A Beginning: Cleveland’s Transformative Art Fund

Rhonda Brown with the Transformative Art Fund committee and staff.

When Rhonda Brown returned to Cleveland to serve as Chief Strategist for the Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy in the administration of Mayor Justin Bibb, it was not entirely clear what the role would mean. It was a new position. Cleveland is a city with enormous depth of arts activity in the shadow of its famous major institutions, and yet artists struggle—along with the entire population—to make ends meet. With the convoluted web of permits and regulations, it’s difficult for artists to figure out how to engage.  As result, Cleveland also has major, un-tapped artistic resources, especially in its neglected minority communities which continue to struggle against the enduring effects of redlining and a history of segregation. It was hoped that the cabinet level position in the Mayor’s office would help to change that.

The January 30 announcement of the Transformative Arts Fund marked the first major initiative to come through Brown’s office, and it could chart a course for future programs. That, at least, is what a couple of members of the committee that advised the development of the program hope. The money for the $3 Million program comes from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, allocated by Mayor Bibb. In a statement, city council President Blaine A. Griffin commended Ward 9 councilman Kevin Conwell “for his leadership and push to make this transformative arts fund a reality.”

Brown describes the Fund as one of three “major pillars” of her work—the other two being to develop a first-ever strategy for the arts, culture, and creative economy in the city of Cleveland; and to be an ambassador externally, and an advisor internally to the Mayor.

The Transformative Arts Fund will make grants in support of artist-led projects with institutional partners in the city of Cleveland. The grants will be large–from $250,000 to $500,000—and it’s important to put that in context. A grant of $500,000 would be bigger than all but 5 of the 73 general operating support grants Cuyahoga Arts and Culture made in 2023. Indeed, grants of $500,000 would exceed the entire budgets of many of the organizations in CAC’s GOS pool.  It’s a big deal.

The program was shaped by Rhonda Brown, planning director Joyce Pan Huang, and a volunteer committee appointed by the Mayor and members of council. Committee members include musician and photographer Vince Robinson (Larchmere Arts), musician and arts administrator Deidre McPherson (Assembly for the Arts), musician William Washington, (Mourning [A] Blkstar) photographer (and CAN Board Member) Gina Washington, artist and administrator Gwendolyn Garth (Kings & Queens of Art), administrator Maya Curtis (Cuyahoga Arts and Culture), and administrator Letitia Lopez (Julia de Burgos Cultural Center). Artist Susie Underwood resigned from the committee. Gina Washington says it was important to the committee to make it about the artists, because “artists always get the short end of the stick.” She says the grants are as large as they are because “you can’t really transform something with a small amount of money. 

“We thought about projects that would catalyze growth and healing, offering a space for expression and hope, and to support vitality and growth in neighborhoods,” Brown said.

As Vince Robinson said, “It was important to be artist-led because a lot of time the artists don’t have as much influence on the outcomes [of projects in the city]. And the other thing is that institutions usually get a considerable portion of the funds for these things. The committee has been diligent about making sure the artists get the benefit of these funds. It is our intention that the funds not get eaten up by administrative costs.”

Rather than serve as a broad injection of cash into the community of individual artists, the initiative is expected to result in six to twelve major public art projects.  To do the math, $2.9 million (the amount left for grantmaking after an administrative fee) could have funded 290 grants to individual artists at $10,000 each. But with the focused, major investment of just six to twelve grants aimed at artists making community impact, expectations of the committee are plenty ambitious: The projects are meant to  “challenge norms and provoke thoughtful reflection; to foster Inclusivity, [encouraging] projects that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusivity, ensuring that the voices and stories of all individuals are represented; to ignite conversation, facilitating meaningful dialogue and interaction with Cleveland-centric issues including consideration for projects amplifying/addressing important community issues; to [engage] with local communities, collaborating with them to shape the artistic narrative of their neighborhoods and ensuring that art serves as a tool for positive change; and to drive transformation, utilizing art as a vehicle for addressing social, environmental, and cultural challenges, with the goal of creating a more just, resilient, and connected Cleveland.”

“We will be looking at how to impact different parts of the city—health disparities, environmental issues—it is really hoped that art can make a difference in some of the things that residents are dealing with,” Robinson said.

Several members of the committee noted the intention that public art not be limited to murals. “We talked about all types of engagement, that could include sound, could include poetry, could include mental health awareness or physical health issues, Brown said.

The City will contract with the non-profit Assembly for the Arts to administer the grants. This will enable them to avoid the City of Cleveland’s policy of requiring grant recipients to front the money before it can be reimbursed: instead, the grants can be paid up-front. The legislation approved by council limits Assembly’s administrative fees to $90,000. That’s 3 percent–significantly lower than the average 30 percent fee Assembly and other regranting partners will take from CAC’s grants in support of individual artists. However, the Transformative Art Fund grants require the artists to work with institutional partners, which do not have a prescribed limit on the amount they can be paid for production, administration, or other costs. Neither are the partnerships limited to non-profit arts organizations. They could be with community development corporations, developers, corporations—any partner willing to support an artist-led project meeting the requirements.

The City of Cleveland’s landing page for the program went live January 31, as did the application portal. The deadline for applications is 11:59 pm Saturday, March 30.  The committee will review the applications and make recommendations for approval by the Mayor and City Council. They anticipate announcing awards early in June, with projects to start as soon as June 17, and to be completed by August 30, 2025.

As Gina Washington said, “Although the funds are limited and the number of participants will be too, the momentum it generates to create and collaborate must continue.”

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