Staging a comeback: CAC Culture Heritage Grant winners elevate new voices

Many arts organizations have struggled to survive during the pandemic, but perhaps none have fought harder to stay open than small and minority-led arts groups.

Realizing this, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC) made $215,014 in funds available to 11 organizations serving minority populations in 2021 through its new Cultural Heritage Grants program, which provides flexible funding for arts and culture organizations that are representative of a culturally-specific population.

Though small in audience size, each grantee makes the case that without them, an important contribution to Cleveland’s diverse arts and cultural offering would be lost.

Michele Rudolph of Cleveland Association of Black StorytellersThe grants have helped help keep doors open, led to new work and performances—both virtually and in person—at a time when a resurgence of COVID-19 cases is keeping audience capacity limited at some venues.

The pandemic has been a source to draw on for Cleveland Association of Black Storytellers—just like other periods in history when times were trying, and survival was not a given.

“We look right back in our history and tell our children, ‘they went through slavery, Jim Crow, reconstruction, the Civil Rights era and the last four years,” says immediate past president Michele Rudolph, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement and the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. “Our community has been traumatized. We draw on stories of [how they persevered] by getting together and deciding what actions they were going to take. They overcame.”

Like the Association of Black Storytellers and the other minority arts groups around them, CAC’s financial support provides the foundation for this work.

“A lot of smaller and important cultural organizations would be forgotten,” Rudolph adds. “It’s very much needed and we’re appreciative.”

LatinUs Theater Company production of “La Casa de Bernarda Alba” The grant helped build stage sets and keep the lights on at LatinUs Theater Company in The Pivot Center for Art, Dance and Expression in Tremont that presents Spanish-language plays—such as the recent production of a Federica Garcia Lorca’s “La Casa de Bernarda Alba” and the upcoming production of “Banos Publicos,” a dark comedy about how public facilities (and the dignity it affords) were hard to come by in Cuba under Fidel Castro’s rule.


We were so happy that important people in the community and the foundations gave us the money to be able to do this,” says LatinUS executive artistic director Monica Torres, adding that the grant is an affirmation of the Latino population’s importance to the Cleveland community. “Finally, the arts are seeing us.”

The Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble’s performance at Cleveland Museum of ArtUniversity Circle-based Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble, uses dance with a blend of African American spirituals, blues, gospel and jazz to tell the stories of social change, social justice, and cultural development in the United States, has been seen on stages across Africa and America—including Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center.

Founder Edna Duffy calls the CAC a lifesaver, “not only for the financial aid, but [there was] someone understood what African American smaller arts organizations were trying to do.”

Duffy says the grant money came at a time when the community has been cut off from a source of many outlets that provide expression.


“The arts are healing,” she says, adding that letters from audience members after a November performance at Cleveland Museum of Art drove that message home. “At the cast party, people said, ‘we’re so glad to make art again and dance again.’”

For Duffy, a former language teacher in the Shaker Heights City Schools, the loss of community connections during the pandemic—the inability to present and speak to children—was a noticeable absence.

“You don’t have to leave these songs in the past,” she comments. “[The spiritual] “Deep River” [conveys the idea that] we have to go through this pandemic. There’s nothing we can do about it. But we have to have optimism that it’s going to end.”
 
Reaching new audiences is a big part of the success story behind the Slovenian Museum and Archives, a small organization in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood that represents the second largest Slovenian population outside of Slovenia.

Organization board member Bob Hopkins says they struck on something deeply satisfactory with its acclaimed Mardi Gras-type festival, Kurentovanje.

“It’s a huge thing that pulls in young people who are excited about the culture,” says Hopkins.

“[We] make the meetings fun and make everyone’s opinion count. We let young people with ideas run with them. It’s been rewarding.”

Cultural Heritage grants “celebrate the cultures and people that are the very fabric of our community,” says Jill Paulsen, CAC executive director. “These local nonprofits’ work is about building connections across neighborhoods. It tells the history of how people worked for social change… and that people can see themselves in. All of this important work will help Cuyahoga County be a more inclusive place to live, and we are proud to support it.”

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.