CLEVELAND, Ohio - Despite a pointed plea to delay the approval of $12.3 million in grants during a meeting of the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture board Monday, trustees voted unanimously to dole out cigarette tax dollars to more than 250 arts and culture nonprofits in 2018.
Sixty-one organizations will receive $10.2 million in general operating support - multiyear grants that can be applied to anything other than travel and fundraising expenses - a 20 reduction from the $12.7 million in GOS funds awarded to county arts groups in 2015-16 and extended into 2017.
Another 196 organizations - including 25 new grant recipients - will receive $1.7 million in project support money, a reduction of 7.4 percent from the previous year. An additional $75,000 will go to the group Neighborhood Connections to support more than 15 arts and culture projects led by residents in Cleveland and East Cleveland.
Those cuts are "fiscally responsible" say CAC board members and staff - the best way to respond to a slow, steady decrease in available tobacco tax revenue over the next decade.
But the reductions have sparked controversy, as evidenced by some 250 people who packed the Cleveland History Center at the Western Reserve Historical Society, jamming parking lots and hogging meters.
Musical Arts Association trustee David Hooker, representing the Cleveland Orchestra, kicked off a spirited period of public comment by asking the board "to postpone the grant approval process and to open discussion with the leading arts and cultural institutions that will be severely and negatively impacted by the proposed, sudden and unexpected 20 percent cut in general operating support."
If tobacco tax revenue is estimated to fall 2.6 percent annually, he continued, how does that equal a 20 percent cut in GOS funds in 2018-19? Why not make gradual cuts to mirror the gradual loss in tax dollars, year to year?
"The math just isn't clear."
In an era of belt tightening, funds should not be taken from the GOS pot "to support new programs." Instead, dwindling monies should be used to continue to support those institutions already working "to enhance the quality of life in our community," such as the Cleveland Orchestra's free public concerts or its practice of bringing thousands of area school children to Severance Hall each year.
His sentiments were echoed by Christina Vassallo, head of Spaces, a nonprofit that solely displays newly commissioned artwork.
Told about a 34 percent cut in her group's general operating support only "weeks ago," Vassallo asked why the board had "to rush" to make its decision.
"It's one thing to say we expect a deficit, over and over again - it's another thing to agree to a drastic cut and approve it within one month."
Why wasn't a committee, composed of a diverse group of stakeholders, formed to rethink GOS support in the face of declining revenue? "I would be the first to sign up," she said.
"We have sympathy for you," CAC CEO and executive director Karen Gahl-Miller responded. She and other staffers at CAC who have worked in nonprofits understand the pain of such cuts - to organizations large and small.
She reminded those in attendance from older, larger institutions that they were once new, fledgling organizations too, like many of the groups receiving project support grants.
"We do communicate with folks in myriad ways . . ." she said, "but we can do better." That's why CAC is adding a series community meetings in 2018 to better facilitate feedback. The first will be at the end of January. The topic: CAC's grant-making procedures.
While arguments to rethink the allocations earned hearty applause, they were countered by grant recipients who applauded the board's actions, including Edwina Hawkins from Arts for All Northeast Ohio.
Addressing the board accompanied by her service dog, she said a project support grant from CAC will allow her little group to fund a free, accessible festival at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds in May - "the one day that we get together to celebrate the artistic talents of individuals with disabilities.
"Where does the CAC money go?" she asked. "We have 35 art activities stations and individuals go from one activity to the other, creating art." And it's thanks to CAC funding, she said, that they have the money to buy art supplies.
CAC money will also go to provide another venue for quieter activates for those with autism.
Looking out on the crowd, Board President Joe Gibbons said, "I've learned a few things [during] my tenure on this board and one of them is that Cuyahoga County has a lot of people that are passionate about the arts. And while we may not agree on all things, we can agree on that....Read more