Big Job Ahead for Cleveland’s Newest Arts Leader

Last week a number of arts community members gathered to welcome Karen Gahl-Mills, the newly named executive director of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC) – our county funding agency for the arts.  And for once we didn’t have to warn an incoming executive to prepare for the Cleveland winter.  Ms. Gahl-Mills spent a bit of her teen years here and she currently is the director of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra – in a town that understands a Great Lakes winter better than we do.  She will begin her official duties February 1, 2010.

Thomas Mulready’s introductory video interview with her will give you a sense of her enthusiasm and readiness for the job.

Ms Gahl-Mills has an impressive background, with the range of experience that will serve her well in understanding the diversity of cultural activities here.  And her background – in nonprofit management as an arts executive, as a practicing artist herself (cello and voice), and her for-profit work in film and television will give the arts community some comfort that she understands where they are coming from.

Although it seems that the funding from the Issue 18 cigarette tax has just begun – the artist fellowship grants have not yet all been awarded – the renewal of that tax is already on the minds of the arts community.  2016 is not that far off in terms of gearing up for a campaign.  Although the operating support grant cycle is just beginning to enter its second round, the arts have already begun to depend on these funds.

A week ago the Ohio Arts Council came to town on a ‘listening tour’ to meet with various segments of the cultural community and the public, to help inform a new strategic plan for this agency.  The OAC lost nearly 50% of its funding since the start of the decade – from a high of $32 million for the 2000-01 biennium, to $13 million currently. 

Once one of the most generous of state agencies, the OAC has seen its predominance in the field diminish significantly.  Cleveland’s organizations, as well as those across the state, have seen their funding cut three times in just the current allocation – and this, after grants were already awarded and the costs they support already incurred.  Few for-profit enterprises could continue to succeed with a business model this capricious. 

See my blogs of June 30, May 1 and February 3 this year for related comments.

So thank the gods of culture for CAC and the wisdom of the voters of Cuyahoga County.  Issue 18 has put Cleveland at the forefront of local communities in the U. S. that pro-actively support the arts; we are fifth in the level of local public support nationally.  But that does not change the fact that the arts world itself has been permanently altered in recent years.  Last week I discussed how we have seen the end of an unprecedented era of growth in traditional and historical aspects of arts and culture.  But the world shrinks daily and younger generations have very different views of what constitutes art and culture.  Things will never be the same and there is no going back.  If we are to see Cleveland’s cultural community thrive in the coming decades, it must re-invent itself in light of a permanently changed financial environment and a new global and demographic cultural reality.

So, welcome to Cleveland, Karen, and every best wish as you join in the conversation about how the arts will continue to stand as a critical pillar of Cleveland’s economy, its place as a center of creativity and as a re-invented, but still signature element in the region’s quality of life.