Bouncing back through Arts & Culture: CAC annual report highlights resilience in the arts

There is no doubt that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has stopped the world in its tracks. Arts and Culture organizations were hit particularly hard, with lockdowns, limits on in-person gatherings, and overall fears that kept the usual audiences away.

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) released its 2021 Annual Report on July 5—highlighting a turbulent year. Yet the staff at CAC, as well as the grant recipients, celebrate the power of arts and culture to heal, build community and make things a little brighter during challenging times.

Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center started a program focused on supporting Latino artists in Cleveland.Organizations funded by CAC reported more than $171 million in lost revenues from March 2020 through December 2021impacting the employment of more than 5,000 people. Despite CAC’s predicted declining revenue (CAC revenue is down nearly 40% since 2008, the first year it issued grants), the nonprofit granted more than $12 million to 295 nonprofit groups in 2021.

But creatives are resilient and resourceful. Despite the challenges, many Northeast Ohio organizations persevered, carried on, and used creativity to help get everyone though this dark time.

“I’m really proud of the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture staff for their hard work to serve the nonprofits that we fund,” says Nancy Mendez, CAC Board of Trustees president. “The pandemic posed many challenges, and CAC pivoted quickly to ensure groups could be successful in their grant applications and flexible with funding in situations where events didn’t happen as planned.

“Their work ensured CAC could continue to be a difference maker for the nearly 250 nonprofits funded by CAC in 2021,” continues Mendez. “I’m also grateful to the nonprofit arts community for their commitment to making art for and with residents, and for working tirelessly to reach people and provide hope and healing in new and different ways.”

Although 2020 marked a year of unknowns—between the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and future of arts and culture programming—CAC executive director Jill Paulsen describes 2021 as the year that everyone learned to alter plans and edit expectations in a constantly changing world.

“This was an interesting year to reflect on,” says Paulsen. “Because 2020 was doom and gloom and we faced the crisis and shock of COVID-19, 2021 shifted because we learned to adapt. But the ups and downs of dealing with the pandemic evolved and everything got a little brighter.”

Throughout the past two-and-a-half years, CAC and its partners have worked together to ensure there is funding for arts and culture in Cuyahoga County and beyond. In 2020, CAC worked with the nonprofit Arts Cleveland and Arts & Culture Action Committee (now Assembly for the Arts and Assembly for Action), and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the National Independent Venues Association to secure $3 million in CARES Act relief from Cuyahoga County for arts nonprofits and this year the County committed $1.65 million in American Rescue Plan money to the organizations CAC funds.

In 2021, CAC’s funding helped sustain nonprofit arts and culture organizations during trying times. These organizations adapted, reconfigured, and got creative, in their programing.

“CAC’s funding helps to sustain the county’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations,” write Mendez and Paulsen in the Annual Report. “That’s why, despite CAC’s predicted declining revenue, we kept our promise to the community and maintained steady funding levels for our grant programs for the past three years.”

Residents flocked to outdoor spaces to see performances that might otherwise have been held indoors. Individuals sought virtual art therapy sessions to process grief associated with losing loved ones to COVID-19. Artists gave voice to the underrepresented. And many organizations used Zoom and other streaming platforms to carry on performances and exhibits on a virtual level.

The artists and cultural organizations are resilient—there’s no doubt about that, says Paulsen. “These are creative people, so of course they are going to adapt and think of new ways to do things,” she says.

The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes completed its five-year, $6.5 million capital campaign at the end of 2021 to renovate its facilities.For instance, the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes completed its five-year, $6.5 million capital campaign at the end of 2021 to renovate its facilities and help people of all ages and abilities connect with nature, including an extensive ADA-accessible trail network, a treehouse, nature play area, and outdoor amphitheater.

“CAC’s general operating support and CARES Act funding helped sustain our operations and programming throughout the challenges of COVID-19, allowing us to focus on long-term investments in our mission,” Nature Center president and CEO Kay Carlson was quoted as saying in the annual report. “Our investment in the Nature Center’s outdoor classroom could not have come at a better time, as people flocked to parks and outdoor spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. We saw a three-fold increase in visitation when the pandemic began, and we had over 140,000 visits during 2021.”

Another example is shown when the Cavani String Quartet worked with several other CAC funded organizations to stage “Beyond Beethoven,” and give 100 student string musicians from area high schools a chance to perform with the quartet at Severance Hall in December 2021. The group needed to rethink how to teach classical string music to 100 kids at four different schools instead of one central practice location. The collective group made it work and the concert was a success.

“When we got up on that stage, there was such a feeling of love and teamwork before we even played a note,” said Cavani Quartet founder and violinist Annie Fullard in the report. “We try to engage young people to learn how to trust their strengths through art, and when they do, the sky’s the limit…. We really appreciate that CAC supports projects such as ‘Beyond Beethoven.’ CAC makes it possible to collaborate and thrive in the incredible Cleveland arts community.”

In the meantime, CAC placed emphasis on supporting Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) artists through its Support for Artists (SFA) grant program and Cultural Heritage Grants. Paulsen reports that since 2019, more than 250 artists—with 88% identifying as BIPOC—have directly benefitted from SFA grants to nonprofit partners through fellowships, project-based funding, access to physical spaces, and professional development.

For instance Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center executive director Letitia Lopez conceived of Unidos por el Arte, a program focused on supporting Latino artists in Cleveland, while discussing equity with CAC officials in 2019. Lopez later launched the program with CAC SFA funding.

Several organizations have benefitted from CAC funding through the Cultural Heritage Grant program, which also started in 2021 and helped keep the doors open for many performers.

“As we enter yet another phase of this challenging pandemic, I continue to be grateful for the work of the nonprofits we fund,” says Paulsen. “Looking ahead to the remainder of this year and into 2023, I know that together, CAC and arts organizations are well-positioned to help our community heal, and over time, thrive.

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.