes: A Tale of Two Cities.”

“I’ve applied for a ton of grants,” Lewis said. “And this process was swift and it was effective and it was efficient.”

Leah Lewis and Rian Brown  [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Oberlin filmmaker Rian Brown is collaborating with Lewis on the project, which they hope to complete in time to be a part of the political conversation, ahead of next year’s election.

[photo: Rian Brown]

“I think this is an amazing moment to take a snapshot of our country with all eyes open,” Brown said.

A film on the lives of homeless children in Akron is also receiving support from the Urgent Art Fund. Another project puts a group of teenagers from East Cleveland together with police officers to collaborate on a community mural. 

“Arts funding can take a long time to apply, to receive and to put into action,” said Cigdem Slankard. 

She appreciates this new funding source that allows an artist to react to current events, though she admits that there’s still a virtue in more traditional forms of financial backing that take a lot longer to come through.

“There’s a lot of process that you have to follow, which is not necessarily bad,” she said. “We need accountability in arts funding, it’s not really a dis against that at all.”

But, she added, it’s great to cut through some of the red tape and just tell your story. 

ideastream receives support from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. 

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