Cleveland embraces its rich tapestry of immigrants, with a little help from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture

The Land has been a welcoming place for immigrants since the dawn of the 20th century—when Cleveland was the nation’s fifth most important immigrant gateway city, according to data gathered by Global Cleveland. At that time, the city’s population was at its highest level ever (around 800,000 citizens) with almost 33 percent being foreign-born.

Over 100 years later, immigrants continue to be a vital part of Cleveland’s population. Though only 5.9 percent of the current metro population, immigrants make up 30 percent of the region’s doctors, 20 percent of STEM workers, and 10 percent of home and health aides—adding invaluable contributions to Cleveland’s stellar reputation in the medical and healthcare fields. Additionally, in 2016, the area's refugees were credited with a total economic impact of $88 million.

This significant impact is felt not only in Cleveland’s economy and vibrancy, but also celebrated in the city’s cultural offerings—from events like the Cleveland Asian Festival to institutions like the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and Ukranian Museum-Archives

Take a visual journey through the great work of five organizations highlighting Cleveland’s immigrants with grants from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.

Thyagaraja Festival

What has become the largest and most notable South Indian classical arts festival outside of India started in 1978 as a three-act concert in the basement of a rented Richmond Heights church. Today the Thyagaraja Festival features 100-plus performers over 12 days at Cleveland State University every spring, attracting more than 6,000 people to Cleveland from around the world. 

Notable guests have included the Honorable Nirupama Rao, retired Ambassador of India to the United States; Indra Nooyi, former President & CEO of PepsiCo; and the late Siddharth Shankar Ray, Central Minister of India, among others.

Since 2015, the Aradhana Committee—the nonprofit that conducts the event—has received $138,529 in project support grants from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture to help make the annual festivities a success.


The seeds for the Thyagaraja Festival were planted in the early 1970s with a group of Indian immigrants and their families who lived in Cleveland. When Ramnad Raghavan—a noted mridangam percussionist—moved to the city in 1977, he sought to strengthen their ties through Indian music and offered to train the group to sing the works of famed Indian composer Tyagaraja.

At his suggestion, several members of the group mobilized to form the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival in 1978. Forty-one years later, the event continues to be organized by members from two generations of these original families, as well as a core group of volunteers.

Miss Puerto Rico Image


With almost 74 percent of Cleveland’s Hispanic population hailing from Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans have played a pivotal role in shaping Cleveland’s Hispanic heritage. The Miss Puerto Rico Image program—run by Julia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center in collaboration with Project Model Institute LLC—paves the way for future generations to continue to do so.

Geared at girls ages 13 through 17, the mentoring program entails a five-month course aimed at helping them develop confidence and realize their potential. Topics range from community service to etiquette to public speaking to modeling, and participants receive the chance to put their new skills into practice at various cultural and community events. Participants also connect to their roots by conducting in-depth research on various regions of Puerto Rico.

La Noche Final (“Final Night”) is the festive culmination of the Miss Puerto Rico Image program and acts as a showcase for participants to highlight their progress and achievements.

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture helps make the programming at Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center possible, having granted $132,997 in project support since 2015.


Western Reserve Historical Society


The Western Reserve Historical Society archives are like a wonderland for history buffs—who will soon be able to dig even deeper, thanks to WHRS’ collaboration with the Smithsonian to increase digital access to museum collections. According to marketing manager Katie Kukwa, one of the current areas of focus is empowering local teachers to integrate the institution’s Asian Pacific American resources into their lesson plans.

Among the many artifacts in these archives is a photo of Matsujiro and Hiro Sasaki (pictured above), two Japanese immigrants who were held with their three sons at the Manzanar internment camp during World War II. On October 15, 1945, the family took a Southern Pacific train to Cleveland via Chicago, where they forged a happier life. Their son, Saburo, and his wife, Ann, received an Enduring Service Award in 2016 for their 3,000 hours of volunteer work educating others about Manzanar.

As Cleveland’s oldest existing cultural institution, WRHS conducts its efforts in part with general operating support from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (totaling just over $3.2 million since 2008).

Stars in the Classics


From classical cabaret events to salons held in Shaker Heights mansions, M.U.S.i.C. is known for its intimate performances showcasing emerging musicians from around the world—and creating new chamber music fans along the way.

Since its founding in 2007, the nonprofit has hosted more than 100 events, with around eight chamber music concert experiences per year. The shows take place with support from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, which has awarded M.U.S.i.C. $24,759 in project support since 2012.

Held at Orange Village Hall, July’s “Classical Cabaret 2.0” musical salon featured classical music from Eastern Europe, Spain, and Italy, as well as the United States. A special focus was placed on migratory musicians and composers who moved between geographic areas or reached across cultural lines, “finding musical homes away from ancestral homelands.”

Fittingly, M.U.S.i.C.’s performers hail from all over the world, having come to Cleveland to study. Artistic director Jodi Kanter helps them obtain visas—and, for some, green cards—by writing letters to immigration, employing them with the organization, and commissioning students and graduates to compose new works.

Several performers from the July show embody this diverse ethnic makeup, such as Maria Park (pictured below far left), a violinist from Korea studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Victor Beyens (pictured below second from left), a violinist from France whose family immigrated to Cleveland. Pianist Alexander Kostritsa (pictured above) is originally from Moscow and now calls Cleveland home after obtaining his green card.


Negative Space

With his Negative Space gallery, Gadi Zamir isn’t just a champion for local artists, but also Northeast Ohio’s immigrant population. Having moved to Cleveland from Israel 20 years ago, Zamir understands the immigrant experience well—and he gave it voice through the “Art is My Refuge” program, which was designed to nurture and promote minority and refugee artists in the region. (The program received a project support grant from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.)

Participating artists’ works were showcased at Cleveland Public Library (CPL), Ingenuity Fest, and Brite Winter. The first artist to take part was Nahid Sadrian (pictured below at the CPL “Convergence” exhibit), a painter who was born in Iran and now lives in Northeast Ohio.


Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. Along with her work at FreshWater, she is the editor-of-chief of Edible Cleveland and a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes for Creative Groove, Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.