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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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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."

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