by Karen Gahl-Mills
This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement, and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)
I had an interesting conversation with a smart colleague today, on the topic of the role of cultural organizations in civic affairs. We were talking about the current, polarized state of public discourse and what role, if any, arts organizations should play by bringing residents together to celebrate differences and share views. He asked something simple yet profound – “Yeah, but what if I just want to run my ballet company and dance? Can’t I just do that?”
His question stuck with me, as it gets to the crux of our agency’s approach to grantmaking and why we think we, as public funders, have the responsibility to address topics of public value and community engagement.
Our agency, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, is the public agency established to invest dedicated public funds in arts and cultural activities that help inspire and strengthen our community, which includes the City of Cleveland and its surrounding 58 suburbs. We annually invest over $15 million in grants to over 200 organizations every year, organizations large and small doing work all across a broad cultural spectrum.
We are primarily a grantmaking institution, and all grants from CAC have to conform to three basic criteria: partner organizations (we don’t call them grantees) need to demonstrate strong commitment to providing value to the public, to engaging qualified arts and cultural professionals to do their work, and to building and maintaining the organizational capacity necessary to carry out their plans.
Note that first criteria: providing value to the public. Why do we care about engaging the public with arts and culture? Actually, it’s pretty simple. We operate with the public’s money. And so we care about how the public gets to benefit from its investment.
Going back to my colleague’s question, then: I submit that, if you are a ballet company who is completely privately funded, you can do what you want. (If you are a 501c3 nonprofit, of course, you do have an obligation to work in the interest of the public, so bear that in mind.)
But if your ballet company accepts public money – then, no. You can’t just do what you want. You must accept the responsibility that comes with taking public funds and aim to engage the public that provides the funds. Public funds are different, and that’s why the questions that we ask and the criteria against which we judge grant applications are different, too.
We want organizations to think about the relationship that they have with the community because they are beneficiaries of community resources. We infuse this community engagement spirit throughout all of our grantmaking because we believe that true community engagement is about building a long-term relationship with your community. Like development/fundraising work, this is relationship-based work not limited to the kinds of terrific community programs that organizations take on every day. Engagement requires a relationship, which takes time to nurture and mature.
Recently, our approach was put to the test, as voters in our County were asked to reauthorize our tax levy for another ten years. I am pleased to report that we were successful, and you can read more about our efforts here.
We believe that our approach helped to create the conditions that made such a resounding success possible. By supporting a diverse group of organizations working throughout the County – by encouraging those organizations to connect with their communities in meaningful ways – by building relationships with stakeholders in each of our County’s 59 communities – by collecting and disseminating good data about the arts and cultural sector – and by continually living our values around transparency, accountability, and stewardship of public resources, we delivered on the promises made in the last campaign and gave the public confidence that this is a good public investment, an investment that touches the lives of all County residents.
So where do we go from here? With another ten years in front of us, we are planning for our future by looking for answers to this question: how can CAC best support the cultural life of our County’s residents, both today and in the future? We have two important stakeholder groups: the organizations that receive grants from us, and the residents of our community. We are embarking on a comprehensive – and ambitious – community listening project designed to allow us to engage both of those stakeholder groups. We need to listen and engage the same way that we are asking cultural organizations to listen and engage, and we are eager to hear from our community and imagine new possibilities informed by their input.
Engagement like this is long, slow work. It will also become more of our day-to-day work once this initial burst of listening and learning is complete. But, just as for our cultural partners, we know that our work will be enhanced and improved by what we hear, and we look forward to sharing our learning with the greater community in the coming months.
Karen Gahl-Mills is the CEO + executive director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the local public funder of arts and culture activities in Cleveland, Ohio. Since 2007, CAC has invested more than $140 million into over 300 organizations who serve millions of area residents. A former orchestra manager turned grantmaker and teacher, she has worked passionately throughout her 25-year career to connect the talents of arts and culture organizations with the needs of the community. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree from DePaul University and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business; and she still makes music, singing regularly in the community choir at Oberlin College.