After the Vote

Kathleen Cerveny

In the Reader last issue I reported on the Cleveland Foundation's decade-long effort (in partnership with other area funders, cultural institutions, and the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture) to make the case for local public support for the arts here. At the GIA conference last November, anyone within shouting distance of those of us from Cleveland must have heard that we were suc-cessful. The grins on our faces lit up the host celebration that first night. Beginning in 2007, greater Cleveland's arts community will enjoy about $20 million a year in new public support through an increase in the tax on cigarettes in Cuyahoga County.

While this may seem like a watershed amount, in reality, much of the total will only replace the massive losses in corporate support suffered by the arts here, as well as the continued reduction in state and federal funding that have made it harder for the arts each year since the 1990s. Still, we rejoice. (Especially me, who will now represent the second largest arts funder in Cleveland, with hopefully greater flexibility than we had while we were the largest.)

The Ohio State Legislature requires the revenue generated from the excise tax be administered and distributed by a regional arts and culture district, and so Cuyahoga Arts and Culture (CAC) was created for this purpose. It is the only regional taxing district within the state that has a dedicated revenue source for art and culture. The CAC is structured as a special unit of government located within our county, but not under the jurisdiction of any existing department of county government. Ramping up the CAC was a new process for Cuyahoga County. It took some time for all parties to understand the structure of the CAC relative to the county as well as the limitations surrounding the uses of this new resource in light of the county's historical commitments to cultural projects and programs.

After the election, the larger foundations that had traditionally supported the arts declared their continued commitment and made it clear that this new source should be regarded as a critical addition to the resources that support the arts — not a replacement for past funding. At presentations for corporate funders organized by Ohio Grantmakers Forum, we reinforced this for the business community, and community leaders in both philanthropic realms expressed the desire that the County adhere to this “additive” principle as well.

Working together, elected and appointed officials and the arts and culture sector successfully established the administrative and operational authority of CAC and clarified the eligibility criteria for the use of funds within ninety days of the election.

The grantmaking structure and allocation formula for the new resource had been approved by the county back in 2004, when the community's first effort to seek public support was (very narrowly) defeated at the polls. The vast majority of the funds will provide operating support for qualifying organizations, allocated in three-year grants. A complex formula limits the percentage available for the largest organizations and allows smaller groups to secure a larger percentage of their budgets through public funds. Project sup-port will also be available. For those interested, the detail on the investment models (grantmaking programs) and formula can be accessed at

The tax collection began in February — a ninety-day delay from the passage of the issue is required by Ohio law. For 2007, about $14 million is expected to be available, with more in each of the following ten years of the tax's life cycle. Interestingly, at the same time the voters approved this new tax, they also passed new anti-smoking laws. It remains to be seen what if any impact the increased cost of cigarettes and the new prohibition of smoking in public places will have on the level of funds generated. Research suggests an initial dip in cigarette sales, then a rise to previous levels.

We know that other communities — in Ohio and elsewhere, will be watching Cuyahoga County with great interest to see how this approach to local support for the arts plays out. It is our hope that we do such a good job in documenting and communicating the return on investment for public support that, in ten years when the tax sunsets, renewing it (or finding another mechanism) will be a snap — not a battle.

Kathleen Cerveny is program director for arts and culture, The Cleveland Foundation.