CAC: A Voice for Individual Artists?

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne announced in a press release that he would nominate Daniel Blakemore and re-nominate Michele Scott Taylor for seats on the Cuyahoga Arts and Culture Board of Directors. Images courtesy of Cuyahoga County Council.

To be polite and understated, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture has a lot going on right now. The organization that administers public funding for the arts is facing criticism from artists over the way it has handled individual artist grants in recent years, and a discrepancy between amounts budgeted for individual artist grants and the amounts actually spent.  In discussion of that, its board of directors has displayed internal discord bordering on open hostility in recent public meetings. Two of the board’s seats expire this month, with replacements to be appointed by county executive Chris Ronayne. And in the meantime, CAC has the possibility of a significant financial boost–potentially turning around a 15-year trend in declining revenue—if the People of Cuyahoga County approve. A revision of the tax in support of the arts could come before voters as soon as November.

A group of individual artists, led by Liz Maugans (who is on Collective Arts Network’s board of directors) is hoping the need for arts sector support in that campaign will give them leverage in the appointments—and ultimately a stronger voice for individual artists in CAC grantmaking policy.  However, Ronayne announced in a press release Monday that he will re-nominate Dr. Michele Scott Taylor (who is Chief Program Officer for College Now Greater Cleveland, and has been on the CAC board since 2020) and Daniel Blakemore (who is Philanthropy Director for the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and would take the seat to be vacated by Jenita McGowan) to fill those two seats.

“Once again there are no individual artists represented on a board that uses public funds to support arts and culture,” said Maugans. “It’s like having no teacher sitting on the Board of Education.”

Several prominent arts leaders spoke to CAN on background, expressing dissatisfaction with CAC’s handling of individual artist grants, as well as with the governance by its board.  Arts leaders are reluctant to speak on the record, due to concerns about their relationships with Cuyahoga Arts and Culture and others in the dialogue. (At this point it makes sense to note Collective Arts Network’s gratitude for receiving the support of the people of Cuyahoga County through an operating support grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.)

The possibility of modifying the cigarette tax at the ballot box is, of course, exceedingly important to the arts sector. Revenue for CAC has declined steadily, from $19.5 million in 2007 (the first full year that the tax was collected) to $12 million in 2021 (the most recent year for which CAN has data).  That’s a decline of almost 40 percent. The proposed modification of the tax is projected to bring total collections back to about $20,000,000 per year—if the voters approve.

But voters need to trust the administration of those funds in order to support the change. Would they? And would artists themselves be the voice of dissent to turn voters against it? In its recent meetings, the CAC Board of Directors has been in turmoil, with open bickering among its members. Here’s a remarkable example: In discussion of funding for individual artist grants at its December meeting, Board member Charna Sherman asked colleagues to support several recommendations relevant to granting more money to individual artists. At one point she asked colleagues and the organization to produce a year-by-year report on the subject. This would seem to be a straightforward and simple request, especially considering the fact that the funds are public, the meeting was public, and the nature of the activity—grantmaking to individual artists—is an important part of CAC’s activity.  Her colleagues did not accept the “friendly” request. Sherman then made the same request as a formal motion, which did not get a second, therefore saw no further discussion and no vote.  This and surrounding dialog were spiced by the rolling of eyes, the turning of backs, and the heaving of sighs. At one point a staff member stood up to leave the room, before being called back and calmed by a member of the Board.

CAN requested and did receive such a report. CAC executive director Jill Paulsen and director of grantmaking strategy and communications Jake Sinatra came to CAN’s office to talk through the numbers. As we noted elsewhere, grants to CAC’s re-granting partners for individual artists have typically amounted to less than 3 percent of total revenue.  In 2021 and 2022, having budgeted $400,000, CAC made grants to re-granting partners totaling just $260,000 each year, representing 2.1 to 2.3 percent of total revenue. If the amount of revenue projected from 2022 held steady for 2023, the total of $400,000 in grants allocated for individual artists would amount to 3.6 percent of CAC’s total revenue.

The reading of those facts depends on perspective and framing.  For several years, CAC has not awarded all the money it had budgeted for individual artists. Each time, rather than add the unspent revenue to the following year’s grantmaking, CAC rolled it into the organization’s general fund.  To be absolutely clear, this is not impropriety.  When a nonprofit organization does not spend all the money it has budgeted for some activity, it typically does the same: having a strong balance sheet looks good to grant makers. CAC has had “clean” audits for 15 consecutive years.

Because CAC administers public money, though, and because its purpose is to support art organizations and artists, it has arguably a moral imperative to move the tax dollars along to their intended recipients. One arts leader told CAN that even leadership of non-profit arts organizations—by far the major beneficiaries of CAC support—agree that individual artists should get a bigger slice of the pie, and that the organization should be “more aggressive” in spending down its balances.

This idea was all the more relevant in recent years because the pandemic was devastating for artists, particularly performing artists, who lost work for as long as organizations were not allowed to gather audiences: they really could have used the money.

CAC’s spending policies are determined by its own board, and its budget is only approved by its own board. Neither the County Council nor any other entity oversees that budget. This is because it was created as an “arts and culture district,” independent of any other government’s budget. That is a strength, in the sense that no governor or county executive is in position to reduce this particular funding stream for the arts.

The County Executive’s nominations do not technically make their approval a “done deal.” They require approval by County Council, and three hearings.   Any community member can provide input during any public comment period of the various County Council, Committee, and other meetings that are open to all members of the public.  Additionally, Cuyahoga County residents can apply for the expiring board seats at

Cuyahoga County Council will meet at 5 pm March 14 and 5 pm March 28.

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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