Arts Community Surprised and Stirred Up by Changes in Levy Funding Distribution

Artist Leila Khoury, proprietor of Zaina Gallery at 78th Street Studios, contemplates the work of Loreto Greve at the Cleveland Print Room.

When the Cuyahoga County Arts and Culture levy, originally passed in 2006, was renewed last year, the campaign sold it as having a twofold benefit. It funded top-quality arts programming, enhancing the area’s reputation and giving people another reason to visit, and it was an economic engine, with the tax money circulating in the community.

Then, at a meeting of the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) board on Mon 11/14, two surprises were dropped on the arts community. One was that the small portion of the funding (about 2%) that went to artists in direct grants to create work as Creative Workforce Fellowships would be completely repurposed so that it was not primarily for art or artists at all but aimed instead at “community change makers” i.e.  people providing a social benefit to the community using art in some way.

The second was that the administration of the grants was being removed from CPAC (Community Partnership for the Arts), the organization that conceived and passed the arts tax in the first place, and being handed off to an organization in Washington D.C., moving precious taxpayer dollars out of northeast Ohio and out of state.

What gives? That’s what a lot of artists and people who support the arts community have been asking in private conversations and online. Both moves leave a lot of unanswered questions that artists and arts lovers are hoping to learn more about at a meeting Mon 12/12 @ 3:30pm in the Miller classroom at PlayhouseSquare’s Idea Center. But since the CAC board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at that meeting, concerned people are being urged to contact the board members now. Their information is here.

For the artists, the change has come as a real blow. The pot of money raised by the levy was originally divided into three pieces. The largest goes in general operating support to arts and cultural organizations of all sizes from small community-based groups like the Brecksville Theater on the Square and the Shaker Historical Society to behemoths like the Cleveland Orchestra (the biggest recipient), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art — and all points in between.

A second pot is project support, money that went to groups of all sorts, including non-arts and culture groups, to do special projects such as neighborhood festivals, film fests, community murals and specialized programming for seniors, kids, the homeless, people with disabilities or survivors of rape & sexual abuse.

The third and smallest piece — but the one that most directly impacts individual artists and creators — is the Creative Workforce Fellowships. As originally set up, $20,000 was awarded to 20 individual artists through an adjudicated process each year, to enable them to continue to work. Each artist was expected at some point only to make that work available for access to the community through an exhibit, a performance, a reading, an installation.

The first indication that this would change — and how unpopular the change was — came at a City Club forum in June 2014 and  meeting of the board of CAC at SPACES in the fall of 2014 after the individual grants for 2015 had been suspended and there was talk of changing the criteria to increase the obligation of artists to engage the community. It was pointed out that it sounded as if artists were expected not just to be artists but also teachers and social workers, roles not every artist was comfortable with or qualified for. A fear was expressed that the money would be chopped into smaller pieces for more community art projects, an idea that was panned by almost all in attendance.

When the program returned for 2016, changes had been made. The grants were cut to $15,000 and there was a much larger focus on “public benefits” although the focus on artistic quality still remained.

Not anymore. The unpopular idea seems to have become a sudden reality, implemented without warning or public discussion.

Under the new rules, the grants will be cut still further, to $10,000, and the published criteria sound as if they aren’t really looking for artists anymore rather for those with expertise in addressing community issues such as homelessness, people with disabilities, or survivors of rape and sexual abuse. Sound familiar? To many it sounds as if the tiny amount reserved for artists is being snatched away and folded into the project support grants, with an advantage going to organizations already doing this type of social work.

The new selection criteria state, “The Creative Community Fellows program is designed for individuals igniting change through arts and culture in their community. We are looking for curious, open and collaborative individuals who are interested in learning and sharing what they learn. We want people who are dedicated to creating healthy neighborhoods and who will recognize and seize opportunities for change.”

The program, it says, “is designed to develop a cohort of 20 artists/residents who intend to learn and collaborate together to drive physical and social transformations in their communities.” And while asserting that oh yes, quality will matter, CAC went on to tell Cleveland’s CAN Journal, “It’s less about evaluating a body of past work, and more about understanding how a participant will use their artistic practice to imagine a different future and help transform their community for the better.”

“Any artist, entrepreneur, neighborhood advocate or organizer who wishes to play a role in maintaining and improving community well-being through their arts and cultural projects or work is invited to apply,” say the criteria.

That clearly advantages those who are already engaged in community service work and speak its language over “mere” artists, placing community benefits over quality of art.

None of this was laid out last year when artists were tapped to go out into the community and sell the levy. They were often asked to justify the large amounts going to what some saw as “elitist” institutions (more than $1.5 million to the Cleveland Orchestra alone, far more than all the money given to artists combined) while the levy — a tax on cigarettes — was taken from the pockets of some of the county’s poorest residents. The talking points were cited in the first paragraph: the reputation-enhancing quality programming and the recirculating of money in the community. The new moves seem to many to be sabotaging both those things.

Among the questions those in the arts community are asking is why is the administration of the grants being shipped out of town — not what fine work does the D.C. organization do, but why was CAC unhappy with CPAC’s work (if it was) and is there a local organization that could do this work just as well? Another is where exactly this demand for a nearly total upending of the purpose of the artist grants is coming from, especially given that there are many sources of funding for this social improvement work and fewer and fewer all the time for artists.

In any case, a levy that was marketed and passed as funding to grow the strength of the arts community is now being shunted to a different purpose entirely — laudatory certainly, but the purview of entirely different organizations and funding sources (We have health & human services levies for that). And it is being taken away only at the bottom end of the arts totem pole. There’s no indication that the Cleveland Orchestra or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while they certainly do a lot of community outreach, will have to earmark their grants exclusively for social services work.

[Written by Anastasia Pantsios]

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7 Responses to “Arts Community Surprised and Stirred Up by Changes in Levy Funding Distribution”

  1. Peter Lawson Jones

    Anastasia, thank you for this commentary qua public service. You have quite concisely and succinctly presented the issues raised by this proposed change in CAC policy. As a performing artist and as someone who helped found CAC, I am extremely concerned about these prospective new directions. “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” I plan to be at the December 12th meeting though it’s abundantly clear that, for those opposed to or who question the proposed changes, our due diligence and advocacy work has to be performed before then.

  2. Liz maugans

    It has been requested by the CAC that we get some more understanding of the Why’s? And some data that could help us understand what was not working. Why this is a better program based on the community weigh-in and the evaluations of Creative Workforce Fellowship recipients? What was the timeline of planning and strategy to change over to this new program. Who participated in this process and how was that documented? What was the lead up to this sudden change?

  3. I,too, do not understand why these changes are being made to what has been a very successful program and one that Cleveland can be very proud of. It seems nonsensical and counterproductive to have people in Washington making the decisions that belong to those invested in Northeast Ohio. I hope that the Board will carefully consider the concerns expressed by the arts community and at their meeting on December 12, request that more time be given to study the issues.

  4. Scott Plate

    This move will gradually dull the distinctive flavor of art originating in Cleveland by neglecting that which grows closest to the soil. The NEA went down this path, and the CAC now risks similar homogeneity. It’s particularly troubling just as Cleveland begins to emerge from its long shadow of inferiority.

  5. Christopher Fortunato

    What would you expect from politicians. Three of the board members were/are members of powerful law firms. One was formerly the head of the largest philanthropic organization in Cleveland and one of the top ones in the country. The last director was a plain artist, the “artist”to the board that the power structure appointed. Do you really think they are going to re-think these issues? They’ve been given their marching orders by the elites.

  6. Sarah Gyorki

    Thanks, Anastasia, for a really insightful discussion of an issue that’s got a lot of people concerned. This new grant seems far too vague, heavily slanted toward community development and unnecessary given the existing project support. But what concerns me most is that we seem to be stepping way back from supporting our artists, and the notion that art is in itself valuable.

  7. Shelley Chernin

    I did not see contact information for the trustees on the website, so I looked them up individually. These are the emails I found. If anyone has better contact information, please correct.

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