Artists take center stage as CAC implements equity and diversity initiatives

An artist known as "mr.soul"—a name given to him by a client long ago—has developed as an artist ever since he was a boy growing up in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood. “I’ve been into art my entire life,” he says.

Twenty years ago, mr.soul moved to Atlanta and thrived as a graphic artist in the city’s music and entertainment industry, helping to establish Atlanta’s famed City of Ink tattoo shop and traveling urban art and music exhibition Art+Beats+Lyrics, among other endeavors.

Last October, mr.soul moved back to Cleveland. What he discovered was a very different arts scene than that of Atlanta. “The Cleveland artists’ scene is one of resources and opportunities governed by politics and academic institutions,” says mr.soul. “In Atlanta, it’s governed by the artists themselves.”

Furthermore, while in Atlanta, mr.soul was involved with Black youth-driven artist collectives that attracted and supported a diverse group of artists, while in Cleveland he sees a huge gap in racial diversity, equity, and younger people being involved in the decision-making process.

“Art+Beats+Lyrics and City Of Ink are examples of Black-owned art businesses AND collectives,” he says. “I’ve only been back a year, [but here] I have not experienced anything that caters to the demographics that those brands were able to cater to.”

Around the time mr.soul returned to Cleveland, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) was also realizing the same racial inequities among Cleveland artists. In fact, racial equity and diversity has been a priority for CAC as it moves into its second decade of publicly-funded arts and cultural programming.

mr.soul With that in mind, mr.soul is cognizant that there are funding opportunities in Cleveland that don’t necessarily exist elsewhere. “Cleveland generated [$158] million for artists through a cigarette tax,” he says, referring to the CAC’s funding since its founding in 2006. “In Atlanta, we didn’t have that money. Here, a lot of art I see doesn’t really speak to me, but speaks to organizations with money.”

The artist spoke in February 2017 at a CAC board meeting, at which he also heard similar views on the support Cleveland artists received. After talking to CAC executive director Karen Gahl-Mills, he was asked to join CAC’s Support for Artists Planning Team (SfAPT), formed last May.

Planning for progress

SfAPT is comprised of 10 artists and community leaders, as well as CAC manager of special projects and communications Jacob Sinatra and board member Gwen Garth. The team was charged with making recommendations for ensuring equity in its funding and support of individual artists, creating a trusted dialogue between CAC and artists, and establishing trust. 

The team—along with a facilitator team from Case Western Reserve University’s Community Innovation Network, led by co-facilitators Mark Chupp and Jerry Pena—began meeting twice a month last June to address equity and diversity issues and make recommendations to the CAC board for ways to better support and fund individual artists in Cuyahoga County.

Chupp and Peña kept the discussions open, attempting to diffuse any tensions that rose too high. “When differences arose, we worked to help members hear each other, respect their differences, and continue to be in dialogue around their different perspectives,” says Chupp.

On Tuesday, Dec. 11, the SfAPT presented a list of eight recommendations to the CAC board. The recommendations started with eliminating racism and prioritizing diversity, with a request that "the majority of funding and support for individual artists goes to Cuyahoga County residents who have been historically excluded, namely persons of color (African American, Black, Latino/a, Asian, Arab, Native American). We also recommend the prioritization of those who have been excluded based on gender, geography, age, income, sexual orientation, or education.”

mr.soul says this first recommendation holds the most weight. “It forces the always uncomfortable conversation about race, privilege and what is going to be required to truly achieve the equity and fairness balance that the CAC seeks in moving forward with their program,” he says.


The list goes on to recommend programs for artist support, professional development, and availability of physical space for artists to pursue their works. Ultimately, the team recommended CAC monitor their practices moving forward, stating, “SfAPT recommends that CAC retain a diverse team, including members of the planning team, throughout the implementation of these recommendations as a sounding board to consult on how these recommendations get brought to life."


The facilitation team helped the SfAPT members keep an open dialogue to reach their recommendations. “Building trusting relationships and establishing the guiding principles provided the foundation to do the hard work of reaching agreement on the needs of artists, a vision for supporting artists, and a set of recommendations,” says Chupp. “Given the different backgrounds and constituents of each artist, dialogue was necessary to make sure that work did not perpetuate white privilege and institutional racism.”

The CAC board formally received the SfAPT recommendations on Tuesday, Dec. 11 and is now forming a work plan to implement the recommendations in 2018.

Gwen Garth, an artist and CAC board member, and a member of the SfAPT speaking at a meeting

Based on the SfAPT's final recommendation—to maintain a diverse team through implementation—Sinatra says the board has charged the CAC staff with drafting a plan and soliciting feedback from a panel, which will include many of the SfAPT members. This group will evaluate the options for implementation and return to the board in February.

At the meeting, the CAC board also approved the 2018 operating budget, which allocates $400,000 toward individual artist programming. Sinatra says this money may be earmarked for fellowships, mini-grants, professional development, or other programs that support equity in arts and culture.

Chupp says he is impressed with the recommendations, noting that they also reflect the team’s deeper understanding of the equity issues at play.

“The set of recommendations reflect a paradigm shift away from primarily offering grants to individuals who compete with one another and where those with advantage (privilege) have an upper hand to a collectivist model of artists and arts institutions supporting one another in an effort to intentionally support historically excluded groups,” Chupp says. “The level of consensus among the authors of the recommendations surpassed our expectations as they were united in their resolve for each aspect of the recommendations.”

Bridging the racial divide

From 2009 to 2016, CAC had a Creative Workforce Fellowship program in place to help fund Cuyahoga County artists. In that time, CAC issued $4 million in fellowships to 161 artists. However, when the organization ended the program in 2016 to make way for a more collaborative support model, officials realized that only 16 artists in the group identified themselves as African-American or Black.

It was a crucial realization. The fellowship program, which was administered by Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC), was not designed to allot fellowships based on personally identifying criteria, but CPAC did collect demographic data from applicants.

“It marked deeper concerns along the lines of equity,” says Sinatra. “It opened our eyes as a public agency that we had to make sure everyone has access to applying and know they can be fairly considered for [fellowship money] if they were to apply.”

With the convening of SfAPT, equity and diversity became a priority. “In the time between when we ended the old program and launched the planning team, we heard from many artists who felt the old program didn’t either respond to their needs, or didn’t feel like an equitable approach to supporting artists,” explains Sinatra. “There are some artists who felt like they did not have a seat at the table.”

The SfAPT is made up a diverse group— five African-Americans, three Caucasians, one Asian, and one Latina. “We intentionally recruited a team that was not only racially diverse, but included a majority of people of color and was diverse across geography, artistic discipline, and gender,” says Sinatra.

Furthermore, Sinatra estimates the team ranged in age from about mid-20s to mid-60s. “The team was intentionally composed of a majority of working artists – who make at least half of their income from artmaking, creative practice or business,” he says, adding that middle school and high school students also gave input during a CAC event in September.

Facilitating equity

While the team was purposely diverse, there also was a great deal of tension among the group members over topics of racism and equity, says Sinatra. The group remained open-minded, and kept their conversations on the issues open and honest to address the concerns. The group also participated in racial equity training to get everyone on the same page.

“We recognized that a primary driver for creating the planning team was a recognition by CAC that artists of color were excluded and that trust had eroded,” explains Chupp of the training. “We therefore began with a two-day retreat to get to know one another, establish group norms, and agree on the charge and timeline for the work. The second day of the retreat focused on racial equity and inclusion and was facilitated by Erica Merritt, a member of our network. We then facilitated the group as they created equity primes, guiding principles, that they would use to evaluate any future recommendations they developed.”

The team found the sessions valuable. In the SfAPT recommendations, the team wrote, “By starting our work together with a day-long workshop on racial equity, we worked—and continue to work—to embrace the discomfort that comes from having tough conversations about race when more than one race is in the room.”

Team members also made sure to listen to what each member was saying. They go on to write, “We had to spend lots of intentional time together, endure conflict, and learn from each other’s perspectives in order to be successful in developing recommendations. Once we started to understand each other’s experiences, perspectives and ideas, we were able to embrace our shared goal of creating more shared power and stake in the approach to supporting artists we ultimately developed.”

Vince Robinson“Racism is real”

Vince Robinson is a photographer, poet, author, and television and radio host, as well as front man for the band Vince Robinson & the Jazz Poets and co-owner of Larchmere Arts. He got involved with CAC last year after attending several community meetings in his neighborhood.

He was subsequently asked to join the SfAPT. “Art is important, and I’m an artist and I see the benefit to the community,” Robinson explains. “I think even though, with our differences, it was a collaborative process. I think we crafted excellent recommendations to give to the board.”

Robinson had applied for the CAC fellowship in the past, and says he identified himself as a person of color, and was rejected, so he had a particular interest in being part of the conversation. He notes that Cleveland has long had a reputation for being a segregated city, and he saw the SfAPT as a way to address many of the barriers that keep aspiring artists from succeeding.

“We recognize artists at their different levels of evolution as artists,” Robinson explains. “It’s about creating a friendly environment for artists and people who are working at becoming artists."

Robinson says the team considered eliminating racism and classism in future support and funding through the CAC. “The work we did looking at history and the walls that exist contributed to the recommendations that we had,” he says. “Racism is real, and racism exists, although it may not be intentional.”

Furthermore, Robinson sees bias toward artists who are involved in some of the more mainstream institutions. “Many artist recipients [of fellowships] had degrees related to the arts,” he explains. “You don’t have to have a degree to create art, but you can use that degree as content to exclude. Academia does not validate the value of art.”

These issues are why the SfAPT included recommendations to foster institutional connections, develop physical spaces that support artists, and opportunities for professional development.

mr.soul says he sees the recommendation to prioritize funding to people who have historically been excluded as the top outcome from the list.

Restoring future hope

Tensions ran high at times over the past six months, especially when it came it perceptions of racism. “I’m already well in the know about what racial inequity is, because I’m black,” says mr.soul. “When you try to get people to understand, it gets tense because people who think the playing ground is fair usually come from privilege. So, there were times we didn’t see eye-to-eye, but that’s should be expected.”

But in the end, mr.soul says the group could agree on most things. “The cream rose to the top, and we were able to put these recommendations together and learn to get along as a group,” he says.

Robinson agrees, adding, “The whole idea was to create a situation to allow people to express themselves no matter what.”

Chupp is pleased with what the team was able to accomplish. “These recommendations are a disruptive innovation in which those who have been excluded moved from critic to author,” he says. “CAC is to be commended for sharing power, which is essential in authentic work at racial equity and inclusion. We look forward to seeing how the implementation of these recommendations continues to positively transform the way CAC, arts institutions, and individual artists work together to strengthen our community, neighborhoods, and groups who have historically found themselves on the margins.”

Despite periods of tension, both mr.soul and Robinson are also hopeful that SfAPT’s recommendations will propel CAC forward on a positive path.

“I think if the board, in conjunction with the CAC staff, implements some, if not all, of these recommendations we will see change in the artistic landscape,” says Robinson. “This is a great opportunity for Cuyahoga County, but it’s also just beginning. Up until now, we’ve just had great conversation. Now is the time for action—take the ball and move the game forward.”

mr.soul uses another analogy. “The seed was planted to harvest the work we’ve done and bring the arts community together,” he says. “Cuyahoga Arts & Culture isn’t City of Ink, meaning it’s not the sole center source for art. I would say this is a good start.”

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.