Individual Artists and Equitable Grant Making: Divided We Fall

Panelists at the Happy Dog: Watterson, Maugans, Mauersberger, Washington, Steward

Panelists at the Happy Dog: Watterson, Maugans, Mauersberger, Washington, Steward

Wednesday morning—a few hours before about 60 artists would gather at the Happy Dog’s Euclid Tavern location to talk about Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s individual artist grants–Zygote Press director Liz Maugans asked me what was my greatest concern about the controversy at hand.

For those who have not been following, the controversy is over a proposed new direction for CAC’s tax-funded grant making to individual artists. The elements under consideration for a new program would favor artists whose work involves “making change” in their communities. It would emphasize community engagement over studio practice. Originally, the proposal was to have a Washington DC-based nonprofit organization replace the Cleveland-based group that had administered the individual artist grant program since its inception in 2008.

My answer was that the proposal exemplified the fears that conservatives have about government: That it could overstep its supportive role and actually steer the behavior of an industry; that it could take on a task for which it was not designed, equipped, or funded; and that it could do so without input from the people most affected—in this case, without adequate input from artists.

Some of the crowd at the Happy Dog

Some of the crowd at the Happy Dog

This is the core of American political debate: the degree to which Government can help the people, and how it should do so. And fears over a government overstepping these bounds are exactly what make people mistrust government, make them favor small government, make them lean politically to the right.

This is not a critique of fiscal conservative values. I believe it is good to be cautious about the size and role of government.

However, the idea of public support for the arts, and especially for individual artists, is a pretty progressive idea. It takes some convincing, even in a largely Democratic place. And despite the fact that just last year Cuyahoga County voters overwhelmingly renewed the cigarette tax for the arts, distrust by artists of the organization they worked to establish could erode that support pretty quickly. The tragedy of that—besides the obvious—is that the individual artist program is, at three percent, a tiny fraction of CAC’s grant making.

Maugans and Happy Dog proprietor Sean Watterson (who sits on the board of the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture, the organization that previously administered individual artist grants –known as Creative Workforce Fellowships–on behalf of CAC) organized the panel discussion to get input from artists and, hopefully make a plan for response. They were joined on the panel by past fellowship winners Christine Mauersberger, Darius Steward, and RA Washington.

Panelists and commenters at the mic touched on these concerns from different perspectives. One point broadly agreed was that the grant applicants and winners should more closely match the racial makeup of the county population. In 2016, nine of 40 grant winners –or 22.5 percent–were people of color. That falls short of the proportion of the population as a whole, which is almost 30 percent African American, and–depending on how you account for overlap of races and cultures–about 33 percent people of color. But those statistics showed enormous progress after CPAC was charged with the task of making the grants more “community facing” during a revision in grantmaking criteria the previous year. Historically, the pool of applicants and winners was much more overwhelmingly White. Everyone seems to understand that should change.

But if artists agree that equity among races should be a grant-making goal, they clearly don’t agree that giving preference to certain types of artistic practice is a good way to achieve it. Artists who work at making art in their studios and exhibiting it in galleries—as opposed to creating community engagement programs, seeking partners, and other social practices—feel like that kind of guideline writes them out. It pits one type of artist against another. And it feels not like public support, but like government direction.

Panelist RA Washington observed that “They don’t have enough money to take up social change.”

Panel discussion

Panel discussion

Darius Steward said that the route to broader racial inclusion is to increase the effort to contact artists in under-served communities. “They need to get to the cats who aren’t on the radar,” he said.

In earlier suggestions, Maugans had suggested this could be accomplished if CAC deployed its “street team” (which conducted surveys in a homeless shelter and other locations not typically engaged much in the artistic scene, but conspicuously avoided galleries and art events like Parade the Circle) into under-served communities to actively reach out.

Mindy Tousley said community outreach should be the work of nonprofit organizations—which get the lion’s share of public support—rather than individual artists.

Christine Mauersberger compared the likely outcome of grant-funded, community-engaged art vs that of investing in people who have made art a career to “One day, feel-good events: happy meals instead of slow food.”

Angelica Pozo agreed that “asking artists how they impact the community is a good thing to do, but so is realizing there are a lot of different answers to that.”

Washington noted, “I thought this was a merit-based award. It should mean something that a group of people look at your work and say ‘This work is good.’”

To that point, many past winners have talked about how winning the grant has advanced their careers.

Steward pointed out that many of the winners have given back to the community by passing the money along in support of other artists—hiring them to work with them on larger projects.

Deborah Silver said that the role of the organization should include promoting the value of art to the community at large, and drawing them to it. “The failure is on part of CAC, by not convincing people of the worth of this support.” She suggested that the organization could create annual public events to showcase the work of grantees.

The idea that CAC could do more to support individual artists gains fuel from the fact that just three percent of its grant making goes directly to individual artists, with the rest supporting nonprofit organizations through operating support and project support. Indeed, that means individual artist funding could be doubled (the familiar individual artist program, with its emphasis simply on excellent work, could be retained, and a comparably funded program of community engagement could be added) and still 94 percent of grant making would be directed toward nonprofit organizations.

Sean Watterson, who with Maugans organized the gathering, cautioned that changing the grant making strategy could cause people to believe that money wasn’t spent in the manner voters approved. He also compared the tax for the arts to the dedicated sin tax for Cleveland’s pro sports stadiums. “Nobody siphons that money off for social change,” he said.

Heights Arts director Rachel Bernstein highlighted that voter trust will be especially important the next time public support for the arts comes before voters because fewer people are smoking. That means the revenue stream from the cigarette tax is declining. It is generally accepted that in order to maintain the level of funding, it will be necessary to change the tax somehow the next time it comes up for a vote. That will require the trust of the state legislature (which has to approve any tax before the voters have their say) and, of course, the voters themselves.

The fact that the fund comes from cigarette tax points back to the issue of racial disparity. Gwendolyn Garth, the one trustee of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture who came to listen to the artists’ discussion, noted that 20 percent of the population in Cuyahoga County smokes, and of those smokers, 57 percent are African Americans. Therefore most of the people paying for this public support are African Americans. And people who smoke are also disproportionately poor.

She says she favors “easy on-ramps” to make the grants accessible to a broader cross section of people. She also said she would push the idea that artists themselves should play a role in designing the grant program.

Thank God for slowing this down,” Garth said. “I believe art is a healer, and our city can be healed.”

The question, going forward, is how.



Cuyahoga Arts and Culture asks that the following be made clear:

·         There are no new guidelines for supporting individual artists under consideration by CAC’s Board.  Elements of future support for artists was discussed between staff and Board at its December 12, 2016 meeting are outlined here: CAC staff and Board will work together, with community input, to define a new program.

·         CAC’s street team conducted in-person surveys on Wade Oval at a Wade Oval Wednesday event. Parade the circle is in June, and CAC’s listening project events were July 5 through September 30.

·         The community listening project was designed to engage and connect CAC with residents who had not previously known about or engaged with CAC.  CAC also values input from the arts and cultural community, and kicked off our project with an event attended by 175 representatives of CAC-supported organizations on May 19, 2016, including CWF recipients and artists.  CAC’s survey was also distributed to more than 8,000 contacts and publicized widely (including online and on social media), giving Cuyahoga County residents an opportunity to participate.

·         The “familiar individual artist program” (CWF) did not emphasize or exist to support “excellent work.” In 2016, the goals of the program were to 1) create public benefit that builds connections between artists and residents, 2) support artistic and cultural vibrancy; and 3) ensure stewardship of taxpayer-provided funds.


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