UPDATED: CAC’s Re-tooled Support for Individual Artists

M. Carmen Lane, Artist Talk at SPACES (Vince Robinson, photo)

Nearly two years after the sunset of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s Creative Workforce Fellowship program, a new version has been birthed.  Its creation follows the instigative energy of public discord resulting from a change in the status of the program (formerly administered by Arts Cleveland / Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture), which awarded $15 and $20 thousand-dollar unrestricted grants to 161 recipients from 2009-2016.

Only 16 of the 161 fellowships were awarded to African American recipients, a fact that was of particular concern in light of the fact that Cuyahoga County’s population is nearly 30 percent black.

According to statistics compiled by the Ohio Department of Health and released in 2008, an assessment of risk factors among adult residents in Cuyahoga County indicated that white male and females accounted for 17.9% and 18.6% of cigarette smokers.  Black males and females accounted for 36.4 and 21.4%, respectively.

While these figures mirror a three-year window between 2004 and 2007, they give a strong indication that African American smokers contribute significantly to the tax revenues that fuel Cuyahoga County’s arts funding.

CAC ended its contract with the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, effectively bringing an end to the program in which CPAC administrated the awards.  After a few very heated CAC board meetings where tensions rose due to the sudden halt in funding, it was apparent that a solution was warranted.  On one side of the fence, those who fit the profile of the status quo recipients expressed disdain for its cessation.  The other faction gave voice to the obvious exclusion that had occurred.

In response, CAC created a Support for Artists Planning Team.  It was a diverse group of artists in terms of discipline and ethnicity.  The team was charged with crafting some recommendations to empower artists, with a notable emphasis on artists of color.  This writer served as a member of that team.  Over 100 hours were spent in meetings, racial equity training and difficult conversations about the reality of the elephant in the room:  race.

Karamu House production of Black Nativity ( Vince Robinson, photo)

Statistics were analyzed, other grant programs were reviewed, brainstorm sessions occurred, questions were asked and some answers evoked tears.  The lengthy process saw some team members dropping out.  Those who stayed through to conclusion delivered their recommendations to the Board of Trustees to have the accepted unanimously.

In the aftermath of acceptance, Executive Director Karen Gahl-Mills stepped down, Board President Joseph Gibbons exited at the end of his term and Board Member Charna Sherman has emerged as president.  CPAC has become ArtsCleveland.

[CAC hired a team of consultants to choose from a slate of applicants, and the process resulted in the choice of] 6 Non-Profit organizations to fill the void left by CPAC’s departure.  [This writer was one of those consultants.] The re-granting organizations are:  Cleveland Public Theater, Karamu House, LAND Studio, SPACES, Hispanic Business Center, and the Cleveland Arts Prize.

This year, approximately $395,000 will be divided between them to administer a hybrid version of the previous iteration of funding for individual artists.

The significant difference between what happened before and what will happen in the new incarnation is that individual artists will no longer receive the sizable amounts of unrestricted funds they once received.

The Hispanic Business Center will provide professional development in alignment with SfAPT recommendations.  With their $50,000 project-funded grant, the Center will host four bilingual art entrepreneur workshops.  Up to 6 artists will be selected from attendees to receive $5,000 project grants including an artist’s commission.

LAND Studio’s $55,000 project grant will also utilize a workshop approach by facilitating 4 all-day sessions on public art.  Artists leading those sessions will receive compensation.  The award to LAND Studio is a project grant.

According to Sr. Project Director, Tiffany Graham, “Our intention is to do a series of workshops that really demystify the process of doing public art.”  They’re targeting artists who may have a gallery practice and are interested in taking their work outside, or people who have already been doing public art and want to take their art to the next level.

They plan to work with both local and national artists to provide experiential perspective to workshop attendees.  They’ll receive $25 stipends to incentivize participation.  Having multiple sessions when allow those who may have missed a previous opportunity.  The workshops will offer a comprehensive look at being a public artist.

Executive Director Gregory Peckham is pleased to be involved in the program, “This is a chance to expose people to the universe of what public art means…to help them decide if it’s something they’re interested in getting involved with.”

SPACES, another one of the non-profit entities selected, will utilize the $42,000 it was awarded on a project fund basis to roll out its Urgent Art Fund.  Five grants of $5,000 are to be distributed throughout the calendar year on a rolling basis.  In addition, access will be provided to its on-site artist workshop to facilitate production.  “Urgent Art” is characterized as being socially, politically or culturally responsive.

Staff will assist recipients in obtaining exhibition space in the county.

Applicants will be required to submit a project title, artist statement, project description, timeline and budget for their visual art project.  A 3-person review panel including Executive Director Christina Vassallo, an arts professional living in Cuyahoga County and a professional from outside of the county will decide who receives the grant.  Details can be found on their website at spacesgallery.org.  The application process is now open to the public.

The Cleveland Arts Prize was awarded $15,000 for its On The Verge Fellowship, an existing program that gives support to emerging artists.  The fellowship goes to five artists across multiple disciplines.  Last year’s awards included poet Damien McClendon, currently Poet Laureate of Cleveland Heights, who received a $2,000 stipend.  Recipients of the Cleveland Arts Prize typically receive $10,000 awards.   Applicants for the Verge Fellowship must be 18 years of age, reside in Cuyahoga County and be creating work in visual arts, music, literature, design, dance and theatre.   A two-minute or less video application is required.  Applications are typically accepted between May 1 and July 1 in the calendar year.  Information is available at http://apply.clevelandartsprize.org.

Raymond Bobgan is the Executive Artistic Director of Cleveland Public Theatre, a recipient of $90,000.  Bobgan received the CWF twice for theatre and music, respectively.  He was also awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize.  His perspective reflects the idea that unrestricted funding to artists can be effective.  His first award resulted in the launch of Teatro Publica de Cleveland, the first Latino theatre company in the city of Cleveland.  His award for music composition was largely responsible for Station Hope, a social justice event that used the Underground Railroad as a lens to look at what we need to deal with now.

Says Bobgan, “When you invest in artists, incredible things happen that you can’t expect or predict at the beginning.  And that’s why it’s so important that fellowships are maintained.”

Five awardees, including a playwright, director, actor and two designers will be equipped to create and facilitate productions that will occur before year’s end.  They’ll receive a cash award in addition to professional development, mentoring and theatre access.

Bobgan says this is not a fellowship program for all theatre artists. “We’re looking for people who are interested in new work, for developing new work and who are interested in ground-breaking performance.”  The call for artists will go out in January.  Selections are to be made by March.

On the receiving end of the largest of the grants, Karamu House will have $95,000 to carry out a similar mission in the nation’s oldest black theatre institution.  But there is a significant difference between the two.  According to Aseelah Shareef, Director of Operations and Community Engagement, “We’re really excited about reactivating and re-engaging with the Visual Arts community and reminding the Visual Arts community that this is also a home space for you.”

Current renovation efforts will create space for exhibitions, as well as making room for workspace for visual artists.  This will coincide with accommodating theatre artists in the program.  All will receive stipends to supplement the other resources being provided to support their work.  Artists on all levels will be able to apply.  The first few months of the year will be utilized for preparation of the workspaces.  The first cohort is expected to start in March.

Eight-week residencies with 2-3 artists per residency period are slated for the visual and performing artists selected.  Says Shareef,  “For the performing artists, we’re hopeful that they’ll be able to do a show.  And for the visual artists, we’ll be curating two exhibitions, one at the half-year mark (June) and then one in December.”

One other opportunity has been made available to county residents through CAC funding.  CAC engaged in a partnership with the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, a program that links 12 artists and non-profit organizations with the objective of creating a civic practice by utilizing a learning lab approach.  The $48,000 grant provides up to $7,500 in project funds for non-profit partner organizations and the artists who have been selected.  Artists are to be eligible for up to $4,500.

Impact of the new paradigm of individual artist funding is too soon to predict, but one aspect of the current model is hard to ignore.  The significant amounts of unrestricted funds to artists are gone.  This is compounded by the reality that a preponderance of the arts funding support goes to operating cultural institutions that serve historically culturally non-diverse audiences.

While the exact amount contributed by people of color seems to be a cloudy issue, it cannot be argued that it is significant enough to warrant greater weight and acknowledgement in the decisions that are made about dispersing of funds to groups and individuals.

Process, language, law and an aversion to intentionality in addressing the inadequacies of the past (9.3% of grants to black artists) have been an obstacle to “doing the right thing.”  And while we struggle with the unfortunate sentiment that doing something specifically for black artists who have been excluded, underserved and neglected when it comes to fellowship dollars in Cuyahoga County, other cities push the envelope and boldly support works by African American artists.

Take Columbus, for instance.  In 2019, they’re marking the 100-year anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance with I, Too, Sing America, an entire year of events that include a juried Black Heritage Through Visual Rhythms Art Show, dance performances, murals, and art exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art.  It’s an effort made possible by a combination of public and private support specifically involving the work of black artists.

Whether the support or notion of such an endeavor would happen in Cleveland remains to be seen.  But the winds of change have been blowing, marking the era of a new dawn of financial support for individual artists in Cuyahoga County.

The ever-continuing saga of race relations in Cuyahoga County is a work in progress.  Because a small group of artists and supporters had the courage to speak up, a spark ignited the creative effort that ensued.  With the input of a team of artists and others, and the collective energy of CAC’s staff and Interim Director Jill M. Paulsen, a new model has been built.  With it, a door has been opened to opportunities for professional development, networking, performances, marketing and many of the other needs identified by artists.  This collaborative effort is meaningful and noteworthy.

The success of the first year is a source of optimism for its non-profit partner participants.  Recent discussions reflect a synergy that opens a possibility of collaboration to amplify the value of the new model.  Its parts, in various stages of progress, promise to change the paradigm after a two-year layoff.

In the coming year, a new executive director will be chosen for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. The outcry that resulted from the CWF’s untimely demise will have been addressed on paper by the new regime and life will go on, along with the reality that Individual Artist funding will never be the same.

One can only hope that genuine opportunity for equity and empowerment, despite the disparity in funding individual artists in general, and specifically, African American artists, will improve in meaningful and significant ways.  If not now, when?


Collective Arts Network is grateful to have received Project Support grants from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

Vince Robinson served as a volunteer on Cuyahoga Arts and Culture’s Support for Artists Planning Team. He also was paid as one of CAC’s Artist Network Leaders, whose work included reviewing applicants from organizations to partner with CAC, resulting in the individual artist support grants described above.


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

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