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Cleveland, your cultural middle class needs a raise

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/04/13 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Buying local

I made an unexpected purchase on Black Friday. I hadn’t planned to get all caught up in the frenzy—we’re budget hawks, really. But I had a litany of reasons why we just had to have a new television. Our 2002 mega-set is thick as a safe and was literally crushing our media center. I even used a Kil-o-watt meter and discovered that the old TV ran off 1,100 watts of power. The new LED unit uses 33 watts. We hadn’t really saved for it, but it wasn’t going to break the bank, either.

The experience of driving to and seeing tons of people buying stuff at the big box store was sort of creepy. But in the end I think we wanted to treat ourselves to the illusion of being middle class.

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I think that attitude—of being poor and knowing it—is affecting Cleveland. The city’s been in belt-tightening mode for so long, that its recent decisions to throw lots of money at a $300 million Hilton, $100 million for some pretty dubious luxury items for FirstEnergy Stadium, and $16 million for a chandelier masquerading as art...well, from the sidelines, it looks pretty desperate.

Critics wonder how the city known for keeping a firm hand on the till suddenly feels so flush with cash? If the city’s willing to go into debt, why do it with these very flash items?

Take it from someone who tried a little retail therapy, the lift is short lived. The feeling of winning by consuming can be taken too far. Just ask the sad losers shuffling out of the casino.

My point is, there are big ticket purchases to be made in every city, but let’s make sure they spread the benefits a little further than the audience for sports. I’ll spare you the old downtown versus the neighborhoods narrative. There are reasons to invest in downtown that start with its growth as a residential neighborhood. Some of the money going to the convention center hotel will also pay for a pedestrian bridge that will connect Public Square and the Mall to the Lakefront. If it’s designed well, it could be one of those investments that spur interest again in the lakefront as a place to visit for more than just football fans.

Let’s talk about the football stadium deal for a minute. I’ll say right off the bat, that I’m not a fan. I have fond memories of the Kardiac Kids, the Pruitts and tear-away jerseys, Bernie Kosar and the old Browns. But, since I’ve reached adulthood, the only game I’ve attended at the new stadium was the other football, the U.S. men’s soccer team. I think the city would get more return on its investment in downtown’s growth as a neighborhood.

Before I’m accused of not understanding how much professional sports brings to the city, let me point to an article from last Sunday’s New York Times. It asserts that our “support for sports is essentially socialist.” The state of Minnesota was quick enough to write a $500 million check to the Vikings to build a new stadium, The Times wrote, but couldn’t find the ink to erase a $6 million deficit for the Minnesota Orchestra.

“Over all, taxpayer money provides more than a billion dollars annually in tax exemptions and stadium subsidies for N.F.L. teams," the article, The Real Humanities Crisis, explains. "Other sports also receive generous support. Even major universities subsidize professional sports through their (mostly money-losing) athletic programs, which provide a continuing influx of professional players. Universities could reduce their efforts to field teams playing at near-professional levels and direct the money saved to artistic activities much closer to their core mission.”

The point of the article is that we’re rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class, but we ignore our cultural middle class at our great peril. We have a crisis in the humanities in this country. We somehow can’t express the same enthusiastic fiscal support for our kids who want to be an artist, musician, journalist, or novelist as professional athletes. The Times suggests we start treating professions in humanities with the respect they deserve by paying those aspiring to create our cultural capital with better compensation—when we buy their work or pay them to teach. As an aside, the recent PISA exams that rank every national education system gave the U.S. a “C”. A PISA spokesman on PBS Newshour last night commented that Asian countries get high marks because they’re attracting the best and brightest into their teaching ranks.

Cuyahoga County is a rare example of diverting a sin tax to support artists. Its a foundation from which to build when the city is looking for where to invest for the future.

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Marc
3 years ago

Thanks for your interest and comments. Since you asked, I would add this:

The presence of publicly funded arts is a noticeable asset for Cuyahoga County. There are few if any counties that provide direct support for the arts in the U.S., and so the support that Cuyahoga Arts and Culture grants provide has a benefit to thousands of individual artists working with the, for example, 139 organizations who received $1.89 million in grants in November (that figure represents a 20% increase).

It is likely the steady stream of funding will encourage more arts related groups to start up. This is on top of CPAC's individual artist grants that generously support studio work.

Cleveland's attraction as an arts-centered place goes beyond affordability. Just like the support to make work goes beyond financial. One of the struggles for artists working in Cleveland is in finding a market for their work. A small market for art (in particular, visual art) makes it really hard to survive on studio work alone. If people don't come out to see the work and buy the work they like, you won't have growth in the arts.

Cleveland has a lot of latent assets in its vacant homes and buildings. If it started focusing on arts-related development, if it found the right developer, if it identified where vacancy exists within good urban spaces and reached out to artists looking for studio/apartments, it might be an interesting angle. The public support and a network of artists exists, so there's a case to be made for making work here. What are some city strategies that can turn vacancy into arts-related development that provide subsidized housing and spaces to work?

sportsandartsfan
3 years ago

Agreed. I would argue that the last two sentences should have been the lead. It is clearly more remarkable what the arts and culture levy (obviously well-supported by the great unwashed)has produced in this city than what Cleveland and many other towns have done to retain pro sports franchises.

Kingtycoon
3 years ago

Personally I assume that sports are more highly regarded in this town because they have hotdogs. The Opera would still be here if they'd sold hotdogs...

I'd like to offer a more serious comment here, but I think you've effectively portrayed how unserious the city really is in its efforts to improve itself.

Browns Backer
3 years ago

If the Brownies want to improve the game day experience they can (a) put a better team on the field, and (b) shorter and/or eliminate the TV timeouts.

Also, the blogpost could have given a little more attention to the arts and culture levy in Cuyahoga County rather than the measly two sentences tucked in at the end.

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