Brave New World: The Changing Landscape of Support for Artists

Cleveland ranks very high nationally in its support for the arts—including for individual artists. Only one or two other cities in the United States offer a similar level of support. For individual artists it comes through the Creative Work Force Fellowship Program, which since 2009 has distributed grants of $20,000 to 20 artists, writers, and performers, each year.

But that program is on hold—and it may well be endangered in the long term, if new or additional sources of money are not identified. These issues aren’t going to go away: they are harbingers of larger cultural shifts. We’re entering a brave new world.

Two things have held the grant-making process up in 2014. The first is declining revenue from the cigarette tax, which funds Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. People are smoking less. This trend—along with the fact that it is better for people not to smoke—was one of the valid criticisms during the campaign. Individual artist grants are administered by the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture, because Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, by law, is not permitted to make grants to individuals.

Since 2009, the Creative Workforce Fellowship program has spent $565,000 a year: $400,000 for artist fellowships, $165,000 for administration and related expenses. Cuyahoga Arts and Culture plans to fund the program for two years—but at $400,000 a year, a reduction of nearly 30 percent. Indeed, the entire cigarette tax program will expire in 2016, unless voters renew it. And in order to maintain the current level of support—let alone to return to the level in prior years—the renewal will have to include some additional stream of revenue to make up for the declining number of cigarette buyers. Without that, artists are facing at best a significantly reduced amount of County funding, and at worst a termination of the entire Creative Workforce Fellowship program.

Additionally, the criteria for making individual artist grants is being reexamined. Recently CPAC commissioned a 100-page report on its program, produced by Cheryl Yuen of Chicago and Nancy Moore of Madison, Wisconsin. While they praised the Creative Workforce Fellowship program, they also proposed that it could do more to assess how its grants benefit the community—and to assess the program’s “return on investment.”

Interestingly, when artists gathered for the CAC board meeting at SPACES on September 15, there was little comment about the fact that the money pool is dwindling. Instead, much of the often heated comments criticized the notion that “public engagement” should be a more heavily weighed criterion for the awards. To many artists, the idea that art should serve the public is tantamount to prostitution. “I would think we and the public would want excellent artists,” complained Faye Hargate, as if communicating with the public were not a component of artistic excellence. On a similar note, Achala Wali insisted that demonstrating public value is not the artist’s business. “I think the burden is on you, the grant-making institution,” she said, “and not the individual artist, to make the case for the public value of art.”

There are some ironies to this sort of response, for in fact the existence of public arts funding is due to the discovery that artists are a key part of a vital creative community, and already do play a significant public and economic role. Writers such as Richard Florida have argued that “artists” play a key role in the economy in many different ways, by providing a cultural environment in which creativity, innovation, and consequent economic productivity can flourish.

It’s hard to argue with Florida, but the catch is that it’s difficult to define what we mean by the word “artist.” It once signified someone who created work of the sort that we go to look at in museums, such as painting and sculpture. But with the development of conceptual art, installation art, and new media, this definition seems constricting. Increasingly we’re aware that people who produce paintings and sculpture may well produce boring work; while those who are intensely creative in seemingly non-artistic areas, such as business or industrial design, may well deserve the title of “artist.”

Equally significant, in a world where art forms push the limits of new technology, the notion of the individual artist–isolated in his studio, staring into his own soul–is increasingly open to question. Whether in new media such as film or video, or even in traditional media such as sculpture, where new modes of fabrication are becoming possible, the notion of the “individual” artist is increasingly obsolete: with all its technical challenges, much of today’s art requires a creative team rather than an individual; the “artist” is often an effective leader of the team. Therefore the recent study of the County’s program for individual artists could have larger implications: if we’re interested in public impact, perhaps what we should be supporting are not single individuals, but creative teams which can have a broader reach.

What’s more, increasingly sophisticated tools of analysis mean things that once stood outside the realm of assessment are now subject to numerical and economic measurement. We can begin to measure things which were once thought to be “spiritual” and unmeasurable: works of art, like everything else, will need to justify their existence by bringing some sort of social or economic benefit.

Thus, for example, I currently serve on a university art committee where we’re taking a hard look at public sculpture, which costs more to maintain on an annual basis than its total value if it were put up for sale. Is this sort of conservation the best use of university funds? Or would it be better to dispose of works of this sort, and commission new ones that speak in a more vital way to today’s young student audience? For that matter, when we commission new work, do we need to suppose that we’re going to keep it forever, when the technology with which it’s created may become obsolete in a few years?

There are positive aspects to this. Universities, hospitals and businesses are becoming aware that art can play a powerful role in defining their brand, and in giving their organization a creative identity. This is worth a lot in dollar terms. But it’s also an increasingly Darwinian world, where the fittest will survive and the unfit will be pushed aside.

In the end what’s apparent is that artists’ rhetoric isn’t likely to make much difference. Institutions that support artistic activities are becoming more interested in evaluating the outcome of their expenditures. Artists may like to believe that their work is sacred. No doubt they will noisily insist that this is the case. But in actual fact it’s a brave new world, and artists, like everyone else, need to face it.

The board of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture will hear a report on the Creative Workforce Fellowships at its meeting December 15, and plans to vote on a proposal February 9, 2015.