Unified voices: New alliance will unite NEO arts community in diversity, equity, and inclusion

In the past year, the country went through an awakening when it comes to racial and cultural inequities. A new collaborative arts alliance, formed between Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, Arts Cleveland, and the Arts and Culture Action Committee, with support from the Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation, will focus on an ambitious advocacy and cultural policy agenda and racial equity initiatives.

Due to launch in mid-June, Assembly for the Arts will be a nonprofit and advocacy organization with the mission to elevate equity and diversity among Northeast Ohio artists, nonprofits, and businesses in the creative sector.

ChiChi NkemereAt least 50% of Assembly board members will be women or non-binary people and at least 40% will be Black, Indigenous, or people of color.

“2020 was transformative,” says Assembly board member ChiChi Nkemere of the racial and social injustices that occurred so frequently last year. “So, let’s make sure we have more people at the table and have the necessary conversations.”

Nkemere says this alliance will bring together all arts forms, as well as the people creating art, to form a stronger and more celebrated arts community across all levels. “We want to empower marginalized artists—specifically Black and Latinx artists in this city through financial backing,” she says. “We keep telling the stories of the lunch pail guy who goes to the diner, and takes off his work boots. Our city hasn’t looked like that for 50 years. Tell a different story and capture a different audience.”

While Cleveland ranks at the bottom in CityLab’s Livability Index for Black women, and was also found to be the poorest big city in the country by the Center for Community Solutions, Nkemere says the Assembly for Arts is the chance to flip the numbers.

“We have one of the largest Black cities in America, we’re a Civil Rights city, but we don’t acknowledge the huge historical strides we’ve made in this city,” Nkemere says. “All this can be solved through the arts. We’re at a precipice in American society for solving these problems. By adding other voices to the mix, we can be most innovative in what our future will be, but also truthfully highlight our past.”

Karamu performers rehearsing for the Juneteenth event performance.Cuyahoga Arts & Culture will remain a separate entity focused on funding nonprofits and will have representation on the Assembly for the Arts board. After nearly 20 years in service of Cuyahoga County’s creative economy, Arts Cleveland will cease operations in June with the launch of the new alliance, as will the Arts and Culture Action Committee. The current Arts Cleveland staff will support Assembly for the Arts’ operations.

Cleveland native Jeremy V. Johnson, who most recently served as executive director of Newark Arts in New Jersey, has been chosen to lead Assembly for the Arts after a national search.

Johnson, who grew up in Hough and Glenville and attended University School, is known to be a powerful convener, effective collaborator, and an extremely gifted fundraiser—having raised the national profile of Newark, now ranked among America’s top ten arts vibrant communities by the National Center for Arts Research.

Johnson says the groups have been planning Assembly for the Arts for almost two years and the timing for the launch this summer seemed appropriate. “It’s been in the works for some time—the idea to bring the arts together in one voice,” he says. “I feel like a soloist in a massive choir. I’m really excited to return home to my roots.”

Calling the collaboration an “assembly” is the right decision, says Johnson. “You need an assembly to bring people together to be a platform for diverse voices and democracy,” he says. “It takes energy, it takes funding, and it takes work. I’m excited to be called in a humble way to herald this new voice and unify around the arts and equity.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.