Stories of Impact: Assembly for the Arts is unifying and amplifying the voice of Greater Cleveland’s arts and culture sector

Postcards from Assembly for the Arts' "Artists for ARPA" postcard campaign

Launched in the summer of 2021, Assembly for the Arts is a nonprofit organization working to strengthen and support Greater Cleveland’s arts and culture sector with a focus on advocacy, cultural policy, racial equity initiatives, research, marketing that elevates the region, and services for nonprofits, artists, and creative businesses. Sinegugu Gasa, Cleveland Foundation community narrative & engagement fellow, recently spoke with Assembly for the Arts President & CEO Jeremy Johnson about the organization’s work and impact in the community. Read their interview below, which is the latest in our Stories of Impact blog series.  

Jeremy Johnson, President & CEO, Assembly for the Arts

Sinegugu Gasa (SG): Why does Cleveland’s arts and culture sector need an advocacy and cultural policy agent like Assembly for the Arts?

Jeremy Johnson (JJ): Arts and culture is a $9.1 billion industry in Greater Cleveland. It is comprised of many groups, such as independent artists, small businesses, nonprofits, established institutions and many more. The creative sector accounts for a lot of jobs in our region and helps our residents to thrive. Assembly for the Arts exists to organize and unite the various groups represented in the creative industry and advocate for policies that strengthen our rich arts sector. We represent and advocate for all voices in the arts, including groups in marginalized and under-resourced communities. I strongly adhere to the notion that “united we stand, divided we fall.” We will be able to achieve a lot more when we stand together to move the sector forward.

SG: Can you share some initiatives that Assembly for the Arts has been working on since it was established?

JJ: The mission of Assembly for the Arts is to be the unifying voice in the arts. Currently, our work is focused on creating more visibility and securing financial safety nets for those working in the arts. Since Assembly for the Arts was established, we have advocated for the creation of a City Hall office for arts and culture.  We’re excited that Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb is working toward making the office a reality. It will facilitate the inclusion of the creative sector in the agenda at City Hall. We have also worked with City Council and its creation of a committee for health, human services, and the arts. However, this is just beginning. With the creation of these offices, I am hopeful that we will see more reinvestments into our neighborhoods.

Get to know Assembly for the Arts President & CEO Jeremy Johnson

Go-to spot for favorite foods in Cleveland: Le Petite Triangle in Ohio City and UnBar in Larchmere

What makes Cleveland a premier destination for arts and culture: We have the best orchestra in the world and Karamu House theater, where Langston Hughes got his career started.

Preferred art for creative expression and relaxation: I am a music guy, and I love listening to small groups performing live.

Self-care tip for balancing work and life: Spending time with relatives across Ohio, biking the MetroParks, and dog-sitting for friends and family.

Plans for the future: I’m excited to get back out to the live music and arts festivals that are on the horizon for Cleveland this summer and fall.

SG: What have you been hearing and learning from the community about the most urgent needs in arts and culture in Greater Cleveland?

JJ: I met a young artist during a City Council meeting who told me that his livelihood had dried up and he was forced to go on food stamps and move in with his sister due to lack of gig work. Art therapists provide positive educational benefits to students, and they had to stop their work during the pandemic. This is the reality of what is happening to artists. COVID-19 brought the arts economy to a complete halt, and the losses have been devastating. The goal now is to get people back on their feet.

SG: What specific campaigns is Assembly for the Arts currently advocating for?

JJ: Our current advocacy campaign is focused on rescuing the arts and culture sector from the economic consequences of COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. There has been a 50% decline in arts and culture jobs since the beginning of the pandemic. Cuyahoga County lost $146 million in revenue from nonprofit arts, and 5,000 workers were furloughed, laid off, or had their work hours reduced, according to a study by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture. Thankfully, American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are now making their way to Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. The good news is Cuyahoga County has announced $3.3 million from ARPA funds for the hard-hit creative community. We are continuing to advocate for the City of Cleveland to commit 2% of its $511 million in ARPA funds for reinvestment into the creative sector. This comes out to around $10 million.

Mayor Bibb has already included a recommendation in his transition report to allocate the requested funds to arts and culture, but we are going to have to do more. We will need approval from City Council, so we have started a postcard campaign aimed at illustrating the power of arts to get the attention of Cleveland’s council members. The postcards showcase unique artwork from 17 wards. We encourage the public to join us in our message to City Council to prioritize funding the creative sector for the city’s future. 

SG: How can community members get involved?

JJ: We have asked the community to join us by writing to the 17 council members to inform how the ARPA dollars will be spent. You can email, tweet, or call your local city council members and let them know about the power of funding the arts. We also hosted postcard writing parties on the east side and west side. Visit our website to learn more about our other campaigns.

Learn more about Assembly for the Arts, including upcoming events and advocacy efforts, here.

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