Street level 'Voices and Vision' inform Cuyahoga Arts and Culture's next 10 years

When voters overwhelmingly approved the extension of a cigarette tax in 2015 to renew 10 years of funding for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), the public agency's officials were faced with defining what they had gotten right since their 2007 inception and what the organization needed to do to improve its organization's grant programming.

“It’s been about 10 years and we’re one of the biggest public funding agencies in the nation,” says CAC deputy director Jill Paulsen. “The levy passed in November 2015. We have 10 years under our belt and we had to decide what we are going to do in the next 10.”

Since its launch, the organization has invested $158 million in more than 300 organizations big and small across Cuyahoga County. Considering the 2015 renewal passed by 75 percent, its safe to say the community is pleased with much of that work.

CAC officials, however, are not content to rest on their laurels.

A comprehensive plan
In order to shape the organization's future, CAC assembled an 18-member street team to attend various events and around the county and hear what residents had to say about the arts. The team asked residents how they get involved in arts and culture, what they would like to see more of and what they find lacking.

“We worked with the community, talked to more than 1,200 people," says Paulsen, "and it became a more comprehensive plan.”
CAC also organized eight focus groups to further solicit feedback from 175 residents; distributed 8,000 surveys, and last May convened a half-day meeting of 175 artists, cultural institution leaders and community members to discuss the future of CAC programming. The different forms of outreach aimed to include a more diverse group of people.

“Not everyone’s online,” Paulsen says of the street team’s and listening groups’ efforts. “[The street team] was a way to get out and reach a targeted group in unique locations.”
The street team hit nearly two dozen events, institutions, festivals and community celebrations — from Wade Oval Wednesdays in University Circle, Family Unity at Luke Easter Park and the Latino Festival and Puerto Rican Parade at Voinovich Park to Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries’ men’s shelter at 2100 Lakeside, the Jennings Center for Older Adults in Garfield Heights and MyCom youth program in Shaker Heights.
"We tried to find a real mix of places,” says Paulsen. “The street team did a nice job talking to a broad range of demographics.”

The face-to-face feedback and insight helped CAC create its Cuyahoga Voices and Vision plan, which debuted last month.

“It’s really just about the next decade,” says Paulsen of the sweeping plan. “It shows what we heard from residents and what’s meaningful to them in terms of arts and culture. It’s going to shape how we provide our services as a public agency in the coming years.”

Street level view: volunteer experiences and insights
“It was fascinating to go around and have conversations and connect with residents,” says CAC resident engagement manager Jessica Kayse. “We asked what they’d like to see in arts and culture and how they are personally involved. The ability to connect with folks was amazing and the street team really hit the ground running.”

Kayse says the team realized that arts and culture can be subjective. "It's how we experience it," she says. “After the survey at 2100 Lakeside, a lot of people talked about the importance of Public Square and access to the main library. They were excited about the accessibility of Public Square. We thought the library was for access to the internet, but they said they came to read and talked about the aesthetics of the library and how beautiful it is.”

To get an idea of what the outreach campaign was like as it unfurled, Fresh Water sat down with two CAC volunteers to hear about their experiences.

Katy KoranKaty Koran: “I felt like I was making friends with people.”
Katy Koran, who has been a member of the CAC for two years — previously as a cultural liaison — thought the community outreach was a great way to learn what residents want. Koran, who works as the Cleveland Clinic Arts and Medicine Institute, attended four events last summer as part of the street team, including the Star Spangled Spectacular in Public Square.
“That event was huge,” she recalls. “So many people came out for that. It was a great chance to talk to people about what they like to do when they’re not working, where they like to go, and what they’d like to see more of in the community.”
The Euclid resident met a wide range of people from a variety of backgrounds and ages, from under 15 years old to over 70. Their responses ran the gamut as well.
“I heard everything from 'I don’t really do anything, I like to sit on my porch,’ to ‘I go to all the festivals,’ to 'there are so many events I can’t get to them,’” Koran recalls. “I felt like I was making friends with people.”
She recalls speaking with a fiftysomething Akron couple at the Star Spangled event who were on a date. “It was kind of cool to hear all the things they’re interested in,” she recalls. “We found people who were traveling from all over to just consume the culture in Northeast Ohio.”
Koran approached another group at the event, some ladies sitting in lawn chairs who proudly declared they go to the event every year. “There were so many people who were saying ‘Cleveland is an awesome place, with so many opportunities,’” she recalls. “'We’re happy to see more.’”
Koran also noted that one group of people — young parents — felt there weren’t enough cultural activities for kids in the afternoons and on the weekends, while others felt there are too many events going on. Koran says she found others who felt the choices are seasonal.
“They said there’s a ton to do in the summer, and their weekends are packed," she reports, "but then winter comes and there’s not really much to do.”
Overall, Koran believes the street team's findings were a great asset to helping CAC define its future goals.

“I think it’s a start,” she says. "It’s one piece of the puzzle.”

Rahim BasitRahim Basit: pushing for diversity
Rahim Basit, who works as a warehouse manager at Jakprints and lives in the Union Miles neighborhood, got involved with CAC three years ago. An artist himself, Basit helps other artists write grants and secure support for their projects. He thought CAC would provide a good “creative compass” for his own work.
“I’m involved in the arts and try to be involved in everything going on in the city,” Basit says. “I thought the street team would be interesting. With the street team, I asked questions and got a feel about what other people were thinking about arts in the community. I got to work with a great group of people and I really enjoyed it.”
Basit, who went to places like the North Union Farmers Market at Crocker Park, Night Market Cleveland in Asiatown, and festivals in what he calls “the lower east side” of Cleveland — Union Miles, Mt. Pleasant, Glenville and Collinwood — solicited similar input from people around the city.
“I met a lot of different individuals and listened to what they wanted to see and compared it to what people in the inner city wanted to see," he notes, adding that people tend to attend events they know in areas they know. "They pretty much wanted the same thing.” He adds that access plays a big role, as does just knowing a program exists. For instance, the people he met at events at the recreation centers and churches weren’t necessarily aware of the theaters or concert venues in the neighborhood, and vice versa.
“People like what they like,” Basit says. “They don’t recognize [another option] when they see it. I grew up being interested in a lot of cultural things. I like the theater, so I know about it. A lot of times, you may not know if you’re into it or not if you’ve never experienced it before.”
Hence Basit contends CAC needs to ensure residents in all neighborhoods are aware of events and opportunities around the city.

"They need to bring people out in the community to experience more things,” he explains. “When you get out of your comfort zone you may find yourself wanting to be a part of it. I think that’s an area that could use some work — engage the community more and inform people of what’s out there.”
One idea that Basit has is to start a "cultural exchange" program of sorts, in which an annual event from one neighborhood is held in another. He cites Collinwood as a local enclave that's found the secret to mixing it up.
“In the past two years, they’ve done that a lot,” Basit says of the venerable shore community. “They have diverse cultural and art offerings and it’s worked out spectacularly. That’s something I’ve been pushing for in the last few years, trying to bring diversity in.”

A focus on equity

Three themes emerged from the findings of the street team and listening groups. First, many people feel access to some of the area’s cultural institutions is difficult — be it the cost of admission or distance to a location. Second, residents want more hands-on activities that teach. Third, many survey respondents felt that cultural events are often geared toward the elite and a mostly white audience.
“Equity will be a large focus of our work as a public agency going forward — as it is with many public agencies nationwide,” explains Paulsen. “We’ve learned that race, class, even where people live can be barriers to taking part in arts and culture in Cuyahoga County, but there’s no shortage of desire to experience those things.”
As the organization steps into the next 10 years, CAC intends to prioritize programming accessibility, whether it means bringing events to specific neighborhoods or creating new partnerships. The organization will also ensure that people across all races, incomes and education levels feel included in its programming and funding.
“We can make an impact by supporting organizations so they can bridge these gaps,” continues Paulsen. “We can also make it easier for groups that are already working in their communities — but have yet to receive CAC funding — to be able to tap into public funds.”

This story was made possible through a partnership with Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, which is part of Fresh Water's underwriting support network.

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.