Proposals for Funding Cuyahoga County Artists Unveiled

Planning team member Vince Robinson and musician Ras Matunji
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Cuyahoga County has won national acclaim for its system of supporting artists through a sales tax on cigarettes, but some critics are questioning just how that money gets distributed.  In particular, some local artists of color say they haven’t gotten a fair share of the funding pie.  A planning team was assembled to rethink the process. 

The ten members of the Support for Artists Planning Team were recruited by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), the agency that distributes the cigarette revenues.  Out of 161 individual artists who received CAC funding during the previous program - known as the Creative Workforce Fellowship - less than 10 percent were African American.  Photographer Vince Robinson says such numbers led to some spirited planning team discussions.

"I would say, for the most part, they were rewarding," he recalls.  "I mean, we did have some difficult conversations, but it was necessary for certain points to be made and for certain issues to be addressed." 

The planning team spent most of the summer researching and debating ways to give a leg up to historically excluded artists.  The team unveiled eight recommendations at a CAC board meeting, this week.  The first proposal calls for future artist funding to be focused on persons of color, with addition priorities put on people excluded due to such factors as gender, sexual orientation or education.  CAC executive director Karen Gahl-Mills says that might be tricky to implement legally, but she thinks it’s something that could be explored.

"I know affirmative action is getting challenged in a lot of places, right now," she says.  "That’s the kind of thing we’re going to have to think about and get good advice about.  But, I absolutely think we have to take into consideration what they’ve told us."

A number of the recommendations reflect concerns about the basic needs of artists, such as creating physical spaces where they can work, helping establish connections to area arts institutions, and nurturing personal growth through professional development.

But, the planning team is also asking Cuyahoga Arts and Culture to issue a public apology for its past funding practices when it comes to individual artists.

"My sense is that that’s a kind of a wordsmithing thing," says CAC Board chair Joe Gibbons.  "My sense is that more of what they’re looking for is an acknowledgement that we can do better."

Planning team member Vince Robinson isn't sure what an apology would look or sound like.  "And I’m not someone who feels dogmatically that it has to happen," he says.  "I think it would be nice, that it’s appropriate, that it’s important to acknowledge what has happened in the past.  But, my main interest is that the funds be distributed and that they be distributed fairly."

Poet Adrienne Zurub attended the meeting and came out feeling energized, but cautious.

"I thought they hit it on the mark," she says.  "I hope it doesn’t take months and months, and reviews, and a lot of legal teams to work through the suggestions that they made, which I thought were very valid and viable and necessary."

Karen Gahl-Mills says the CAC staff will now take these proposals and work them into a program that will be put up for board approval.  The Support for Artists Planning Team wants to be part of that process, to make sure that the team’s ideas don’t get watered down.  $400,000 has been set aside for the implementation of the revamped individual artist support program.  Gahl-Mills says the goal is to start distributing funds, next year.

ideastream receives support from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture

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