Change Proposed for Allocating Public Funds for Artists

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By David C. Barnett

Painters, writers, dancers and dozens of other Northeast Ohio artists have had their work underwritten by a cigarette tax since 2009.  This week plans were announced for big changes. There is a proposal to modify the process of how candidates get chosen and who makes the choices.

Voters passed a 30-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes in Cuyahoga County back in 2006 to support arts and cultural activities. A non-profit, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), was created to distribute that money.

CAC is legally prohibited from actually awarding funds to artists, and up until now that’s been done by another local non-profit, Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC).

At its board meeting this week, CAC staff recommended taking the program in a new direction. The revamped program, Creative Community Fellowship, would be run by National Arts Strategies (NAS) based in Washington, D.C.

Executive Director Karen Gahl-Mills says it is time for a change.

“I think the original intent of the Creative Workforce Fellowship wasn’t necessarily about connecting the work of the artists to the community,” she said. “I do think our partner CPAC has done a wonderful job of trying to moving us in that direction.”

CAC board member Steven Minter is familiar with NAS and says they have a good reputation.

“We’re going to take a good look at this,” Minter said.

Not everyone is convinced that this is the change that’s needed.  Gwendolyn Garth is also on the CAC board, and she has concerns about keeping the program - and its money - in Northeast Ohio.

“I’m not particularly happy that it’s going out of the county and out of the state,” Garth said. “I think CPAC could be trained to do something different.”

Gahl-Mills says it would be nice to eventually run the program locally, but she would like to start with NAS.

Both board members and artists in the audience expressed concern and optimism at the public meeting on Monday. They also said the program needs to be careful to include people of color. 

Photographer Donald Black, Jr. has applied for, but never won a fellowship through the current program for artists. 

“It sounds great,” Black said. “All of it sounds great. Now, let’s see if it happens.”

Gahl-Mills says including a diverse group is the priority, and CPAC has done a fine job in managing the program. She says they can still be involved.  But this is a big change. 

CPAC’s president Thomas Schorgl says he was only told about it a week ago, but he is interested in staying involved.

“Until we know all the working parts it would be presumptuous for us to do anything other than what we’re doing now,” Schorgl said. “I can tell you that if it’s going to benefit individual artists in Cuyahoga County we will promote and we will support it.”

The deal isn’t done yet.

CAC’s board is scheduled to vote on this at the meeting on Dec. 12.

Related coverage: Changes in Fellowship Program Prompt Questions  


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