Leadership Qualities: CAC Search Continues

It was late October, 2018 that Cuyahoga Arts and Culture hosted meetings with arts and cultural leaders to get input on a job description, to learn from constituents what leadership qualities are desirable in the organization’s next executive director. It’s a big job at a challenging time. Gary Hanson, a member of the CAC board who is working with the search team, said in February that are in the process of reviewing applicants to narrow the field. They’ve had “well more than fifty,” and will still accept applications. “[Their] goal is to report at CAC’s April board meeting more definitively than [they have] up to now.”

That’s open-ended, and it’s already been nine months since the previous ED resigned, but as Hanson says, “You can’t put a hard deadline on it,” he says. “It’s like putting a hard deadline on getting married.”

New leadership will define a course for the public funding agency at a time marked by declining revenue and difficult discussions about how to allocate it—not only among organizations, but more equitably among all applicants. And these years are the run-up to the next vote on the tax, which will almost certainly be something other than a renewal of the same cigarette tax. It will inevitably get new kinds of attention as result.

The new leader has enormous liberty to shape CAC programs, and therefore the regional arts sector. The CAC director is not elected, but hired by its volunteer board, and the board is not elected either, but appointed by the County Executive, confirmed by County Council. The Executive Director is the person on the ground every day, the person who sets policy and informs the board. And CAC has its own budget, which is not a line item for any other body to approve. As a taxing entity with its own dedicated revenue stream, the person in charge has a whole lot of capacity to steer the arts and cultural sector in Cuyahoga County. So yeah, it is an important role, not that of your run-of-the-mill government bureaucrat.

Hanson says about 60 people attended those meetings to help inform the job description, and that every category of CAC support was represented. Arts Consulting Group—the organization CAC hired to manage the search–came prepared with lists of qualities, and asked the participants to say which were most important, and what kind of leadership style was needed. Would the person need to come with a long record of accomplishment? To be a consensus builder? To have dealt with the gritty, day to day demands that are faced by the region’s many over-worked, underpaid arts professionals?

From the session CAN attended, it was clear that constituents wanted someone who understood what they face in an industry that is challenging in every way. One person said the person “should have developed a big callus on the center of [his or her] forehead, from banging their head against the wall.”

The job description is filled with exciting language, grounded in the potential for government and public money to positively impact the art scene. It frames not simply the leader of a public funding entity, but an active champion “at the forefront of arts and culture life in Cuyahoga County, … receptive to new ideas and opportunities for the sustainability and growth of a vibrant arts and culture sector.”

Who reading this does not believe the arts are an agent of change, that artists and art organizations, and art entrepreneurs could do more for the betterment of all mankind, if only they had more support?  We take this as a given. It is difficult to curb enthusiasm over the potential this person could tap.

Could CAC for example create a staff position to help artists and arts organizations navigate the seas of public policy–the codes, permits, inspections, and other review processes required to open galleries and studios, or to install public art? Perhaps. As far back as 2014, after a Board of Liquor Control raid on Loren Naji’s former Ohio City gallery, Steven Litt found support for creating such a position in city government. A new CAC director could work with city councils and Cuyahoga County Council and use public money to create such a staff position in support of both individual artists and organizations.

Could it create an insurance program?

Likely there is no end to the different ways in which public money could be used to advance the cause of artists in Cuyahoga County.

On the other hand, it’s worth considering the potential from another perspective. For all of its history, Cleveland’s art scene has been as scrappy as can be. Our artists and organizations are ambitious, entrepreneurial, and have a prodigious ability to look after themselves, finding ways to make things happen. And if the government played a bigger role in paving the way, we might lose some of that spirit. Existing enterprises that provide certain services might be trumped. If the public funder played a bigger supporting role, it would inevitably also get more control over what happens in the industry, determining what qualifies for support and what does not.

It is a question at the heart of the national, liberal vs conservative argument. What do we want our government to do? And if the government does something, do we lose the ability or the inclination to fend for ourselves?

Already CAC has gone beyond providing funds, taking up a measure of advocacy that creeps into the territory of competition with services provided by the sector it supports. To wit: Gordon Square Arts District administers the Cleveland Artist Registry, which it calls “Cleveland’s premier searchable artist database.”  It invites users to click and find visual artists, musicians, dancers, theater artists, designers, and all artistic disciplines, whether  to create work, give workshops, teach classes, contribute to or create whole exhibits or productions. It’s a great tool, implemented with grassroots energy by a small nonprofit organization. Additionally, several individual artists have self-organized to create various listings and message boards, from the award-winning “NeoPal” list-serve to various Facebook groups.

Meanwhile, CAC was recently promoting its own very similar service, clevelandartsevents.com. It is an online registry of artists and performances which offers much the same service as GSAD’s independent effort.

On the one hand, more support and more promotion are great for the art scene. On the other, in an environment where nonprofits have to raise money for their programs, and in the process justify the need for those programs, having multiple outlets weakens the case for another one. We can’t afford much redundancy, and in that sense the two are competing. And a key difference between those two is that CAC’s publicly funded directory is actually  paying artists to sign up. If you’re one of the first 400 to do so, you’ll get $25.

Similarly, CAC not only requires acknowledgement from the organizations it funds (by printing its logo on materials, as most foundations do) but also mandates that each organization list its events on CAC’s events database.  It is a requirement to fulfill the terms of the grant. No other arts listing has that kind of stick. Every other such service has to  compete for content and support, and does so by successfully spreading the word.

Does Cuyahoga County want its public funder for the arts to provide services that nonprofit art organizations are simultaneously providing? And depending on whether it is an individual or an organization, either pay them or simply require them to comply?

Whoever the new executive director is can decide this kind of thing.

Here’s another example of public influence on the private arts sector: Below the top line discussion of race as CAC considered new models to fund individual artists, there also simmered a discussion of what impact a change in the funding model would have on art making. That’s because one of the routes to build equity would be to require community engagement, or “public-facing” activities–not only of nonprofit organizations with outreach departments, but even of individual artists.

The heated discussion created a whole new kind of divide in the art scene: If, in the name of equity, the funding criteria for CAC’s individual artist support program were to more heavily weigh “socially engaged practice,” then artists who pursue their own vision in a studio would be less likely to get support. When studio artists complained about the change, as they did vehemently in several meetings– the dynamic made it look like they were opposed to CAC’s necessary and righteous strides toward equity. That was not the case at all. But in a liberal vs conservative kind of way, this was collateral damage as the government determined what to support.

Whoever CAC chooses for this important role will have an incredibly difficult task, with a revenue stream on the slide, and an ongoing discussion of equity, and a vote on the future looming. If you’re up for a challenge, this could be the job for you. The search continues.


Collective Arts Network is grateful to have received Project Support from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

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