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Cleveland, Canton and Akron arts advocates assert the need for federal ARPA relief

Players Guild Theater
Players Guild Theater's 2017 production of 'Sister Act' is part of a Canton theatrical tradition going back to 1932

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb announced his intention last week to devote a portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to arts and culture. It's one of several efforts in progress in Northeast Ohio to funnel pandemic relief dollars to the arts.

Cleveland painter Gary Williams is part of the call for support of area artists. He has long wanted to help his city.

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David C. Barnett / Ideastream Public Media
Gary Williams works on a new watercolor in his studio on Cleveland's Near East Side

“As I was growing up, I used to ride the Kinsman bus downtown when I was in high school, and I could see where the neighborhood was deteriorating,” Williams said. “And I would imagine if I was a millionaire, I'd fix up this area and I'd make it livable.”

Though he’s far from a millionaire, Williams has used his artistic talents to make Cleveland more livable. He’s created or worked with mural projects on several struggling streets throughout the city, including a series of photo-realistic paintings he’s done with studio partner Robin Robinson in the Glenville neighborhood.

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Sankofa Fine Art Plus
Gary Williams and Robin Robinson created this montage of Black cultural heroes on the side of a deteriorating storefront on E. 105th street. It's one of a series in the Glenville neighborhood.

Williams and Robinson were also both part of a lobbying campaign asking city council members for ARPA money for area artists.

“Funds like ARPA would help distressed neighborhoods, to bring them back to life,” he said.

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Gary Williams
Gary Williams contributed this image for a postcard campaign to lobby council members in each Cleveland ward

Framing arts funding as a form of economic development is a strategy that Cleveland cultural leaders, like the year-old Assembly for the Arts, have pushed in recent years. Non-profits in Canton and Akron are following similar strategies. Especially, since COVID-19 hit.

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Joe Albert
This sculpture by Gail Folwell is one of several in Canton celebrating the city's roots in NFL history.

“Really just in the last couple of years, I think we've all recognized there's sort of a dynamic shift going on in how arts can be used,” said David Whitehill, president and CEO of the Canton-based ArtsinStark, a 50-year-old organization that supports arts activities in Stark County. Whitehill added that an annual fund traditionally raised roughly a million dollars for the arts each year, largely through workplace donations. But, that’s been a challenge, of late.

“Our campaign has been tough, because we would go physically into a workplace,” he said. “We would take artists with us, musicians with us, actors with us. But, recently, we couldn't get into the workplaces because workplaces went virtual.”

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David Whitehill is president and CEO of ArtsinStark in Canton.

That’s translated to fewer donations. So, ArtsinStark is also looking to ARPA funds. Whitehill wants to persuade local and state lawmakers that the arts are worthy.

“Really, the kind of projects that use arts as a tool to help the community solve problems,” he said. “Whether it's art and health care, art and social justice, art and economic development, those are the types of things that we want to put funding behind.”

Artist Alicia Hopkins and US Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh at SEIU Union on October 25, 2021EQ.jpg
Akron artist and advocate for artists of all abilities Alicia Hopkins with US Secretary of Labor, Martin Walsh in 2021.

It’s a similar situation in Summit County where ArtsNow has worked to make connections between art and everyday life in the Akron area. Executive director Nicole Mullet says those efforts helped secure $2.5 million earlier in the pandemic.

“And we heard from so many people how dramatically what we might think of as a small stopgap allowed them to get through to the next year, so that they could continue to earn some income,” she said.

ArtsNow put in a request for an additional $5 million of ARPA funds in total, from both the city of Akron and Summit County. Mullet made the ask, but she won’t forecast what will happen.

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Mike Cardew
ArtsNow Executive Director Nicole Mullet poses in the recently remodeled Akron Civic Theater

“I'm not going to, you know, bang a drum at council meetings,” she said. “They're engaging with us and working with us on this. And so that's where we want to be right now.”

Arts advocates asked the city of Cleveland for $10 million. In 2021, Cleveland was designated to get about $512 million in ARPA funds over the course of two years. Cleveland City Council approved previous mayor Frank Jackson’s spending plan for the first half of the money late last year. The city is due to receive the second half next month, and will have until the end of 2024 to announce exactly how that money will be spent.

David C. Barnett is a senior reporter/producer who focuses on arts and cultural stories.