March 2020: The world came to a juddering halt.
While many of us found ways to reorient our lives by summer, making an office out of the living room or trading in our corporate uniforms for delivery driver tags, the creative sector stood upon the precipice of loss and wept. And now, as the world is finally trying to get moving again, Cleveland artists have a chance to breathe life back into the city.
The cost? With just a thin slice of the city’s federal rescue plan, the arts community could get the jump start it needs, says one local group.
“It’s a whole array of creative workers who make up a collective $2.9 billion industry in Northeast Ohio,” said Jeremy Johnson, CEO of Assembly for the Arts. “We believe the artists deserve a piece of the Covid-related pie.”
Artists for ARPA
Johnson and his cohorts are lobbying for two percent of the approximately $500 million in stimulus funds awarded to Cleveland – that comes out to around $10 million – to be “reinvested in creative workers, businesses, and nonprofits across all seventeen wards.”
Mayor Bibb has included a recommendation in his transition report to allocate $10 million to arts and culture. “We plan to make the dollars available for general use, such as personnel costs, to pay rent, and to resume productions in a safe, COVID-protective way,” said Johnson, whose agency helped distribute $4.5 million in CARES Act money to artists last year.
They need approval from Cleveland City Council to make their plan work, and they’ve started a postcard campaign aimed at sharing their love of the local arts and encouraging others to do the same. According to one analysis, the arts are eligible for ARPA support, but must demonstrate economic harm and their link to tourism.
Anyone can help, regardless of whether their love is for attending concerts, going to the theater, seeing the ballet, admiring murals, heading out to Whiskey Island, enjoying a night of paint-and-sip with friends, or any of the countless other examples of our bustling creative industries.
Instructions for sending emails, tweets, and postcards can be found on Assembly’s Artists for ARPA page. Interested parties can also attend one of the in-person postcard parties coming up on Thursday, February 24th from 4:30-6:30 PM at The Happy Dog (5801 Detroit) or Thursday, March 3rd from 4:00-6:00 PM at Sankofa Fine Arts (11401 St. Clair).
Postcard kits, including 18 cards with postage and an Assembly button, are available from Assembly or at 78th Street Studios (Collective Arts Network), Beachland Ballroom, PIVOT Center for the Arts (Future Ink Graphics), Rainey Institute, Sankofa Fine Arts, and Yards Project at Worthington YARDS.
Recovery from the past two years will be an uphill battle for many. Johnson wants Cleveland artists to feel as though they have options to not only become stronger as individuals, but as a community as well.
“We are not your grandfather’s art council,” he said. “When a crisis hits, we need to be in lockstep with one another.”
On city, county, state, and even federal levels, the Assembly is hustling to gather funding, aid, and resources for Cleveland artists. “We have to get in line and we have to earn the attention of our leaders,” said Johnson. “However, we already have some successes under our belt.”
Through the Assembly, artists can sign up for free workshops and quarterly events, which are generously funded by local institutions such as the Cleveland and Gund foundations. Some of these workshops come with grant opportunities, financed by partner organizations such as the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. The Assembly has also paired with Huntington to offer the Entrepreneurs in Residence Powered by Huntington program to help grow small arts-related businesses.
“[The creative sector] is not something that’s just ‘nice to have,’ we are a part of what makes Cleveland an economically booming city,” said Johnson. “Those who don’t see the limelight, the smaller nonprofits and individuals who are doing exciting things, we want to be the wind beneath their wings so they can fly high.”
For some, the struggle continues
One of those individuals is Linda Zolten Wood, founder of the Collinwood Painted Rain Barrel Project. She has struggled throughout Covid, as the bulk of her business relies on in-person, interactive events, and being self-employed means her safety net is small.
“There’s no unemployment, sick time, vacation, or retirement benefits in the arts,” she said, citing the fact that her business went off a cliff when Covid hit.
She’s right: many working artists have lost their creative income entirely since the start of Covid, although unemployment was extended to freelancers. According to a recent report from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Ohio’s creative sector is not yet in recovery and still has a very long road to travel before it can recuperate. All organizations must return to a minimum 80% patron capacity to prevent further layoffs, closures, and budget deficits, yet current audiences in Cuyahoga County are operating at 25% of pre-pandemic levels. Furthermore, Ohio’s arts and entertainment industry holds the highest rate of unemployment among all sectors at 16.36% — and has been the highest unemployed sector since May of 2020.
That’s a lot of creativity dying on the vine: Music not being played, art not being sold, homes not being designed, poetry not being written.
And when you’re a dyed-in-the-wool artist entrepreneur like Linda, not being able to create for a living is devastating. “Art is work,” she says. “We do it because we have to; it’s part of who we are.”
For others, Covid brings opportunities
On the other hand, Sequoia Bostick – a local multi-disciplinary freelance artist and tutor – has found herself on a wildly different journey. Initiative, a little curiosity, and a lot of imagination has put her on the path to success.
“2020 was a weirdly good year for me,” said Bostick. “Just like all the other freelancers, I was concerned, but I used the opportunity to grow my online presence. I spent a lot of [my downtime] to create new art and play and do research. I could just focus on my stuff, which is something I hadn’t ever done before. I’m so used to working for clients that I never had time to pull my own stuff out of the closet and work on it.”
Bostick applied for grants, utilizing the SPACES Emergency Grant Relief Program, but she focused more on networking and improving her virtual presence. She learned more about working through Patreon, participated in online workshops, and expanded her business into design. “A lot of the work I did, I never even got to see the people I was working with. I would make a physical thing and then send it off,” she said.
While Bostick does admit that some of her prosperity may come from being in the right place at the right time, she puts a lot of emphasis on the values of being a self-starter who can adapt, even in the face of disappointment. “It’s important to keep an open mind and definitely don’t stop being creative. I try not to take stuff too seriously, especially when there’s nothing you can do.”
Despite her recent successes, however, she understands that anything can change when you’re freelancing. That’s part of why Johnson and others are trying to rally support for artists. “I’m always trying to do more,” she said. “You have to.”
Kristy Ockunzzi-Kmit is a freelance author and artist from Cleveland’s West side. In addition to her freelance career, she enjoys writing fantasy, fiction, and sci-fi.