In his own words: Democracy is stronger with the arts

Jeremy V. Johnson is CEO and President of Assembly for the Arts, a new nonprofit collaborative arts alliance, formed between Cuyahoga Arts & CultureArts Cleveland, and the Arts and Culture Action Committee that will focus on an ambitious advocacy and cultural policy agenda and racial equity initiatives. In this essay, Johnson pleads his case to the candidates for more attention to the arts in Cleveland.

Jeremy V. Johnson, CEO and President of Assembly for the ArtsOur right to vote is one of the greatest rights we have as Americans. This right empowers us to influence change and play a role in how our communities will look for years to come.

Cleveland is at an exciting crossroads: Voters will soon elect a new mayor for the first time in 16 years. Two finalists—nonprofit executive Justin Bibb and Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley—are touting ambitious plans, each one vying to change the city for the better.

As the President and CEO of Assembly for the Arts I believe it’s integral to ask mayoral candidates a singular question: How do the arts factor into your plan?

With a common goal to elevate Cleveland as a city, we need a clear perspective from both candidates on their vision to do so. How will they engage artists and make Cleveland the next great American city, revive its economy, and prepare the city for future generations?

The arts are central to this progress. At the forefront of voters’ minds are critical issues: Safety, services, jobs, and education. And justice. I implore voters to probe our leaders about the arts, which can be a powerful catalyst for these issues. The arts mean more to Cleveland’s economy and future than many people realize. In truth, our democracy is stronger with the arts.

We’ve already made headway. Prior to the pandemic, Cleveland was ranked in the top 20 of arts vibrant cities by National Center for Arts Research. Earlier this year, the nationwide website ranked Cleveland #11 among “Best Cities for Artists.” But we can and must do more to continue to foster an environment that elevates the connection to artists, communities, and progress.

Mayoral candidates should understand how the creative economy boosts travel and tourism to our area, raises our national prominence, and improves the quality of our communities. The arts account for $9.1 billion in economic impact in greater Cleveland, including 62,500 jobs and $3.3 billion in labor income.

The arts figure into our health and the quality of life. Research has continually shown the benefits of arts and culture practice in patient and caregiver support, public health outreach and community wellbeing.

Bolstering the cause of justice and democracy, the creative sector is a catalyst for Cleveland's solutions to bridge economic and racial divides.

In his poem “Democracy,” Langston Hughes, the famous African American poet and native Clevelander, wrote “I have as much right / As the other fellow has / To stand / On my two feet / And own the land.”

In the spirit of Hughes, let us claim “The Land”— Cleveland embracing democracy via the power of the arts.

Our next mayor can make a firm difference by ensuring the arts have a central place in their administration. We applaud the candidates for pledging to create a cabinet level position committed to the arts, dedicate a budget line arts support, and develop a cultural plan that benefits the whole city. The creative community stands ready to work alongside the next mayor in achieving these goals. Our democracy depends on it.

It is the role of Assembly for the Arts to convene, coordinate and collaborate to strengthen and support local creators, presenters, and artists. We strive to ensure that everyone who lives and works in Greater Cleveland benefits from a diverse and equitable arts and cultural sector, and recognizes that the arts are an essential, defining element in the quality of life and economic vitality of the region.

While Assembly does not endorse any one candidate in the Cleveland mayoral race, we emphasize that voters remember this: democracy is stronger with the arts.

Assembly for the Arts will be sponsoring the City Club and ideastream Mayoral Debate on Monday, Oct. 11, between candidates  Justin M. Bibb, nonprofit executive, and Kevin J. Kelley, President of Cleveland City Council. The debate will feature the voices of Clevelanders on the issues that matter in their neighborhoods and communities. Assembly for the Arts and with CAN Journal will also sponsor The Arts Vote forum on Monday, Oct. 18.

Since its founding, on June 15, Assembly for the Arts has conducted research to gain insight into the Greater Cleveland arts sector so it can serve artists, business professionals, and non-profits better by growing the pie of resources and improving equity. Visit Assembly for the Arts If you are interested in learning more about the work completed so far or the activities planned for the future.