The Fight Over How Cuyahoga County's Arts Funding is Given to Artists

CAC Attack

The Fight Over How Cuyahoga County's Arts Funding is Given to Artists
Josh Usmani

There now exists a fundamental disagreement about how the Arts should be funded in Cuyahoga County; namely, the people passing out the money disagree with the people getting it.

The most recent, most public, disagreement has revolved around individual artist funding (as opposed to operational support for big organizations like the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art and others). Specifically, the Creative Workforce Fellowship program, which has awarded grants to local artists each year since 2009, will be scrapped. What will take its place, no one yet knows.

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) is the quasi-governmental agency pulling the strings. It's a grantmaking organization that was created to oversee the funds generated by the 30-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes, initially passed in 2006 and extended by a landslide vote in 2015 (the heavily promoted "Issue 8"). CAC has indicated the direction it intends to go with individual artist funding. That direction was loosely charted on a 10-year strategic "roadmap" that CAC voted on without feedback — in the face of widespread opposition, in fact — from one of the key constituencies it ostensibly serves: artists themselves.

CAC's five-member board of trustees and its executive director, Karen Gahl-Mills, want a new grant program that will disseminate dollars to "community change-makers." They want a program in which supporting art is secondary to supporting impact. They want a program that might not even be for artists anymore at all, at least not explicitly: In the words of Gahl-Mills, the money will be awarded to "creative thinkers and entrepreneurs and other people who have ideas about using art to make their communities better" (italics added). Gahl-Mills told Scene that that might include people working in the fields of film, media, nature, science and "all kinds of things related to the environment."

"Those folks need to be eligible for these individual artist dollars as well," she said.  

In a wide-ranging interview on the controversy, Gahl-Mills stressed that the new orientation for individual artist funding should not be viewed as a radical shift, as it's being viewed by many artists in the region. Rather, she said, it should be seen as a belated alignment with the organization's mission, which was "tweaked" in 2011 to make "community benefit" the center of every grant program CAC runs.

Gahl-Mills' plan was that Cleveland would adopt a localized version of a something called the Creative Community Fellowship, created and managed by an organization called National Arts Strategies (NAS), in Washington, D.C.  Gahl-Mills has worked with NAS before; she helped review the work of their fellowship's national participants in January 2015. And, she told Scene, she had "a lot of conversations" with NAS about bringing that model to Cleveland.

"This is a very well-respected program from an extraordinarily well-respected national organization with deep roots in Cleveland, going back to work they did with the Cleveland Foundation in the early 2000s," Gahl-Mills said. (Note: CAC's board vice president, Steven Minter, was the Cleveland Foundation's president and executive director from 1984-2003). "They were willing to bring this to us, and we were excited about the possibility."

But that excitement wasn't shared by vocal contingents within the artist community, most of whom found out about the proposed new relationship with NAS in a Nov. 11 story by the Plain Dealer's Steve Litt. That was three days before CAC's November board meeting.

The two largest concerns expressed by artists and other opponents at the time were the alleged secretive nature of the decision — "The unpopular idea seems to have become a sudden reality, implemented without warning or public discussion," wrote CoolCleveland — and the irony of CAC championing "community benefit" while shipping local tax dollars to a nonprofit in the nation's capital.  

Some context, briefly: Individual artist funding accounts for less than three percent of CAC's total funding pool. The cigarette tax generates somewhere between $14 and $15 million per year, and the lion's share of those dollars goes to operational support for arts organizations in the region, from behemoths like Playhouse Square and the Rock Hall all the way down to community theaters in the suburbs. In November, CAC announced 2017 grants totaling $12.7 million in operating support to 57 nonprofits. An additional $1.9 million in project support was also announced. That money will be distributed in chunks of $35,000 or less to 184 organizations.

On the individual artist front, the Creative Workforce Fellowship has awarded funds to 161 working artists in the region since 2009. It was disbursed in grants of $20,000 until the most recent funding cycle, when the amount was reduced to $15,000. The dollars were always meant to be flexible — they are not "project-based" — and were premised on the idea that supporting artists benefits the community: Artists do creative things; a region where creative things are happening is a vibrant one; vibrancy is good.

Due to stipulations in the Ohio Revised Code, CAC may not distribute funds directly to individuals. So since 2009, it has worked with an intermediary to administer the Creative Workforce Fellowships. That intermediary has always been the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC), which helped conceive the program at the outset. CPAC is a local non-profit with a mission readily surmised by its name: to "strengthen, unify and connect" the region's arts and culture sector.

Back to the news: CAC severed ties with CPAC in a meeting on Nov. 8 (three days before Litt's article, six days before the board meeting), a move that CPAC executive director Tom Schorgl told Scene was unplanned. He had been trying to set up a meeting with CAC since late August and thought, when it was finally scheduled, that it would be to discuss the next iteration of the fellowship.

"Instead, [Gahl-Mills] and her staff came over and said, we appreciate all you've done, but we're going to move in a different direction," he said.

Gahl-Mills has said many times that ending the relationship with CPAC was necessary due to CPAC's inability to sufficiently align with CAC's new community-focused mission. Artists have asked what exactly that means. So has the media. But Gahl-Mills has not answered that question, not in public meetings nor in two interviews with WCPN, one with arts reporter David C. Barnett and another with Sound of Ideas host Mike McIntyre. She was equally vague when Scene pressed her to get more specific.

"We were not aligned. They did not meet our expectations. That's as far as I'm going to go," Gahl-Mills said.   

From Schorgl's point of view, CPAC did everything CAC asked. The fellowships were "paused" in 2014 to allow CAC to "take a closer look" at individual artist funding. (Gahl-Mills contends that the fellowships were never "suspended"; CAC merely wanted to give CPAC time to conduct an internal evaluation, though CAC made the decision to pause the program in June of that year. CPAC's findings were released in March.) At any rate, in 2015, CAC invited CPAC to apply once again to manage the 2016 round of Creative Workforce Fellowships. This time, specific guidelines were attached.

In light of refinements made to its other programs — recall the mission's "tweaking" —  CAC wanted to apply the same community-centeredness to individual artist funding. CAC instructed CPAC that the Creative Workforce Fellowship program must now 1) create a public benefit, 2) support artistic and cultural vibrancy, and 3) ensure stewardship. The guidelines asked that specific elements be incorporated in the program, including the attraction of a "diversified applicant pool."

CPAC revised its application based on these requirements. Even at this shift (which seems minor in retrospect), artists balked.

"It sounded as if artists were expected not just to be artists but also teachers and social workers," wrote CoolCleveland's Anastasia Pantsios (a Free Times and Scene alum), "roles not every artist was comfortable with or qualified for."

Nevertheless, community benefit was prioritized. Every applicant was required to articulate the ways in which their work would engage the community. It was a portion of the application that many artists found challenging or even absurd to complete in good faith. A ballet dancer dances; a playwright writes plays; a painter paints. Outside the content of the work and, naturally, performances of it, specific community benefits seemed outside many artists' purview, and indeed, perhaps outside CAC's.

At a recent panel discussion on the topic at the Happy Dog's Euclid Tavern location, 2014 grant recipient RA Washington noted dryly that, in this portion of the application, he merely wrote: "I thought this was a merit-based award." (He won, of course. But presumably that answer wouldn't have cut it in 2016.)

CPAC managed to convey measurable progress in the 2016 Fellowship year. In a memo on the subject, Tom Schorgl said that fellows made more than 500 presentations or performances of their work, coordinated more than 700 workshops, and reported 130,000 "cultural encounters," which included ticketed events and distribution of published work. Moreover, artists engaged disadvantaged populations throughout the city, including "communities with limited exposure," the visually impaired and youth.

But for reasons still unclear, CPAC "failed to align" with CAC's community-centered mission.

Gahl-Mills has said more broadly that the Creative Workforce Fellowships had come to function "more like a prize for the winners" and less like "an investment in the arts that would provide direct community benefits."  

The above is more or less the "false binary" that has come to characterize this debate. Moving to "direct community benefits" is perceived as a weird departure from the default philosophy, which was that investing in artists was itself a community benefit. In the conversations, this is what's being termed "Art for Art's Sake." The problem with the new philosophy is that beyond the buzzwords, no one's able to describe what it is: What is "change"? What is "impact"? And how does it differ from the fruits of the Creative Workforce Fellowship as administered in 2016?  To paraphrase Sean Watterson, owner of the Happy Dog and a CPAC board member: Artists are good at using tools; they don't like being used as tools.

The NAS program that Gahl-Mills envisioned bringing to Cleveland is indeed nationally recognized. It was designed for "individuals igniting change through arts and culture in their community." Via the fellowship description, the program seeks "curious, open and collaborative individuals who are interested in learning and sharing what they learn ... who are dedicated to creating healthy neighborhoods and who will recognize and seize opportunities for change."

Unlike in years' past, applicants to the new program would no longer be evaluated on the merits of a body of artistic work, but on "how [they] will use their artistic practice to imagine a different future and help transform their community for the better."

But the NAS plan went south.

As is CAC standard operating procedure, decisions of a certain magnitude aren't discussed and voted on during the same meeting. The intent was to talk about the NAS proposal at the November board meeting and ratify it in December. But due to "good and pointed questions" from the board and public commenters and ongoing "discussion and concern" from a "small group of artists," said Gahl-Mills, NAS elected not to pursue the management of the program in Cleveland.

"NAS wants to ensure that its work can be positive and productive," CAC posted to its website on Dec. 6, "and given the disagreements that have surfaced in the community, they have decided to step back. We are disappointed by the decision, but respect it."

Gail Crider, executive director of NAS, confirmed to Scene by phone that the relationship had never gone beyond the point of conversation, and that local malcontent would hinder the organization's ability to work effectively on the ground in Cleveland.

"We work in partnership with others to build programs," Crider said. "As you know, Cleveland has a wonderful creative community, but there has to be an agreement with the community. And so when it became clear that there was local disagreement, we declined to submit a proposal."

Artists were still displeased. They arrived in force at CAC's Dec. 12 board meeting at Ideastream, nearly 200 of them, and stretched a pre-meeting public comment period to two hours.

Zygote Press' Liz Maugans, who has become a de facto spokesperson for artists, spoke from a statement about the lack of transparency:

"I hope you really take this opportunity to get the community to weigh in," she said, "to talk to people and to have the process be really, really transparent. The CAC does fabulous work. This is a big disappointment, because none of this I heard before November."

Others lashed out in harsher terms at CAC. Many expressed dismay at the "coded language" of CAC's new direction and, among other things, that transparency was no longer a specifically enumerated core value in the strategic roadmap, which was voted on but not made publicly available prior to the meeting. (For the record: "Trust" is now an enumerated value, which includes operating "transparently and openly" in its description.) Tom Schorgl from CPAC presented his side of the story. Others wanted to know why the smallest portion of CAC's funding was being thus steered and shaped. Would recipients of operational support, organizations like the Museum of Art and the Orchestra, which every year receive more than all of the individual artist funding combined, be required to produce community benefits? How would those benefits be tracked?

One of the biggest threads emergent in the public comments, and in later discussions, was the question of equity. The Creative Workforce Fellowship, though cherished by artists, has been woefully deficient in accurately representing the demography of the region.   

Tom O'Brien, program director at Neighborhood Connections (with whom CAC is partnering to support 26 "grassroots arts and culture projects" in 2017) was bothered by much of the commentary at the Dec. 12 meeting for precisely this reason.

"I'm sitting here getting angry because I think [this change] is being taken as a personal affront to the artists," he said. "I don't think it's a personal affront ... I think it's saying, how do we break this open so more people benefit, especially people who have been historically left out?"

When Scene followed up by email, O'Brien echoed previous comments made by Gahl-Mills. Because these are public dollars, he said, they must be used for public benefit. He said he saw the change in direction as an attempt to make community benefits more explicit in the grant expectations. But he went further:

"[The fellowship] is exclusionary to many people as it currently exists," he wrote. "It could be for a number of reasons: the criteria, implicit bias ... . Fellowships like this need to be made to create 'easy on-ramps' for all people in the community. It needs to better reflect the community."

O'Brien also said he suspected CPAC had been told as much, but that movement in that direction didn't happen, or at least not quickly enough.

CAC board member Gwendolyn Garth attended the Happy Dog panel discussion on Dec. 28 and spoke directly to the racial disparity in award recipients.

So is that what Karen Gahl-Mills has been dancing around? Is that where CPAC had failed to align? We asked her directly about coded language and attempts to achieve greater diversity. She responded definitively.

"We are not using coded language here, in saying 'community' means we need more people of color," Gahl-Mills said. "We're saying — full stop — that the work needs to connect artists and community. As the field moves toward making sure that the arts are sustained at all levels throughout our country, one of the things that everybody's realizing is that the arts have to connect in ways that are real and relevant to the lives of the citizens and residents in our communities. It is also true that the recipients have not reflected the demography of the county. As a public agency, we absolutely have an obligation to think about that.

"That is a place we weren't able to make progress working with our former partner," she continued, "but this is not a sneaky way of us trying to say we want this program to serve different kinds of people. First and foremost, the program needs to connect artists and community in real and meaningful ways."

But for heaven's sake, what does that mean? The majority of artists seem to agree that equity is a worthy and commendable goal.

"But they clearly don't agree," wrote Michael Gill, editor of CAN Journal (another Free Times and Scene alum) in a blog post on the subject, "that giving preference to certain types of artistic practice is a good way to achieve it."

Now that NAS has backed out, it falls to CAC to create whatever idealized program it wants and to find the partner (local or national) to manage it. The schedule for that process is now delayed. Gahl-Mills said she's hoping that artists will be able to apply for funding in 2017, but admitted coming up with the program won't be a priority until after the first quarter.

For now, all that's in place are six "key elements" that a new program will include. They are: flexible funding, i.e. not "project grants"; a broader definition of "artist" that now includes "archaeology, history, natural history and the natural sciences"; equity, by "seeking out artists of color and emerging artists"; supporting "excellent art that actively engages and impacts the community"; offering a supportive "cohort model"; and offering learning opportunities.

When Scene asked Gahl-Mills if, in light of the hubbub, CAC was committed to finding a local partner to manage the new program, she said not necessarily.

"We are committed to having the best organization we can find run this. I think that there are plenty of local organizations that might be the best fit, but it's premature for me to say that that's our commitment. We want the best."

On a final note, Gahl-Mills rejected the idea that artists hadn't had the opportunity to weigh in. She noted that CAC's online survey went out to nearly 9,000 people and that they'd hosted a gathering in May which all current and former Creative Workforce Fellows were invited to attend.

"We want more voices at the table, always." she said. "Artists were included in the conversation. Whether or not they chose to participate is a different question. But the other thing that's really important — and this group of artists are losing track — is that we're a public agency. We don't just answer to artists. We don't just answer to arts organizations. We answer to the residents of Cuyahoga County."

Gahl-Mills has repeated a version of that line in every interview she's given. The board of trustees, appointed by county executive Armond Budish, have done so as well. Sympathetic non-profit folks like Tom O'Brien have repeated it too. CAC board chair Joseph Gibbons, a lawyer at Schneider Smeltz Spieth Bell — one of three practicing attorneys on CAC's five-member board — emailed a statement to Scene featuring the same rhetoric.

"Because we're using public dollars," he wrote, "it's imperative that there is defined community impact in all of our grantmaking."

This is taken as axiomatic, a self-evident truth that artists and skeptics have maybe just forgotten. But in fact it's not. If anything, it's abnormal in Cuyahoga County, where public dollars are often used for causes not expressly in the public interest, and sometimes to the public's great detriment.

The ballot language is specific. In November 2015, Issue 8 asked county voters to renew an excise tax on cigarettes "for the benefit of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture for the purposes of making grants to support operating or capital expenses of arts or cultural organizations in Cuyahoga County, to defray the costs of acquiring, constructing, equipping, furnishing, improving, enlarging, renovating, remodeling or maintaining an artistic or cultural facility, and to meet operating expenses."

It says nothing about the centrality of community benefits. One of the fears coursing through the local arts community is that CAC, tasked by voters with what amounts to a boring job — handing out money to arts and cultural organizations — is itself getting creative, pulling levers that are really not within its rights to pull.  

"Think of the sin tax," said the Happy Dog's Sean Watterson, in an evocative comparison. "Nobody siphons off that money for social change."  

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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