Cuyahoga Arts & Culture's new Learning Lab primes civic-minded artists for impactful projects

Few things give a neighborhood a boost of pride and sense of place like a work of public art. Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) wants to help make the connection between civic-minded artists and Cuyahoga County-based nonprofit organizations seeking a collaborative way to solve problems and benefit the community.

While projects like the Intergenerational Playscape at St. Luke’s, the recent launch of Inner City Hues, or the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s green infrastructure project are all examples of artists working with nonprofit civic organizations for placemaking and beautification endeavors, not every artist knows how to get involved with such work.

Enter the Learning Lab—a professional development program designed to train artists in civic, social, public, and placemaking practices. In creating the Learning Lab workshop series, CAC announced this week that it has partnered with the Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP), a national organization that unites artists and communities in common civic efforts.

“Many artists in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are already sparking conversations and dialogue, helping people reimagine physical/community spaces, or collaborating with non-arts partners to drive change/solutions,” says Jacob Sinatra, CAC's special projects and communications manager. “We think this CPCP Learning Lab is a natural fit to provide additional funding and support to artists who want to take the same tools they use to create their art and apply them to drive change at various levels—in neighborhoods, communities, and elsewhere.”

A look at the Lab

Twelve artists from Cuyahoga County will be chosen to participate in CPCP’s Learning Lab, which begins in November. The artists will then attend three daylong training sessions, followed by the opportunity to partner with a participating local nonprofit to develop a collaborative civic practice project.

CAC will cover the costs of the Learning Lab, as well as offer a $500 stipend to each artist. The artists will not only learn about developing community partnerships, but also how to use their talents for social and civic missions to effect change.

A Learning Lab workshop in NashvilleAs many as 12 Cuyahoga County-based nonprofits with a focus on community development will participate in trainings and sessions alongside the selected artists. A cohort of local mentor arts organizations will bring additional local expertise and provide thought partnership for participating artists and partners.

Furthermore, the program will eventually connect interested artists who participate in the first part of the program to local nonprofit partners and provide up to $7,500 in funding to explore and implement collaborative, project-based work. Projects must take place between March and November 2019.

“With CAC’s lens of community/public benefit, we’re striving with this partnership to create more opportunities for artists to be supported in doing work that in turn connects with residents and ultimately strengthens our community,” says Sinatra.

By partnering with CPCP, CAC hopes to attract a new group of artists, in all disciplines, to civic practices. Sinatra says a strong partnership has already been established between the CAC and CPCP, having worked with CPCP since 2014 and consulting with the organization on its listening mission when CAC embarked on its second decade.

“This isn’t a new group to us,” he says. “We’ve talked about bringing Learning Labs to Cleveland for a couple of years now. This is something we’ve heard from artists—they want to know how to work better with community partner organizations.”

The launch of Learning Lab is also an extension of CAC’s commitment to listen to Cuyahoga County residents and artists. “Artists need different things, and we’re trying to be responsive to more of them than ever before,” says Jill Paulsen, CAC's interim CEO and executive director. “Our artist planning team did months of research and outreach last year, and artists told us they need help with project-based funding, unrestricted funding, professional development support, access to physical space, and connections to institutions and organizations. This program fulfills a lot of those requests.”

Following Nashville’s blueprint

Most recently, CPCP came to Cleveland in January when Sojourn Theatre (founded by CPCP leader Michael Rohd) performed “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes” in collaboration with Cleveland Public Theatre and United Way. Part play, part town hall meeting, the performance explores the complex subject of poverty through the eyes of art. Audience members are then charged with deciding how to donate $1,000 of ticket proceeds.

Sojourn's "How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes"“The whole show is based on how the audience makes that decision,” explains Rebecca Martinez, CPCP program manager and Sojourn ensemble member. “We were able to give $6,000 away [during the six-day run].”

Learning Lab first launched in Nashville in 2016 as a collaboration between CPCP, Metro Nashville Arts Commission, and the Arts and Business Council of Greater Nashville, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Now in its second year, the program has produced projects such as “Nashville’s Kurdish Gardens,” for which the artist partnered with a Kurdish ethnobotanist to create a booklet of Kurdish medicinal plants, planting guide, and recipes. The artist then placed planters made with Kurdish textiles around the city. “It provided a cultural and strategic understanding of the Kurdish community in Nashville,” Martinez explains.

Another artist created coloring books featuring influential African-Americans in Nashville history, while two more artists are working with Nashville’s health department.

"We are excited to bring CPCP's successful Learning Lab program to Cuyahoga County,” says Paulsen. “It’s unique and something we think Cuyahoga County artists will benefit from.”

But not every artist who goes through Learning Lab will end up immediately working with a community group, or even on a civic project, clarifies Martinez. Some participants will simply take what they learn and file it away for later implementation.

“What makes Learning Lab unique is that it both provides learning opportunities for artists and community and municipal organizations to partner, as well as providing the opportunity to access funding for further relationship-building and collaborative, arts-based projects,” she shares.

Ready for launch

Artists in all areas of practice are invited to apply for Learning Lab. CAC encourages applicants who have been historically marginalized or underrepresented to apply, and funding will be prioritized to artists whose creative expression is rooted in marginalized or underrepresented communities.

Paulsen sees the possibilities as endless. “Any project where a local artist is supported to use their artmaking and creative skills to improve their community and connect with residents would be a success,” she says. “The wonderful thing about our broad definition of arts and culture is that there is no limit to the creative and innovative ideas our artists and their partners can dream up. We hope that they’ll be better equipped after the Lab to take action.”

To qualify for the Learning Lab, applicants must be at least 18 years old, live in Cuyahoga County, be actively pursuing an arts career, and not enrolled in a full-time degree program for an arts degree. The application deadline is midnight on Monday, October 22. Artists will be selected by November 19.

There will be an information workshop for all artists interested in learning more about Learning Lab on Thursday, October 11, at 10 a.m. at Trinity Commons (2333 Prospect Ave. E., Cleveland).

Selected program participants will take part in three workshops held in November, December, and January. The first workshop will be an introduction to the studio, social, and civic practice spectrum; the second workshop will cover rigorous engagement practice; and the final workshop will cover partnership practice, including deep listening, codesign, and case study learning.

"CPCP recognizes artists are creative problem-solvers who can use their skills to make a difference," says Paulsen. "We believe that the Learning Lab will spur creative solutions to important community challenges and give a new opportunity for artists to shine."

Participating artists are required to attend all three workshops and will also need to be available for phone and in-person coaching sessions and meetings with their community partners between January and June 2019. For more information, contact Sinatra, or click here to learn more about the upcoming information session.

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.