The new director of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture settles in

The new head of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Karen Gahl-Mills, who came here from Syracuse, has been spending her days predictably — getting to know the local cultural landscape by visiting galleries, theaters, arts educational centers, concert halls and other venues that benefit from the cigarette tax. She recently spoke with Scene about the challenges she'll face as CAC approaches the halfway point of the 10-year period for which the tax is authorized.

The first thing that becomes apparent in conversation with her is that her background as an arts educator and administrator — most recently as executive director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra — marks her as distinct from her predecessor, who was a political appointee with family and career ties to county government.

As she talks about current arts activity in the county — like the recasting of SPACES as a conceptual rather than object-oriented venue, a recent concert by the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra for students of the Cleveland Schools and even a kids' drum circle at the Broadway School in Slavic Village — Gahl-Mills shows a depth of appreciation for the work those organizations do. That will help with what she says is her most important task: spreading the word about the impact arts institutions have not only on artists, but also on neighborhoods and the whole community. She says most people don't know what CAC does, or they think it taxes cigarettes simply for the benefit of orchestras and museums.

Telling the whole story will be especially important because it may not be as simple as reauthorization. CAC reported last fall that, as the population has declined and people smoke less, cigarette-tax collections had dwindled almost nine percent in the previous two years. If the trend continues, that could have the arts sector looking to increase the cigarette tax or even find additional funding streams. CAC trustees and stakeholders will have to "look at all options," says Gahl-Mills.

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