Ohio’s Cuyahoga County voters approved a cigarette tax to fund artists. So the question was how to allocate those funds. The country’s arts commission decided that the program would
emphasize community engagement over studio practice. Originally, the proposal was to have a Washington DC-based nonprofit organization replace the Cleveland-based group that had administered the individual artist grant program since its inception in 2008.
But artists got upset that criteria emphasized change over artistic merit.
Artists who work at making art in their studios and exhibiting it in galleries—as opposed to creating community engagement programs, seeking partners, and other social practices—feel like that kind of guideline writes them out. It pits one type of artist against another. And it feels not like public support, but like government direction.
The protests led to a community meeting at which there seemed to be broad agreement that the arts should advance racial equity and be a force for reflecting and improving the community. But where does the quality of art factor in, and who defines it? With voter-approved money on the table and a need to show that the money is being spent effectively, agreeing on how that happens is both a practical question but also a philosophical debate about the role of art and artists in their community.