Arts Prizes and Arts Departures

No matter how much we would like the value of the arts to be readily acknowledged and supported by the public, the reality is that art is not universally embraced as an intrinsic human value. 

Art needs champions. 

We need these champions at every level of our civic, social, political, economic and cultural society.  The surprise announcement that Timothy Rub is leaving Cleveland and our art museum after just three short years creates a sense of loss of championship for the arts – not just a loss of leadership for the museum.  

A few weeks ago ideastream broadcast a panel on arts education held as part of Cleveland State University’s annual Arts Education Day.  During Q&A I asked a question, meant to be provocative, about where arts leadership should come from – should President Obama have a seat in his Cabinet for Culture, for example? 

Director Rub dismissed the question, citing a fear of art being politicized, and no one else on the panel wanted to comment.  But in a private sidebar following the panel, Mr. Rub stressed to me how much leadership was needed and how it was most effective at the local level, where the arts can touch the whole community.  I agree, wholeheartedly, and regretted not having that conversation held publicly. 

So where does/should leadership come from locally? 

Some will say the foundations and the rich arts patrons (a dangerous statement, sequestering the arts in the pigeonhole of elitism).  Some will say from the leaders of our arts institutions – which generally means only the biggest institutions.  Even this is a somewhat self-serving cohort. 

Mr. Rub’s abrupt leave-taking does create the sense that there is now a gap in the leadership structure for the arts here.  But there is more to leadership in the arts than what our major institutions bring to the table.  I want to note three events that took place just in the last two weeks that demonstrate the real depth and breadth of championship for art here – at both the grass-roots and grass-tops levels.

First, the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture held Cleveland’s first ever awards ceremony for individual artists – handing out $20,000 Creative Workforce Fellowships to 20 local individual visual artists.  Some were very young artists just starting out and others were well along into established careers.  In comments following the ceremony these on-the-ground arts workers championed Cleveland as a supportive environment for their work and their ability to make a life here.  

Second, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, our county public funding organization, held its first annual meeting and published its first annual report.  At the meeting the parade of individuals recognized as champions for the arts spanned the spectrum of Cleveland society: business men and volunteer board members of arts organizations, religious leaders and political figures, staff of local foundations, policy strategists, and ordinary citizens.

Finally, last week, the Cleveland Arts Prize held its 49th event at the gloriously restored Hanna Theater.  The Arts Prize honored 10 individuals – either for their talent or for their extraordinary contributions to the arts.  A young artist, recently graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a nonagenarian graphic designer and community activist took their places alongside an internationally acclaimed novelist from India who now calls Cleveland home and the Chairman of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  A jazz musician and a passionate advocate of children’s theater and four others received the recognition and gratitude of the capacity crowd.

These events show that Cleveland has many local champions and leaders in the arts.  May it always be so, and may their number and diversity continue to grow.  The future of the arts here will depend on it.