Ohio Arts Council listens and plans for the future

These are interesting times for the Ohio Arts Council. A series of budget cuts has taken one of the strongest arts funders in the U.S. on a 10-year decline, from $32.2 million in 1999 to $13.1 million for the 2010-11 biennium. It's happened as the state has made broad cuts in the face of declining tax revenue. The Arts Council, in turn, has reduced grant amounts, and entire grant-making programs have been cut. In April 2008, the staff was reduced 21 percent via layoffs.

In this atmosphere, the organization is on a listening tour as part of its strategic-planning process. Executive director Julie Henahan came to Cleveland with staff on Friday to ask community leaders and arts administrators what's going well, where they're coming up short and what the OAC can do to help.

OAC policies have evolved over the years and could be shaped by this round of community input.

In a morning session at Positively Cleveland offices on Public Square, community leaders — mostly grant-making professionals — emphasized the success of recent collaborations between commercial and nonprofit arts interests, especially in neighborhoods like Detroit Shoreway. There was some irony that business interests had been invited but were not significantly represented.

Additionally, pointing to the passage of Issue 18 (which led to the creation of the cigarette tax-funded grant maker, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture), local leaders recognized the dawn of political organization in the arts sector and a broader realization of its role in the economy.

Similar points were made in an afternoon session for arts and cultural professionals at the Hanna Theatre, but with more emphasis on the challenges faced by the roughly 25 organizations represented. The need for more money was paramount — perhaps too obvious for much discussion. Other concerns included communication with both audiences and fellow arts groups, performers leaving the state for lack of opportunity and involving students in the arts so that they become the next generation's audience and leaders.

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