Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, and Individual Artists: Making Change


From left: Cuyahoga Arts and Culture trustees Charna Sherman and Steven Minter, and executive director and CEO Karen Gahl-Mills.

From left: Cuyahoga Arts and Culture trustees Charna Sherman and Steven Minter, and executive director and CEO Karen Gahl-Mills

Once in a while, it’s not a cliché, but simply accurate to say a proposal raises more questions than it offers answers.

At its Board meeting Monday, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture rolled out a proposal for a new individual artist grant program, and that was certainly the case. The new program would replace what’s been known as the Creative Workforce Fellowships—the publicly funded individual artist grant program administered since 2009 by the Cleveland-based Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture. Instead, the new Creative Community Fellowship would fund another individual artist grant program, by hiring Washington, DC-based National Arts Strategies. The questions all related to one thing: Why the change?

Why the decision to not renew the contract with a highly respected local organization, turning instead to another that sends local tax dollars out of town in the form of administrative fees?

Why switch from a program that emphasized the quality of the artist’s work to one that emphasizes the degree to which the artist “makes change” in his or her community?

Who was dissatisfied, and why?

And do we really want to export public money and authority outside of Cuyahoga County?

Many of the questions– at the meeting, in studios around town, and on social media–came from artists, who valued CPAC’s Creative Workforce Fellowships because that program recognized the art itself, and considered its impact—gallery exhibits, artist talks, progress in their careers, the contribution of beauty and ideas, and whatever collateral impact those activities have on neighborhoods—as a public benefit. Their concern is that the new program calls upon them to emphasize community engagement, rather than their own artistic practice: it calls on them to be a particular kind of artist, in the vein of Chicago-based, “social practice” artist, Theaster Gates.

CAC’s website calls the proposed new grants “an exciting two-year program for approximately 20 Cuyahoga County residents who want to use arts and culture to drive physical and social transformations in their communities.”

Many artists see it as a dilution, or redirection of their profession.

Some artists choose to work in a more community based practice,” said 2013 Creative Workforce Fellow Kristen Cliffel, in an email interview about the proposed program. “I don’t. I think the value in my work is when it is seen and talked about in exhibitions and museums, public collections and the like.”

Her comments sum up the thoughts of many local artists who weighed in on social media.

Several past Creative Workforce Fellows–studio artists with degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Art and other art schools in the region– indicated that they probably wouldn’t have been funded under the proposed new criteria, and knowing the emphasis of the grants, might not even have applied.

A Q&A provided by CAC says “Any artist, entrepreneur, neighborhood advocate or organizer who wishes to play a role in maintaining and improving community wellbeing through their arts and cultural projects or work is invited to apply.”

A timeline for the training offered through the proposed new program—also provided by CAC—maps out areas of study. Subject areas include “Understanding Community,” exploration and evaluation of “network partners,” budgeting, other forms of capital, crafting a pitch, impact measurement tools. Those topics have a lot in common with the region’s extensive list of nonprofit organizations, including those with staffed outreach departments that already employ artists to make an impact in the community. Through General Operating and Project Grants, CAC awards approximately 97 percent of its budget to those organizations. The amount invested in support for individual artists has been approximately 2 percent.

Fiber artist Deborah Silver calls that “trickle-down funding.”

Longtime CAC board member Steven Minter also had some questions about the proposed change: “What’s not working? What is different about National Arts Strategies from CPAC? And I’m not clear what it means that the cohort will be ‘open to all of us,’ and what is meant by ‘expanding the circle.’”

CAC director Karen Gahl-Mills has used the terms in quotes to describe the new program.

In an interview prior to the meeting, Gahl Mills said “What drove this was a desire to move in a new direction and expand the circle of people who would be eligible for the fellowship.”

“We are concentrating on emerging artists, and artists of color. We want this to be something that is more representative of the community. Public money is different. We are not the Cleveland Arts Prize.”

She says of CPAC’s Creative Workforce Fellowships, “We celebrate what they have done. Now we want to move in a direction, more toward artists driving community change.”

She emphasizes, “CAC has always will always maintain its commitment to funding artists.”

Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture president Tom Schorgl notes that Creative Workforce Fellowship applications –administered by his organization–were always evaluated in blind adjudication: panels of judges had nothing other than examples of the artists’ works to inform their decisions. He adds that the panels of judges have always been racially diverse.

“The Creative Workforce Fellowship was designed as a [research and development] fellowship, to provide individuals the opportunity to expand work, alter their portfolio, and do what any R&D grant does–to make your work stronger and better, and to help reach more people.”

CPAC commissioned an outside consultant to evaluate its program from 2009 to 2014. The report was generally laudatory. The only suggested improvement was that the organization could do more to promote artists and connect them with more people. CPAC followed that advice, producing videos about the Fellows and their work, which they promoted on social media and other outlets. The program already offered a range of entrepreneurial training.

“I don’t know that this is so much about the Creative Workforce Fellowship program, as it is that they want to go in a different direction,” Schorgl said.

Schorgl says CAC has invited CPAC to be one of several community partners who will receive a $2,500 stipend to promote the new program over 6 weeks. “Of course we are going to do that, as we promote all opportunities for artists.”

He said CAC also offered a $60,000 bridge grant to finish evaluation of the Creative Workforce Fellowships. “We certainly appreciate that.”

But the bigger picture is inescapable. “We are sorry the program will not be funded by them. Because in essence it was their program. The Creative Workforce Fellowship was developed in collaboration with Cuyahoga Arts and Culture in 2008 and 2009. We worked with them to design it.”

Monday’s meeting was for public discussion purposes. The Board will vote on the proposal at its next meeting, at 3:30 pm Monday, December 12 in the Miller Classroom at the Idea Center, in Playhouse Square.

Watch this space for updates in the meantime.

UPDATE: Please see our subsequent post for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s responses to CAN’s questions about selection process and criteria.

Of course CAN is profoundly appreciative of the citizens of Cuyahoga County, who voted by a margin of more than 75 percent in favor of public support for the arts just over one year ago. And we are profoundly grateful for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s work to administer those funds. CAN recently became eligible to apply to CAC for project support, and at CAC’s Monday meeting received official word that $4000 grant for a series of four stories in 2017 has been approved. The stories will focus on various efforts to extend Cleveland’s reach as an arts market.






The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.