Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Individual Artists and the Return on Public Investment

Questions about the public value of art are at the core of any public funding program: If we are going to give money to support arts activity, what do we fund, and why? And when funds are limited, how should they be allocated among our priorities?

Earlier this year, an evaluation of the Creative Workforce Fellowship program, and resulting modification of its funding criteria, charged the local artist community with emotion and questions about what might get funding, and why.

Individual artist grants were part of heated discussion at Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s board meeting September 15 at SPACES. Passions ran high enough that on more than one occasion CAC staff reminded the crowd that they were neither in a debate nor a question and answer session, but in the meetings’ public comment period.

CPAC’s evaluation –which the organization initiated itself–came with praise for the program’s transparency, as well as advice focused on three areas: providing public benefit, with the side note that “an engaged workforce = An engaged community;” tracking return on investment; and building visibility for the fellowship program.

CAC director Karen Gahl Mills assured the crowd repeatedly that the organization would continue to fund the program. She said CAC would allocate $400,000 a year for 2015 and 2016, and has invited CPAC to submit its proposal to run it, including guidelines revised to emphasize community engagement and “community facing” artists.

To artists, that sounds like less emphasis on the art itself, and more on community outreach, promotion, teaching, and other activities that are related, but not specifically about artistic excellence.

You could hear the artists’ concerns in their comments.

“I would think we and the public would want excellent artists,” said Faye Hargate.

Photographer Steve Cagan told the CAC board and staff that “most of your peer organizations give awards specifically based on merit.”

Writer and Creative Workforce Fellow Christine Borne said, “My public value is that I exist in my house and pay my mortgage and property tax. When I accepted the money in 2012, I planned to put the money back into the community” through repairs to her house and sidewalk.

Artist Achala Wali said, “I think the burden is on you, the grantmaking institution, and not the individual artist, to make the case for the public value of art.”

“I think maybe people are noticing this (community engagement requirement) for the first time,” Gahl Mills said in a subsequent interview. “But it is not a new idea.”

The idea of community engagement has been a part of the grant’s criteria since the 2013-2014 grant cycle, for which artists applied in 2012 and 2013. But the CPAC evaluation and CAC’s response to it will increase emphasis on that—just about one year before voters decide on whether to renew it.

Gahl Mills says the timing of the program evaluation –a little more than a year before voters will be asked to reauthorize the cigarette tax–is entirely coincidental.

“I don’t think we’re talking about persuading voters one way or another. As a public funder it is important to help residents see what the money is doing for them. One of the things CAC tries to remember every day is that the dollars CAC manages don’t belong to CAC, but to residents of the community.”

But from artists’ perspective, the point of making art is not economic revitalization, community outreach or teaching, but simply the art itself. That, they said, is how they should be evaluated—not on the ripple effect of ancillary benefits.

Both Gahl Mills and CPAC’s Meg Van Voorhis say artists are already engaging the community. “Artists are exploring social themes through their work and are raising community consciousness as it relates to social themes,” Van Voorhis said. “That is public value that comes directly through the work. We have the creation of locally specific work. We have writers who tell stories that people elsewhere wouldn’t tell.”

For those artists, the new criteria may just mean calling attention to different aspects of their work.

Regardless of funding criteria, declining cigarette tax revenues mean there will be less money to go around–$400,000, as opposed to $565,000 in previous years.

Gahl Mills says it will be up to CPAC to say how they want to split up the money—whether they change the amount of the grant, or change number of grants. Some of the money will be spent on administrative costs.

The next steps in the process are more memos and meetings. CAC will advise CPAC of its goals for the program by the end of September, and ask that CPAC make their intentions known—whether they want to administer the program or not—by October 10. CAC board meetings are scheduled for November 24 and December 15. Gahl Mills says the organization wants to be able to vote on a proposal for Creative Workforce Fellowship funds at its February meeting.