All-access: Cuyahoga Arts & Culture-funded programs ensure arts are for everyone

When the community talks, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) listens. As CAC enters its second decade of funding arts and cultural programming in Northeast Ohio, one of its top priorities will be working to achieve equity and diversity in programming—a focus identified as the result of a listening project and in-depth community assessments.

With efforts already underway, Fresh Water set out to find what some of Cleveland’s arts organizations are doing to promote diversity and ensure that everyone is welcome to explore the unique offerings. Here’s a rundown of some of the more unique outreach programs.

A Bridge that Bridges: Campus District

In 2016, the Campus District recognized that it was a neighborhood divided by race, income levels, and even the interstate. This realization led to the Bridge that Bridges project, in which Campus District community organizer Kaela Geschke, ioby (In our Own Back Yards), and artist and Central neighborhood resident Gwen Garth brought community leaders and residents together to discuss race and diversity.

A group of about 17 people began meeting to address issues of racism and segregation in the neighborhood—issues that often divide the area into two parts: the diverse academic world on one side of the E. 22nd Street bridge and the primarily African-American population in the Central Neighborhood on the other.

E. 22nd St. bridge - Bridge that Bridges project in the Campus District

The conversations brought the two sides together to openly discuss the roots of racism and steps that can be taken to abolish it. “It was a guided, facilitated discussion about race, which quickly focused on a personal level where people reflected on their own experiences with racism,” explains Bobbi Reichtell, Campus District executive director. “This kind of moved into a conversation about how we would want our community to be if racism didn’t exist, and what we could personally do about racism.”

The result was an 80-foot-long by two-feet-high mural spanning both sides of the E. 22nd Street bridge. On the bridge's east side, the mural depicts legs walking across the bridge. On the west side, words that transcend racism and segregation are depicted, transforming into steps people can take to address racial inequity.

In 2017, the group met again to revisit topics of diversity and racism and paint a similar mural on the Cedar Avenue bridge—or what Garth calls a second leg to a triangle connecting CSU to Central. “It’s an area that’s not seen by a lot of people, but gets a lot of foot traffic,” she explains. “Last year, it raised awareness of inequities. This year, it talks more about raising the similarities that exist.”

Garth, who has since been named to CAC's board of trustees, says word of the endeavor spread after the 2016 mural, attracting more community members for the 2017 conversation and mural painting. “[The 2016 mural] let people know they, too, have a voice,” she says. “So, they picked up a brush and added a brushstroke.”

Reichtell agrees that the murals and conversations are small steps forward. “One or two murals doesn’t change a neighborhood, but what they did do is bring [tensions] to the surface and make [them] something we’re not afraid to talk about to make it a more equitable neighborhood.”

The Bridge that Bridges project was funded through a $5,000 CAC grant via the CAC Project Support program, as well as by Neighborhood Connections, Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, and Burten, Bell, Carr Development. “I love that Cuyahoga Arts & Culture has focused on how art can be relevant to communities and not just be something to look at,” says Reichtell. “It’s a very long journey for us. The first mural couldn’t have been better timed because it’s when we first started thinking about racial equity and inclusion.”

Cleveland Museum of ArtCleveland Museum of Art

In 1892, when Jeptha Wade gifted the land upon which the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) sits today, he wrote, “For the benefit of all the people forever” on the deed. Since the museum opened in 1916, its mission has been to ensure that all feel welcome to find pleasure and meaning in the artwork and exhibitions.

That creed lives on today with renewed significance. "With issues of tolerance and diversity so prominent in the current national conversation, we feel it is important to emphasize the museum’s role as a welcoming place for all,” says CMA director William Griswold in a statement about the museum’s mission. “From the very beginning, it was important to our founders that we provide access to art from all over the world.”

One of the primary ways CMA accomplishes that is by offering free admission—making the collections accessible to everyone with no barriers to access.

“The museum has always been free and open to the public, helping a broad audience to understand and engage with great art,” says Griswold. “We highlighted this commitment in our centennial celebration last year, and it remains as strong as ever as we embark on our next century.”

Exhibits run the gamut­, from temporary shows such as “From Riches to Rags: American Photography in the Depression” and "Beyond Angkor: Cambodian Sculpture from Banteay Chhmar," to permanent collections from Egypt and the Near East, Africa, Greece, and Rome.

“As an encyclopedic art museum, we have objects from many time periods and many places on the globe,” explains Cyra Levenson, the museum’s director of education and academic affairs. “The collection is an incredible resource for understanding the breadth of human experience and for putting our current world into a broader perspective.”

If patrons can’t get to the museum, then the Cleveland Museum of Art comes to them. The institution has more than 150 community partnerships that provide arts programming throughout Northeast Ohio, says Levenson. For instance, the CMA Studio Go van brings hands-on art experiences to area neighborhoods like Hough and Fairfax every summer.

Studio Go van brings hands-on art experiences for area neighborhoods like Hough and Fairfax

CMA leaders attempt to ensure that its staff remains unbiased in its guidance of the arts, educating all visitors on the beauty, history, and cultural aspects of the work it showcases. CMA officials just completed a new strategic plan this year to emphasize these goals.

“Addressing issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity are central to the success of the plan and the institution," says Levenson. “We are in the process of working on a planning document and a committee structure to continue this important work. One of the goals of our strategic plan is to meet our constituents where they are, not only physically but metaphorically.”

To gauge its progress, the museum constantly engages in self-evaluation—performing "extensive research" and collecting ongoing feedback from museum visitors about their experiences.

“We are evaluating our training and professional development for all staff to be sure we are building cultural competence and making space for conversations about difference and implicit bias," says Levenson. "Our goal is to be as objective, aware, and open as possible.”

Cleveland Museum of Natural History

When approaching University Circle from Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, visitors can not miss famed Cleveland artist Viktor Schreckengost’s giant mammoth and mastodon sculptures welcoming them to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

“It’s a giant concrete invitation,” explains Evalyn Gates, museum executive director and CEO, noting that the sculptures face toward the nearby Hough and Glenville neighborhoods. “We wanted to make sure we were reaching out to all the communities around us [and that] we weren’t an institution facing just University Circle. We want to be as inviting and as visible as possible.”

According to Gates, it’s a challenge that many cultural institutions in big cities face: making sure their organizations are inviting to everyone, from every background. To that end, the museum employs a community engagement officer, conducts programs throughout the city, and reaches out to nearby communities through partnerships with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) and the Cleveland Public Library (CPL). Since 2008, the museum has received funds from CAC’s general operating support program.

Now in its sixth year, every second-grade class and teacher in CMSD gets both museum educational materials and DVDs, as well as the chance to spend a full day at the museum learning and exploring.

“Once they’re through that full day here, this is their museum,” emphasizes Gates. “Then we invite them back for a free family day full of activities. The kids now serve as guides—taking their parents or siblings through. It takes that whole feeling of ‘Am I welcome?’ away.” Gates says more than 400 second graders have come through the museum, eliciting a lot of positive feedback from parents. 

During family days, the CPL sets up a table at the museum, offering information and signing guests up for library cards; in return, the museum gives out free two-week passes at all CPL branches. “We’re making sure that no matter where you live in the city, you can come to the museum and cost isn’t a hurdle,” says Gates.

The natural history museum also partnered with Hough’s Rainey Institute on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to bring the Rainey Children’s Choir for the museum’s Discovery Day. “It was a wonderful way to bring kids in, which I think is very important to blend science with history and music,” says Gates. “Science is really woven into so many aspects of our lives.”

The museum set attendance records with its last Discovery Day, bringing in 10,000 visitors. “It was encouraging to us,” says Gates. “If you invite people in and encourage them to have a good time, they will come."

Rainey Choir - photo Dale Lazar

The museum also works with the senior center at Fatima Family Center in Hough. In Glenville, the museum works in tandem with Famicos Foundation to bring in neighborhood teens to learn about native plants as they transform vacant lots in Glenville.

Across town, the museum works with Esperanza to host a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) summer camp for teens. Participants from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Cleveland and Cleveland recreation centers spent time last spring with the museum’s Exhibits Lab, testing new possible exhibits.

“The museum is here to serve as an entryway to science and nature,” says Gates. “The future of the museum is really the role we have with the community. We want everyone to see the museum as their museum."

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.
Signup for Email Alerts