A world-class orchestra, spectacular museums, a wondrous theater complex that’s the second largest in the country, community arts groups and fetes that bring residents together. For more than a century, Cleveland’s artistic achievements have been the envy of cities around the country — and not just for the cultural attributes they bring. The advocacy group Ohio Citizens for the Arts reported that from 2015-2018 Cleveland’s metropolitan statistical area (Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties) supported 62,499 jobs, supplied more than $3.3 billion in wages and proprietor income and generated $9.1 billion.
COVID-19 destroyed that trajectory.
In December, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture — the government agency that distributes more than $12 million a year in county cigarette tax money to cultural nonprofits in Cuyahoga County — succinctly summarized the staggering devastation its 65 grant-recipient organizations experienced last year: 3,157 people were laid off, had their hours reduced or contracts canceled; $119,001,653 in revenue was lost; and 6,539 events were called off.
But long before the word “pandemic” became the word of the day, a trio of leading Cleveland-area arts organizations were taking steps to not only bolster Northeast Ohio’s artistic reputation, but improve it. Their goal: Make the area a haven for innovation and inclusion that’s second to none.
The launch of that endeavor was made official in May, with the formation of Assembly for the Arts. The new alliance is led by native Clevelander Jeremy V. Johnson, who is returning home after serving as executive director of Newark Arts in New Jersey. During the nearly five years he spent at Newark Arts, Johnson tripled that organization’s fundraising and staff size and, according to the National Center for Arts Research, spearheaded the efforts that led to Newark being ranked as one of the nation’s top 10 arts-vibrant communities.
Assembly for the Arts is designed to combine the organizational structure of Arts Cleveland, a nonprofit research and advocacy group founded in 1997 as the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture; and the Arts and Culture Action Committee, a political action group that advocates for public funding for the arts in Northeast Ohio. The board, 40% of whom will be Black, Indigenous and people of color and 50% women or nonbinary, is set to be announced mid-June. In the coming months, the coalition will solidify its priorities. Cuyahoga Arts & Culture will be actively involved as a supporter but remain an independent entity, retaining its name, structure and grant-making function.
“Although the groups have always been independent, our mission is a shared one,” says Fred Bidwell, chairman of the Arts and Culture Action Committee. “The organizations’ leaders and board members decided to come together and start a conversation about, ‘Wow, is there something bigger here, and can we realize it?’ ”
Bidwell adds that although arts and culture reaches a bigger audience and generates more economic impact than pro sports, it’s not at the table when major policy decisions are made. The hope is that by working as a group with one voice — instead of stepping on each other’s toes — that will change.
Like all facets of our society, the arts and culture sector has not been immune to inequity and systemic racism. A key priority on the agenda is to remedy issues of inequality that will assist creative professionals in developing sustainable careers.
“Being an artist with a disability, I know there’s very little representation for artists with disabilities,” says Mary Verdi-Fletcher, president and founding artistic director of Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels Co. & School, America’s first physically integrated dance company made up of performers in and out of wheelchairs. “I hope the new alliance will understand that diversity and inclusion goes beyond color. It’s for everyone.”
Making that objective a reality also includes broadening the definition of “the arts” — a term that’s been the province of nonprofit institutions — to include for-profit businesses and artists, too.
Sean Watterson agrees. The co-owner of neighborhood bar Happy Dog, he’s also the Ohio precinct captain for the National Independent Venue Association, which advocates for music venues, promoters and festivals. Watterson successfully petitioned the city in 2011 to lower the admission tax to 4% for venues with a capacity of 750 and below and waive it entirely for those holding 150 patrons or less.
He credits COVID-19 with exposing some of the inherent weaknesses that have existed in the arts community for decades.
“You’ve got the Beachland Ballroom, which draws 80,000 people a year to the Waterloo Arts District. You’ve got the Happy Dog in Gordon Square, bringing 75,000 people a year there, as well as the Grog Shop on Coventry and Mahall’s in Birdtown,” he says. “These venues are crucial economic drivers for the neighborhoods they’re in, even though they are for-profit entities. When we had to all collectively shut down, that economic impact was felt not just by us, but by the neighborhoods around us.”
That fact was the fodder needed for the county to take a wider view of the arts sector: 425 Cuyahoga County artists received a piece of the $1.3 million financial pandemic relief package distributed by Arts Cleveland that was part of the $215 million in federal aid Cuyahoga County received through the CARES Act. The county also gave $4 million of that aid to music venues, museums and galleries forced to close because of COVID.
A Cleveland arts activist for more than two decades, Susie Frazier founded Sparx City Hop, a nationally recognized program that showcases artists, arts retailers and arts festivals in downtown Cleveland. She also sells her nature-inspired accessories online and in her 78th Street Studios showroom.
“Historically, our region’s definition of ‘artists’ has been a catchall group of people operating as performers, musicians, writers and visual artists who seek out calls-for-entries from cultural nonprofits as their revenue model,” she says. “But today’s reality shows there are over 600 arts enterprises across 14 counties in Northeast Ohio, many of which don’t identify as artists, but as small businesses.”
To speak to that segment of the arts sector, Frazier invented Maker Town last fall, a mobile app directory that helps consumers find nearby makers.
“To see them not just as artists, but as small businesses is a real turning point because many of them are really dependent on the laws of commerce to survive,” she says. “If we don’t start meeting them where they are, offering ways to attract outside capital and grow their business, we’re really missing the boat.”
The alliance is working to support newly proposed legislation that would change the cigarette tax from a per unit basis to a percentage of sales; and expand it to include all forms of tobacco use, including vaping, chewing and smokeless tobacco and cigars.
“Assembly for the Arts is more than organizations finally coordinating and agreeing on an agenda,” says CAC executive director Jill Paulsen. “It’s about envisioning a fully creative economy encompassing all the creative businesses in town — from a greeting card company to an industrial design firm to makers selling their art on Etsy or at Cleveland Bazaar. It’s about envisioning something totally transformational and new, and really thinking about the power of art to drive change in this community.”