A fond farewell to Cuyahoga Arts & Culture's Karen Gahl-Mills: Read her exit interview

Today marks Karen Gahl-Mills' last day as CEO and Executive Director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC), as she'll be leaving the funding agency to move to Chicago and explore teaching opportunities at Indiana University, University of Chicago, and Northwestern University—as well as working with the Civic Consulting Alliance.

Only the second executive director in CAC's history, Gahl-Mills was instrumental in passing a 2015 ballot initiative that extended the agency's tax resource though 2025. Though tax revenues have declined in recent years—presenting bigger challenges for grant making—CAC now serves more organizations than ever.

We asked Gahl-Mills to reflect on her eight years with CAC and where it's headed. Check out her "exit interview" below:


How did you initially come to the opportunity at CAC?

Gahl-Mills: It was one of those things that happened kind of by accident. When I was finishing graduate school in 2003, I was introduced to the idea of cultural policy—before that, I didn’t know it existed, but I found it really interesting. Fast forward to 2009, when I was running the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra: at a reception, someone told me that I should look at this job in Cleveland with CAC.

Even though I had gone to high school in Westlake and my parents still live here, Cleveland wasn’t on my radar at all. But as I came to understand that Cleveland had done really good work of making the case that there should be public money for the arts, I saw all my worlds come together—from my work as a non-profit arts manager to my interest in public policy. I accepted the job in November 2009, and I started the job in February 2010.


Having now worked in Syracuse, Chicago, and LA, what makes the arts and culture scene in Cleveland different and special?

Gahl-Mills: What I see here that is maybe not unique but certainly special is that we have the kind of institutions that they have in major cities for a city of 400,000 people—from a truly world-renowned art museum to the Cleveland Orchestra. Our infrastructure includes extraordinary large institutions, as well as a wonderful variety of small and medium organizations doing all kinds of interesting cultural work. Examples include the Ukrainian Museum in Tremont that has antiquities going back to the Russian Revolution, or small fairs and festivals like Arts in Strongsville and BayARTS. All of this richness in a community that’s quite small is what makes Cleveland’s arts scene special.


How have you seen CAC shift over the last eight years?

Gahl-Mills: When I was hired, the board at the time charged me with really trying to think about CAC as a public agency and a community resource. The idea was that it wouldn’t just be an ATM machine for the arts, but rather an agency charged with finding ways to connect arts and community through grantmaking. That has been my guiding principle since I arrived here, and the evolution you’ve seen at CAC has been with that community focus in mind.

Our job is to make the community stronger through the grants we make. There are two main sets of stakeholders: all of the organizations that get grants, and residents of our community who pay these taxes, live here, and get to benefit from it. Everything we’ve done since I came has been around the focus of, “How does CAC best support the cultural lives of the residents of our community?” We want to use that as the bedrock of our road map for the next 10 years, as well as a renewed focus on how we can make our grantmaking more equitable. The goal is to make sure all residents of Cuyahoga County can see themselves in the things that are funded here.


Talk about the 2015 ballot initiative that is part of your legacy.

Gahl-Mills: In the years running up to 2015, we were very deliberate in making sure we were demonstrating to all residents of CAC how the grants we made had an impact on them. When you look at our annual report, they include a map that talks about where programs take place—the idea is to show mayors in North Royalton or Solon or Parma that the money is doing good for their constituents. The work we did coming into the levy that summer was to be at many of our cultural partners’ events to tell the story of how CAC’s money was being used to make the community better, and that played a huge role in the 75.2 % victory margin in 2015.

What has been the most rewarding part?

Gahl-Mills: Two things: firstly, the organizational planning work—having the chance to put people on the streets talking to regular residents of our community and asking them what they like to do. The resounding response that arts and culture matter to them is really rewarding and good reinforcement that there is a reason we have public funding for the arts. The second piece has been to see the work that arts and culture organizations do every single day, like watching the kids at science camp at the Great Lakes Science Center, or seeing the animals being rehabbed at Lake Erie Nature and Science Center, or going to a production at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. [It’s also been rewarding] being part of the Karamu story and, through their struggles and rebirth, see what this extraordinarily important organization is is doing to service community. We do our best to be supportive, and then we get to watch these organizations shine—and that is something that is very heartwarming.


Why is it the right time for you to move on? What will you be doing?

Gahl-Mills: I have been a teacher as well as a leader at CAC for past several years. I’d been asked to deepen my relationships at Indiana University and University of Chicago, and I felt maybe this was the right moment: the [CAC] staff is strong, the work is solid, we’ve done the things we needed to do to get the levy passed. I decided to pursue opportunities to expand my teaching and consulting practice, and I’ll be regrouping as we move to Chicago and center our life there. I’m delighted that Jill Paulsen will be the interim executive director when I leave on June 7—she is the most qualified person I can think of to be interim director during CAC’s formal search process.


What will be important for the new leader of CAC to know?

Gahl-Mills: The team here is strong and can be counted on to carry out the work day in and day out. Building strong relationships with key politicians will be really important as the new leader gets settled and gets going. It’s also important for the new leader to know how vital this funding is to organizations who receive it—whether it’s $1.2 million to the Cleveland Orchestra or smaller project-based grants.

What do you hope the future holds for Cleveland and CAC?

Gahl-Mills: CAC is one of the few and one of the largest dedicated arts tax resources in the country. It exists because a lot of people did a lot of hard work for a long time to get the first ballot issue approved in 2006 and renewed in 2015. My hope is that CAC will continue to be good stewards of these funds but also be worthy of public support. I want CAC to continue to demonstrate to the community that these dollars are for everyone and make grants in more equitable ways. I am so confident that this board and staff can address those things head-on and keep these resources here—and thriving—through another levy and many levies after that.


Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As a Cleveland native and enthusiast, Jen Jones Donatelli is thrilled to take on the managing editor role at FreshWater. As a full-time freelance writer and editor for more than a decade, Jen has contributed to publications including Redbook, Budget Travel, GOOD, Playboy, Thrillist, Cleveland Magazine, Los Angeles Confidential, San Francisco, Ohio Today, and many more. She is also a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland and a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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