Individual Artist Grants, Race, and Public Benefit


Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s abrupt termination of its Creative Workforce Fellowship last fall, and its plan to substitute it with a different program providing greater “public benefit,” have elicited a range of passionate responses from members of Cleveland’s arts community and others. While some outsiders see this as unfortunate bickering, it has opened a window on a much larger issue.


On the one hand, this small scale local shock event rallied many artists and others to protest the cut, defending the importance of supporting art for art’s sake, as well as making the case for the numerous ways in which Creative Workforce Fellowship recipients and other artists have reached out and engaged the community. What compelled them to offer up such evidence was CAC’s stated reason for halting the established artists grant program: the need to spread the benefits and opportunities of public funding to a broader, more diverse field of applicants and audience. Many artists, including past CWF winners, sincerely felt that their efforts had contributed towards this goal, and called pitting art for art’s sake and social change or social practice art a “false binary.” They also questioned whether it is indeed the role of the agency to promote social change (who gets to define this?) by investing public dollars in a more narrowly focused program.


On the other hand, CAC’s action has also accelerated deeper conversations related to the lack of fair representation of artists of color in the pool of CWF grant recipients, not just of those applying. It also provided an opening for a broader community dialogue around not just this specific issue, but the impact of systemic racism along the entire spectrum of the grant award system and in the art world:


What are the reasons that only 10 % of CWF recipients are African-American, while that group represents 30% of the Cuyahoga County population, and 57.8% of the people who smoke in the county (the source of CAC’s grant funds)?


How widely are artists of color represented in local galleries and museums, and people of color on the staffs and boards of local arts organizations?


How many youth of color are receiving high quality arts education training and opportunities for further study?


Are the language of grant applications and the many layers of the process penetrable by individuals who lack training in the ways of “professional” presentation?


Do the established ways of presentation exclude or downplay artists whose work is articulated differently?


While many have lauded CAC’s good intentions of maximizing public benefit throughout all of its grant programs, they have also been sharply critical of CAC’s largely largely top-down, non-transparent planning process. Donald Black Jr. is a thoughtful, imaginative and courageous artist who is seeking to promote broad community dialogue about the institutional racism that undermines the grant making process, and blocks artists of color from full participation in our arts community. I hope that others will heed his call for greater honesty and fairness, and ground-up inclusion of the artists most affected in designing CAC’s replacement program.