Cleveland arts and culture groups say next mayor should champion the arts

Cleveland artist Darius Steward stands in front of a rainbow colored mural at the Rainey Institute.
Cleveland artist Darius Steward at Cleveland Walls festival. [New Departure Films]

By Lee Chilcote, The Land

From Severance Music Center to Playhouse Square, from 78th Street Studios to the Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland has a rich arts scene, and one that punches well above its weight compared to other U.S. cities of its size. Yet artists and arts organizations in Cleveland say they haven’t always had strong backing from city hall under Mayor Jackson, and they want that to change Nov. 2. 

“Great cities have great city halls with people who wake up every day thinking about how to support the arts,” said Jeremy Johnson, the newly minted president and CEO of Assembly for the Arts, a Cleveland-based nonprofit arts and culture organization. “I’ve been impressed by how much we’ve accomplished without city hall…think about what we could do [by] working with city hall.” 

Although Cleveland has a Public Art Program that invests 1.5% of the city’s budget for capital projects into public art, including murals that brighten blank walls across the city, Johnson said the city can and should do more. Last month, Assembly for the Arts partnered with Collective Arts Network (CAN) Journal to ask all seven mayoral primary candidates for their support. 

“Cleveland is one of the largest cities that does not fully embed and promote arts and culture in its government structure,” the two organizations wrote. This, despite the fact that the creative work in Northeast Ohio generates an economic impact of $9.1 billion, supporting 62,499 jobs and supplying more than $3.3 billion in wages and proprietor income, according to a study by Ohio Citizens for the Arts. 

When asked if they’d champion the arts at city hall, the responses from all seven candidates were unanimous: let’s do this thing.

“Every single candidate said they would establish a cabinet-level position in their administration to support the arts; work with the arts and culture community to create a cultural plan; and allocate a line item in the city’s budget to support the arts,” wrote Michael Gill, executive director of the CAN, in the Journal. “Cleveland has none of that currently, and it’s about time.”

Now, Assembly for the Arts and its arts partners are stepping up their efforts by co-sponsoring a debate between Bibb and Kelley along with Ideastream and the City Club that will air Monday, October 11 at 7 pm. Additionally, Assembly for the Arts is planning its own The Arts Vote program on Monday, October 18 at 6 pm to showcase “the arts sector as a powerful voting force and change-making partner in Cleveland.”

“We’re inserting the arts into the mayoral election,” said Johnson. “There’s a lot of work to do, but let’s start by being part of the conversation and not being left off of the table.”

Dayzwhun at Cleveland Walls in Midtown

Dayzwhun at Cleveland Walls in Midtown. [New Departure Films]

Scratching the surface

The Land reached out to five diverse arts leaders across Cleveland for their perspectives on how well the city is doing when it comes to support for arts and culture. Their answers revealed their frustrations with the current administration but also their hopes for the next one. 

Joyce Huang, vice president of community development at Midtown Cleveland, just completed the Cleveland Walls project, a public art event that brought 19 new murals to the city’s east side. She said it’s frustrating that the city doesn’t invest more in public art and that its sole arts staffer,   public art coordinator Tarra Petras, is “tucked away” in the Cleveland Planning Commission. 

“From a neighborhood perspective, it’s important to have someone at city hall with more status and power,” Huang said. 

A stronger effort is needed to track the impact of the city’s Public Art Program, create a public art registry, and ensure opportunities for diverse, younger artists who are underrepresented, she said. 

“There’s so much talent here, we need to come up with a way to showcase that,” Huang said. “I feel like we’re just scratching the surface.”

Daniel Gray-Kontar, executive director of Twelve Literary Arts, a nonprofit group that provides literary arts programs to youth of color, said the next mayor should lead efforts to create a cultural plan through meetings with residents. He cited Twelve’s work in Hough, where they conducted grassroots engagement to get residents’ opinions about the E. 66th St. redevelopment project, as one example. Additionally, he said, too many young people are leaving Cleveland because of lack of opportunity. 

Artist Keith Benford, Jr., who works with Twelve, agreed that Cleveland needs more opportunities for young artists to grow and develop in place. “A lot of the arts initiatives are happening at the grassroots level,” he said. “Now we just have a lot of tall grass and no one can see what’s on the other side of it.”

Mordecai Cargill, with the racial equity and placemaking consulting firm Third Space Action Lab, lives and works in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. He said artists and arts organizations can help change people’s perceptions about this historic east side community. 

“We need to leverage the work of artists and creative professionals to challenge and re-create the narratives for these neighborhoods,” he said. 

Ricky Watts at Cleveland Walls in Midtown

Ricky Watts at Cleveland Walls in Midtown. [New Departure Films]

Lessons from Newark Arts

One city where strong mayoral advocacy for the arts has made a difference is Newark, New Jersey. Regina Barboza, executive director of Newark Arts (a post previously held by Jeremy Johnson), said having the mayor on board has made a huge difference. Newark’s mayor since 2014 has been Ras Baraka, son of the well-known poet Amiri Baraka. 

“Newark has an arts mayor,” she said. “Now it’s becoming known as an arts city, which frankly it always has been.”

After being elected, Baraka led efforts to start a creative catalyst fund at city hall to support artists and small arts organizations that currently provides $750-800,000 in grants each year. 

“Newark is a big town and not everyone can come down for arts courses,” Barboza said. “This allows groups to take it to the communities and keep it in the communities.” 

Additionally, Baraka created an Arts and Cultural Affairs Director position at city hall that is currently held by artist Fayemi Shakur. Currently, the city is trying to cut red tape to help artists gain access to affordable housing and creative space, to fight the impacts of rising rents and overall gentrification. 

“Newark is trying to be intentional about providing space to artists and keeping them in place,” said Barboza. 

Fred Bidwell, chair of Assembly for the Arts, said a new mayor could help Cleveland follow Newark’s example. For too long, he said, the city has been a passive supporter of the arts. Instead, he said, it could be an active leader. 

He hopes the next mayor will follow through on plans to elevate the arts in Cleveland. If he doesn’t, he and others plan to hold the mayor’s feet to the fire. 

“It’s one thing for a politician to say they’re going to do something, and it’s another to do it,” he said. “They need to put their money where their mouth is with real, substantive action.”

Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.

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