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Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the cigarette tax-funded grant maker, announced Tuesday the appointment of Karen Gahl-Mills to lead the organization, starting in February. Among her major challenges will be to build the organization’s public profile — or more specifically, the profile of the work they fund — so that in 2016, when the time comes to re-authorize the tax, voters will approve.

The challenge is complicated by a collision of circumstances. A year after CAC began to make grants that would have provided a major financial boost to the region’s arts sector, the collapse of the financial markets negated any gains CAC money would have provided. So rather than enable the region’s theatres, orchestras and galleries to flourish, CAC’s initial impact was to serve as a lifeline. The $33.5 million the organization has pumped into the local arts economy has mostly maintained the status quo.

She further steps into the uncertainty of county government restructuring as result of the passage of Issue 6. CAC’s board was appointed by the county commissioners. It’s not completely clear how the county-executive system will impact that, though Community Partnership for Arts and Culture president/CEO Tom Schorgl cautioned that it will be important for voters to know how county executive and county council candidates view the arts and culture, and how they view public funding — especially as Gahl-Mills leads the agency toward re-authorization during her initial four-year term.

A vocalist with an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Gahl-Mills previously headed the Syracuse Symphony, a $7 million organization for which community engagement is a hallmark. She will now take charge of an organization with an annual budget of about $17 million, which makes it one of the nation’s top five local public funders of the arts, and by far the largest in Ohio. — Michael Gill

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