More confusion at the CAC Board of Trustees regular meeting

by Bruce Checefsky

     Chaos and confusion returned to the February meeting of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC), as the Board of Trustees continued to butt heads and publicly criticize each other. The five-member board consists of Charna Sherman, Michele Scott Taylor, Nancy Mendez, Karolyn Isenhart, and Jenita McGowan. They meet regularly to discuss budgeting and grants. McGowan missed her second consecutive meeting. Taylor and McGowan have terms set to expire on March 31, 2023.

     Following a delay in approving minutes of the December 14, 2022, regular meeting, Sherman, former board president, asked for a remedy on several items that were, in her opinion, recorded inaccurately, including the approval of grants. A debate took place over the language used to describe her request. At the center of the controversy were the discrepancies in commitment and expenditure in 2019, 2020, and 2021. She asked the board to roll over the remaining individual artists’ funds from 2022, which were not spent, to Assembly For The Arts, increasing their 2023 funds for distribution from $140,000 to $280,000.

     CAC does not provide grants directly to individual artists but uses three non-profits as distributors. They are SPACES, Karamu House, and Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center. Assembly For The Arts is the fourth organization selected to distribute funds directly to artists starting in 2023. The public has been critical of a lack of involvement on the part of CAC to involve more community partners in soliciting proposals.

     Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director of Cleveland Public Theater (CPT), said the process is confusing and unbalanced. CAC invited them to apply for artist support funding in 2019, which they received in 2020. A year later, they told him the program had ended. CPT did not get invited back.

     “I only learned recently that the program had not ended and that three organizations still receive funding,” he said. “We were never invited to apply again or told why.”

Bobgan appreciates the work done by CAC in supporting the arts, but communication has been missing, causing even more confusion.

     Commenting on the CAC Board of Trustees meeting and how grants are distributed, Bobgan said, “A small group of people not practicing arts administration at every day, on the ground, is one step removed from the process. No matter how wise and perceptive they may be, they are not in the position to see the biggest impact. We should be handling [these issues] as a community rather than hashing out grievances in a board meeting. Together, we can develop something that has a massive impact on our community.”

     Thirty minutes later, Mendez, Taylor, and Sherman were talking over each other, making it difficult to hear them. A loud ventilation system in the background of the conference room added to the din. Meg Harris, Director of Administration, stood up in frustration, visibly shaken, and said it was hard to keep track of meeting minutes and provide financial data with the confusion. Mendez told her to sit down.

     “You are out of order,” scolded Mendez. “Calm down.”

     During the finance report, Sherman objected to the increase in money CAC will reserve for 2027, when the levy expires, from $4.8M to $7.4M. Operating expenses expect to reach $450,000. She supports spending the money now, while still available, by giving organizations more financial assistance rather than later.

     “Why not allow grantees to reap the monies now?” she asked.

     Sherman then advocated for a public forum where residents of Cuyahoga County could discuss how to spend the funds. Paulsen, executive director of CAC, and Mendez rejected her idea, saying CAC solicits a response from the organizations they currently fund. A disagreement broke out.

     Anastasia Pantsios, writer/photographer and contributor to CoolCleveland, was at the meeting. She was surprised by the bickering and lack of civility among board members and was bothered by the head-butting, which does little to benefit the artists.

     “I was concerned about the contentiousness among board members,” said Pantsios. “Artists and creators should benefit the most. If CAC fails to show respect for the creative people, mobilizing an army of artists to help pass the levy will be difficult.”

     In Philadelphia, Art Works is a $3-million grant program for community-based organizations and emerging artists that support the arts, culture, and creativity of those working with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color) individuals and under-served communities. Four Philadelphia-based artists are selected annually to receive two-year grants of $25,000 per year. Community-based organizations receive awards from $50,000-$150,000 annually for any aspect of their mission. The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council uses performance metrics to measure its successes and create an environment and opportunities supportive of artists. Advisory boards made up of artists are common to many funding organizations, an idea the Support for Artists Planning Team made in 2017 to CAC. It was never adopted.

     Jeremy Johnson, President and CEO of Assembly for the Arts, reported that SB 164 was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in December, opening the way for new legislation to provide public funding of the arts.

     Ohio Senate Bill 164 authorizes Cuyahoga County to convert its existing cigarette tax to a wholesale tax and levy a new wholesale tax on vapor products. The proposed Cuyahoga County levy will ask voters to approve a 9% tax on the wholesale price of cigarettes and vapor products. The change could last for up to 10 years.

     Johnson said it was too early to predict when in the election cycle it might appear.

     “This is the first major step in expanding the pie,” he said. “A lot has to happen. We need to mobilize people as soon as we can.”

     The legislature was able to pass this tax authorization by including in Senate Bill 164 increased penalties for those convicted of cruelty to or killing companion animals. The bill bans gas chambers to euthanize companion animals in Ohio’s animal shelters.

     Mike Caputo, president of Cypress, represented the entities on the cruelty to, or killing companion animals bill. Brian Durdle, Managing Partner, The Credo Company, handled wholesale tax on vapor products.

     A lobbyist close to SB 164, who wished to remain anonymous, said attaching an unpopular tax levy with a bill more palpable to the public is a typical strategy in getting it passed and signed.

     “Pets and babies,” he said. “No one votes against them.”

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