Karen Gahl-Mills Resigns
Cuyahoga Arts and Culture CEO and executive director Karen Gahl-Mills has resigned, effective June 7, according to a press release sent this morning, April 18. In a challenging atmosphere of funding cuts, the leader of one of the nation’s largest public funders of the arts became embattled on several fronts: first in an attempt to address racial inequity in grantmaking to individual artists, and subsequently by choosing to significantly reduce operating support to nonprofit organizations all at once, rather than gradually, in the hope of keeping grant amounts stable for a period of years despite a projected continual decline in cigarette tax revenue.
According to the press release, “With less money to distribute, Gahl-Mills said tougher choices have had to be made, leading naturally to tension in the arts community over who gets the money for what project. At times, Gahl-Mills acknowledged, she has been the target of that criticism.”
The tumult of her tenure dates back several years, beginning in 2014 when the 2015 grantmaking program for individual artists–the Creative Workforce Fellowships, administered by the Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture–was put on hold while CAC directed CPAC to make the program more “public facing.” The program was re-instated with reduced grant amounts, but there began a debate over whether the cigarette tax would support the making of art on its own merits, or whether the support for individual artists was justified only by community engagement.
The subject returned with a focus on racial inequity in 2016, when the CAC board supported Gahl-Mills’ decision to curtail the Creative Workforce Fellowship and replace it with a program to be administered by a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC. An outcry from Cuyahoga County artists caused the proposed contractor to withdraw itself, and CAC was back to the drawing board with the intent of starting from scratch to build a new racially equitable individual artist grantmaking program that would emphasize community engagement and creative opportunity for all–especially underserved communities. After at least one false start, CAC launched the Support For Artists Planning Team–a group of artists who developed a list of recommendations for the new program. CAC’s Board voted to accept the team’s report, but in discussion had questions about its feasibility and legal ramifications. At present, the process is continuing.
Then, with cigarette tax revenue in decline, Gahl-Mills led CAC in a decision to significantly reduce the amount of money it would award as general operating support for non-profit organizations. Declining revenue made cuts necessary and expected, but many organizations questioned the choice to cut the funding levels all at once, rather than mete out the change gradually. Even the largest and most capable development departments- including that of the Cleveland Orchestra–were caught off guard. Others still were stunned by the severity of the cuts.
Gahl-Mills plans to pursue consulting and teaching in Chicago.
A full press release follows:
Cuyahoga Arts & Culture CEO Leaving Arts Funding Agency
Karen Gahl-Mills Departing to Teach and Consult in Chicago
CLEVELAND, OHIO (April 18, 2018) – Karen Gahl-Mills, CEO & executive director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) for the past eight years, is leaving the public grantmaking organization effective June 7, 2018, and plans to expand her teaching practice in Chicago.
“I’m so proud of the work our team has done together since 2010 to make more people aware of the fantastic work coming from artists and arts organizations in Cuyahoga County, but it’s time for a new challenge for me and time for new leadership at CAC,” Gahl-Mills said.
Board of Trustees President Joseph P. Gibbons said a search will begin soon for a new leader.
“Karen will be missed, and I am grateful for her passion and dedication to arts and culture and for her leadership on behalf of CAC. Fortunately, I believe we will continue to benefit from Karen’s hard work and I am confident that we can depend on the excellent staff at CAC to keep moving our mission forward as we work through this transition,” Gibbons said.
Gahl-Mills, who has taught at Indiana University and the University of Chicago, said that she now will expand her teaching practice there as well as at Northwestern University while exploring consulting projects with the Civic Consulting Alliance, a Chicago-based organization that identifies and addresses key issues facing the city.
Prior to joining CAC, Gahl-Mills was president and executive director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, executive director of the Westchester Philharmonic in White Plains, N.Y., and worked in the film and television industry in Chicago and Los Angeles. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from DePaul University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Gahl-Mills is the second executive director in the history of CAC, which was created in 2006 after Cuyahoga County residents approved a tax on cigarettes to support arts and culture across the county.
Under her leadership, overwhelming support of a 2015 ballot initiative extended the agency’s tax resource for an additional ten years.
Since 2007, CAC has invested more than $170 million in more than 375 organizations involved with arts and culture across the county, with Gahl-Mills overseeing much of that.
In recent years, that grant making has gotten more challenging as tax revenues have declined in concert with the decline in smoking. That trend is expected to continue as tax revenues were down 13 percent in the first quarter of 2018 compared with 2017.
With less money to distribute, Gahl-Mills said tougher choices have had to be made, leading naturally to tension in the arts community over who gets the money for what project. At times, Gahl-Mills acknowledged, she has been the target of that criticism.
However, she takes it in stride: “I always tried to remember that at the root of any criticism was passion for the arts – a passion I share,” Gahl-Mills said. “Hearing from the public is actually a part of the CEO’s job that I treasure, whether that feedback is positive or negative. I hope that the community recognizes that CAC is committed to continuing to listen to the public, particularly as we tackle difficult issues around equity in our grantmaking; I know that our dedicated staff will continue to carry that important work forward.”
Gahl-Mills noted that CAC now is serving more organizations than ever in its history and in 2015 Cuyahoga County voters renewed the tax to support arts and culture by a 75 percent margin – overwhelming support that Gahl-Mills said at the time “speaks to the power and strength of the cultural institutions in our community.”
“Our mission is to inspire and strengthen the community by investing in arts and culture,” Gahl-Mills said. “CAC has done that, at the rate of millions of dollars every year supporting tens of thousands of arts and culture events. I know that work will continue. And I trust that the arts in Cuyahoga County will only grow stronger.”