Chaos broke out during the quarterly board meeting of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture on Wednesday November 15, taking place at the Cleveland Public Library downtown.
Three speakers were invited to present support for CAC during public comments at the beginning of the meeting, including Dobama Theatre artistic director Nathan Motta and Hattie Kotz, director of marketing and development at the Children’s Museum, who read from a prepared script. Kirsten M. Ellenbogen, President and CEO of Great Lakes Science Center, said the staff at CAC was very responsive when called with questions. Ellenbogen said the process was fair and open, and she found the information straightforward.
CAC executive director Jill Paulsen had asked the speakers to present their materials, reversing the purpose of the public comments and essentially staging a promotional campaign for CAC. There were no other public comments until the meeting ended 90 minutes later.
Board member Charna Sherman, asking President Nancy Mendez and CAC director of administration Meg Harris, for clarity on funds available for distribution in 2024, was met with resistance while they debated the numbers. The amount of funds in the CAC account was unclear.
According to Paulsen, grant allocations for 2024 and 2025 increased from $11.1 million a year to $11.3 million. The increase was the result of high-interest investments, she said. Sherman noted that the board did not approve the new funds. Mendez said the vote made in September to support a reduction in funding was based on their projections, “not real numbers.”
Fifty minutes into the meeting, the shouting continued. Board member Karolyn Isenhart, who missed several meetings over the past year, diverted the conversation by changing the subject.
“Could you refresh us on the (funding evaluation) scores?” said Isenhart.
Unlike cooperative overlapping, a way of expressing enthusiasm and interest in the speaker, CAC board members intentionally interrupted each other to make their point or silence the speaker. With the substance of arts philanthropist Fred Bidwell’s recent Plain Dealer op-ed lingering in the air (see CoolCleveland story here) and a halt to the campaign levy, Sherman made a motion to appease grantees by giving them as much funding support as soon as possible to build confidence in the community.
Board president Mendez and Sherman got into a shouting match, one of several during the meeting, which left the issue of funding more confusing. Sherman proposed giving general operating support to organizations at the highest level in 2024 rather than splitting the funds between 2024 and 2025, saying, “We could give the community confidence and let the levy go forward.” There was no second to Sherman’s motion.
At the center of the public controversy are funds for individual artists totaling more than $1 million that CAC executive director Paulsen reported were “rolled over” to the general budget.
In 2017, CAC did not distribute $400,000, the annual allocation set aside for individual artists. A review of board meeting minutes shows that between 2017 and 2018, CAC entered into contracts with TRIAD Research Group, Van Meter, Ashbrook & Associates, Flying Hand Studio, Community Innovation Network, DataArts, Advocacy and Communication Solutions, LLC, Compelling Communications, and others, totaling more than $530,000.
The funds covered consulting fees, representation before the executive agencies and legislative branch of the Ohio government, a telephone survey to assess residents’ awareness of CAC, targeted media relations and communications support, creating new programs like Cultural Heritage, ioby Match, and Neighborhood Connections programs, the Artist Learning Lab, and other nonessential expenses.
Jeremy Johnson, president and CEO of the Assembly for the Arts, presented the public with an update and plans for funding in 2024 and said the community must come together.
“The noise we are hearing today will stop,” said Johnson, referring to articles appearing in the press and appearing on social media.
Earlier this year, County Executive Chris Ronayne appointed Daniel Blakemore, philanthropy director for the nonprofit Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and reappointed Michele Scott Taylor, the chief program officer at College Now Greater Cleveland, leaving the five-member board without a practicing artist. Ohio Revised Code, Section 3381.05, Appointment of Board of Trustees, clearly states, “At least two members of the board of trustees shall be persons who devote a major portion of their time to practicing, performing, or teaching any of the arts…” With two of the five board seats opening in March 2024, it is uncertain whether Ronayne will follow the code and appoint the artists.
At publication time, CoolCleveland received this note from Kelly Woodard, Director, Department of Communications, Office of County Executive Chris Ronayne: “The Ronayne Administration recognizes the need for a strong and healthy Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC) board and organization, continued funding for the arts, and a strong arts and culture ecosystem. With the upcoming Board appointments, we will continue to ensure that the membership of the Board of Trustees meets the letter and spirit of the Ohio Revised Code and CAC’s bylaws. We encourage members of the public, especially members of the arts community, to submit applications at https://www.cuyahogacounty.
At the end of the meeting, public comments were open. CoolCleveland photographer and writer Anastasia Pantsios asked for more discussion about the groups funded — not the funding formula — wanting to know how they are chosen and how they serve the arts community.
Artist Gwendolyn Garth, a former CAC Board member and founding director of Kings & Queens of Art, said board members were overtalking and not listening to each other.
“I want to say to the marginalized artists, especially to Black local artists, that before you vote, understand what you are voting for with the tax levy,” said Garth. “What is happening here today, in my neighborhood, is called a shell game, where you try to find the money, and you talk about the millions of dollars passed out, but the bottom line is, our Black artists get none of it.”
Garth called for mediation or a federal investigation into CAC. “I am serious about that,” she said. “You are playing games. We have rights.”
Artist M. Carmen Lane was ashamed of what they saw at the meeting. “You are choosing not to lead. I say that to the board and Jill Paulsen,” said Lane. “You expect our art practice to connect you to the community. We are the community. When are you going to take the time to reimagine what is possible? You are wasting the time of the community here to watch this shit show.”
“I will not pass the levy,” said artist and homeowner Linda Armstead from Shaker Heights, part of the grassroots campaign movement to pass the original levy, knocking on doors and getting the vote out. After the levy passed, the Black community got overlooked, she said.
“I will beat the pavement in my neighborhood and community and visit the churches and tell them exactly why I do not want to see this levy passed,” said Armstead.
The dissension among the board has been reported in other media such as Cleveland.com, and in a bizarre rebuttal to Bidwell’s op-ed, Plain Dealer editor Chris Quinn and content director Laura Johnston, in a Culture on Today in Ohio podcast, called Bidwell’s editorial “ridiculous and childish.” Quinn said the public criticism of CAC is a “lot of noise and stupid,” suggesting a tax on any bourbon over $40 because, “clearly, those are the guys going to the arts.”
Bruce Checefsky is a filmmaker and photographer, and published writer. He is the recipient of three Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards, a Creative Workforce Fellowship, and four CEC ArtsLink Fellowships.