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What Your Butts Buy

How we spend one of the nation's biggest pots of public arts money

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The cheery green and blue logo proclaiming the support of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture is ubiquitous. It's tucked onto a corner of every announcement put forth by the art museum and the orchestra and Playhouse Square. It pops up on most every community theater program and flier for neighborhood music or arts events. Occasionally, it signals money given to a more unlikely venue — maybe a nature center, or historical society, or ethnic museum.

Though the logo is seen nearly everywhere, most county residents know nothing about Cuyahoga Arts and Culture or what it does. A recent online discussion bemoaning Governor John Kasich's proposal to hack state arts funding another 20 percent is illustrative; one poster asked whether people can donate to Cuyahoga Arts and Culture in order to pick up the slack.

The short answer: Only if you smoke.

Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC) doesn't take donations. It has no state funding to cut. The organization may suffer from the most unobtrusive PR campaign ever, but it doesn't suffer a lack of cash. In fact, it has heaps.

"In terms of public spending on the arts, we're the biggest game in town," says executive director Karen Gahl-Mills. And she's being far too modest. CAC is one of the biggest games in the country. Since launching in 2007, it has pumped $65 million into arts programs throughout the county.

"If Cuyahoga County were a state, it would be third in arts spending," says Jonah Weinberg, the group's director of external affairs. Only New York and Minnesota spend more.

Groups having anything to do with arts in the region praise CAC's commitment to transparency in its accounting and laud its thriftiness: administrative costs account for only 4 percent of its budget. If Cuyahoga Arts and Culture fails at anything at all, it is in reminding voters that when they see that logo, the 30-cents-a-pack cigarette tax is being put to use.

Where the Money Goes

Though Cuyahoga's cig tax has been in effect for only four years, its origins date back another decade. In 1998, county arts and culture leaders banded together to promote a cigarette tax that would enhance area offerings. The Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC) spearheaded the campaign, and by 2004, the county commissioners issued guidelines on how grant money would be portioned out should the levy pass. Despite very active opposition from the tobacco industry as well as lobbyists for stores that sell cigarettes, Issue 18 passed with 54 percent of the vote.

The commissioners then formed CAC to administer and distribute the $16 to $20 million a year the tax has raked in. A staff of six handles the grant applications, outreach and marketing, all the paperwork — and of course, sends out the checks. Five county-appointed trustees review each application only after considering the recommendations of a panel of out-of-state, unbiased art and cultural experts.

About 150 nonprofit arts organizations and events are given between $500 and $1.7 million each. This year, CAC is backing everything from Bedford's Weekend of the Pooka (which received $559 — presumably the panel knew what a pooka is) to free Sunday concerts and children's programs at Lakewood Library ($2,500) and Trinity Cathedral's Brown Bag Concerts ($15,000). At the high-rent end of the spectrum: Cleveland's International Film Festival received $126,000, the art museum $1.6 million.

If you've ever wondered how that sculptor next door makes ends meet, CAC might be giving him a hand too. In what Gahl-Mills calls one of the "shining lights" of CAC funding, $400,000 worth of smokers' dollars are doled out to individual artists every year through CPAC. About 200 apply, and 20 are chosen to receive $20,000 each. As with all other grants, these Creative Workforce Fellowship applicants are reviewed by a panel of out-of-state experts who evaluate the worthiness of their work.

No Questions Asked

The bulk of the tax money is divvied up into the general operating budgets of nonprofit arts organizations to keep them afloat or to enable expanded programs. These operating grants were designed in 2004 to be unrestricted, giving eligible groups free rein over what they do with the money.

Playhouse Square received $1.7 million from CAC to help close this year's budget gap, but the group cannot delineate exactly where those dollars go, says Colleen Porter, Playhouse Square's director of community engagement and education. Does the money keep the lights on in rehearsal space that area performers can use for free? Does it help offset ticket prices? Fund a specific children's program? To CAC it doesn't matter, and to Playhouse Square it's all good.

"It helps to create an inspired citizenry," Porter says of the increased programs and activities the money supports. "Even if someone doesn't smoke, or take advantage of the arts, they have to know a neighbor or someone who does."

The Cleveland Botanical Garden received $400,000 in cigarette tax money this year, which makes up more than 6 percent of its annual budget. "It's a big deal to us," says Executive Director Natalie Ronayne.

"We don't specify if the money is going directly to community programs, to outreach, or education. But if that money was not there, something would not get done," she says. "I wouldn't know what that would be — if the frequency of a program would be cut, if an entire program would go away. It would hurt, I can tell you that."

Cigarette money also keeps the wheels turning for considerably smaller operations. The Cleveland TOPS swing band receives $17,000 — about one-third of its total budget — each year to take its performances to area seniors. Musical director Dick Wooley says the grant is spent on everything from paying musicians when the group performs for free, to equipment and home printing and computer costs, to, ironically, paying a grant writer to help secure more funding.

Individual artists, like groups, are not obligated to itemize how their grant money is used. "It's designed as a research and development fund for artists to use to advance their careers," says Tom Schorgl, president of CPAC. There are some restrictions: For example, artists cannot donate the money to a cause or use it to support a political agenda.

Choreographer Mikaela Clark used the money to take an art-therapy performance to children in Asia, and to pay the dancers, costumers, and set designers working on a related show that opens at Cleveland Public Theatre next month.

Graphic novelist Nikki Smith will use some of the money for living expenses while she works on the project that won her the grant. A digital comic series she started earlier is selling, she says, "but it's not a living wage."

Measurable Benefits

Because there are no restrictions on how the cigarette money is used, measuring its impact can be a challenge. But CAC has started compiling data. "We now have two full years of data collected from our grantee partners, and they demonstrate that this public investment in our arts and culture sector is making an important difference," says Gahl-Mills.

The first two years in which grants were available — 2008 and 2009 — marked the height of the recession. Nonetheless, activities offered countywide by arts organizations receiving general operating money during that time swelled from just over 19,000 in 2007 to almost 24,000 in 2009, an increase of 25 percent.

The number of classes and workshops offered shot up by more than 75 percent, with 1,600 programs added between 2007 and 2009.

The number of county residents attending free events climbed by about 10 percent.

Ticket prices didn't jump as much as those in other cities, and the tuition cost for children's workshops and classes even dropped slightly.

Notably, the number of full- and part-time employees at CAC-funded organizations held steady through the recession at about 5,000 primarily skilled jobs. The amount paid out in salaries during that period rose from $100 million to $108.7 million. Despite the economic turmoil, these workers got raises.

Playhouse Square's Porter says its CAC grant directly benefits its 135 full-time and more than 200 part-time workers. "We are a major employer here, and operating dollars keep people employed," she says. "When we offer a free program, we still need to pay staff to be there."

No Planning for Tomorrow

Part of CAC's challenge is in spreading the unprecedented number of dollars into every deserving corner of Cuyahoga County.

"How do we talk to the Cleveland Orchestra, but also to the program in the basement of a church in Central?" asks CAC trustee Vickie Eaton Johnson.

It's a tall order indeed, although common sense says that groups should be chasing CAC for a piece of the plentiful pie. Because groups in many communities seem unaware of the grants available, CAC is starting to hit on low-cost ways to get the word out.

At the beginning of the year, the group sent letters to the mayors of all 59 cities in the county, asking to meet with them and their city councils in hopes of finding eligible organizations in their neighborhoods. That was four months ago. Only nine cities have taken them up on it so far.

Last month, CAC simplified the application process for groups seeking $5,000 or less to fund single events or projects.

"As a public funder, it's very important that there be accessibility across the board," explains CAC's Weinberg. "Some of these organizations tend to be very small and are volunteer-run. For someone wanting an $800 grant, asking them to do the same amount of paperwork as someone wanting $50,000 is an unnecessary burden."

In a further effort to spread the money around, CAC invited 14 philanthropists and business and community leaders to take part in a behind-the-scenes brainstorming session not open to the public. The February meeting surprised local arts advocates who say it may have been a single misstep in CAC's otherwise impeccable transparency.

"No decisions were made," Johnson says. However, trustees will vote later this year on whether to start funding arts education efforts in schools, branching into economic development, and investing directly in neighborhoods — all ideas that sprang from the think tank. The goal is to ensure that the money makes a lasting impression on arts at the street level, and that could prove to be a challenge down the road.

As rosy as things are now, the pile of money raised by Cuyahoga's cigarette tax dwindles with the region's declining number of smokers. The tax brought in almost $20 million in 2008, not quite $16 million in 2010, and will raise only $10 to $12 million by 2017, according to CAC projections. After that, the tax expires and the funds disappear entirely unless voters approve a renewal levy.

Some question why CAC is obliged to blow through its mountains of cash each year, as opposed to creating an endowment to hold funds that could be distributed during leaner tax times.

"There was interest in doing that, but one of the pushbacks was that voters overall are somewhat skeptical of developing those types of reserves, according to research we did at the time," says Schorgl of CPAC, which led the cigarette tax ballot initiative.

Schorgl and CAC won't worry about the details of a renewal levy until about 2015, when they plan to start ensuring that the county executive agrees to return it to the ballot.

Meanwhile, for those still wanting to donate to CAC, Porter of Playhouse Square offers a suggestion: "If you don't smoke, buy a pack of cigaretes once in a while," she says, "and just throw them away."

Art After Catastrophe

Recipient: Nikki Smith ($20,000)

"I'm interested in how natural disasters can bring people together and tear them apart," says Nikki Smith, a Cleveland Institute of Art grad who hails from Kansas. As a teen, she watched a twister pick up a neighbor's home and drop it on her own. She's been drawn to stories of people in the face of catastrophe ever since.

Fellowship judges were impressed by Smith's initial drawings for Some Did Rest, her forthcoming graphic novel inspired by the 2008 earthquakes in Sichuan, China. While reading about the disaster, Smith was struck by reports of thousands of students dying in shoddily constructed school buildings. Also disturbing: a government declaration suspending the one-child policy to allow parents of the dead or handicapped a "replacement" child.

To ensure that Some Did Rest accurately portrays the devastation and speaks for what she calls an "entire generation of lost children," Smith will use part of the grant to travel to Sichuan. The hardest-hit area remains in ruins. — Joseph Clark

Poets Go National

Recipient: Playhouse Square ($1.5 million)

Although they've practiced all year, Northeast Ohio teens are speaking their stanzas with more urgency. And the stakes are high: Last week, five poets were awarded a July trip to San Francisco, where they will represent Cleveland in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam. Excel there, and they'll be featured on HBO.

Slam U is one of Playhouse Square's lesser known programs: Teen poets mentor newcomers wanting to perfect their written and spoken words. "If they weren't here after school, do you think they would be at home writing?" says Colleen Porter, director of community engagement and education.

More than 40,000 area schoolchildren flow through the theaters each year, and in many cases, Playhouse Square even pays for the buses that deliver them. They come for performances, classes, and backstage activities. Older students serve as ushers, take master classes, and critique Broadway Series shows.

"Even our board members glaze over when I start to list our programs," Porter says. There are 65, and plenty are for grown-ups.

Perhaps most important: CAC funding keeps ticket prices down. A few years ago tickets were up to $22. Now, they average $16, family tickets are $10, and school tickets are $5.

PlayhouseSquare Report to the Community - Corey from PlayhouseSquare on Vimeo.

Year-Round City Farming

Recipient: Cleveland Botanical Garden ($400,000)

If you're looking for a local version of America's most popular condiment, visit Heinen's for a jar of Ripe From Downtown Salsa. City students working for the Cleveland Botanical Garden's Learning Farms are just gearing up for this season's early plantings, but that salsa tells the story of last year's successes.

Six Learning Farms dot formerly vacant lots throughout Cleveland's inner city, employing 90 teens from surrounding schools every year. While they earn their pay, a curriculum tied to the school year has personal nutrition, environmental stewardship, finance, pricing, distribution, and marketing on the agenda.

"They learn more than just how to grow tomatoes — but they certainly learn that too," says Natalie Ronayne, executive director of the Botanical Garden.

About two-thirds of participants stick with the program throughout high school. Beginning this year, the Learning Farms expanded to include cool-weather hoop growing and unpaid community-based positions throughout the summer. And more products are on the way.

Serenading Seniors

Recipient:

Cleveland Tough Old Pros Swing Band ($17,000)

The exhilaration is palpable in Dick Wooley's Westlake dining room. The musical director of the TOPS swing band and his marketing manager, Ron Davis, are talking about how to maximize YouTube and shore up their Facebook presence. It would be an ordinary conversation for most any entrepreneur looking to ensure the long-term success of a six-year-old startup.

But the average age of the TOPS players is 80. Even their roadie is 84.

"We had a 94-year-old trumpet player who just recently had to drop out," Wooley quips with corporate seriousness. "I hope to get him back."

The TOPS number more than 20 lifelong pros, boasting career histories that include everything from the Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra to Vegas show bands and long stints in the pits of Cleveland theaters. Wooley, also a trombone player, happily recalls backing Liberace.

The band's three dozen shows a year revolve mostly around playing for seniors; they derive their passion from nursing home residents who light up at the sound of their music. "It brings them out of the darkness and into the light," says Wooley. "Their feet start moving, and they start singing once you hit something like All of Me."

Therapy works both ways, says Davis, also a TOPS vocalist: "All of us know we are not far from being on the other side and sitting in those wheelchairs."

Dancing Away the Sex Trade

Recipient: Mikaela Clark ($20,000)

The first audience treated to the choreography of Without Words was half a world away from Cleveland Public Theatre, where the show will premiere June 2.

Mikaela Clark and Mackenzie Clevenger created the show as art therapy for children in Thai and Cambodian group homes, taken from desperate parents likely to sell them to sex traffickers.

A fiberglass hoop stretched with vivid green, blue, and violet cloth becomes a tutu and tulips, then rolls like a wheel and ends as a fluffed pillow; it's a celebration of charming silliness and friendly affection. True to their culture, the children initially shied from physical contact, but the performance was a hit. "They were climbing on each other, standing on each other, and all over us," Clark recalls.

"They stared into our eyes and wanted to do everything we did. It was an instant connection," Clevenger says.

Out of that trip they developed a full show designed to raise local consciousness about the sex trade. Without Words is a trek through the inferno of slavery and back up the slopes of hope. Its staged violence, theatrical emoting, dance alternating between individual expressionism and disquieting synchronization, and the haunting strains of a single-amped violin create an overwhelmingly honest experience — and one that's not always suitable for children.

For audience and performers it is morally rewarding, but also undeniably imposing. — Clark

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