Afraid to Become a Coward

Originally published June 22, 2010 as part of Kathleen Cerveny’s Arts & Ideas blog for the Cleveland Foundation.

That’s what Lily Yeh said about fighting her fears and taking on the challenge of transforming a distressed Philadelphia neighborhood – and the lives of the distressed and forgotten people who lived there.

Lily Yeh is an artist who has worked most of her life to create an alternative world for others from the broken landscapes of the inner city. Her keynote address at the Cleveland Foundation’s Annual Meeting this year was inspiring and filled with more wisdom than a PBS transformative awareness special during pledge week:

 “Life breaks us so we have the opportunity to re-make ourselves.”

 “We grow our roots in the darkness where we failed.”

 “To heal, one must look at the place that hurts.”

 “The most challenged place is the one most ready for transformation.”

While we may have heard these or similar aphorisms before, they transmitted deep and powerful truth from a woman whose life has clearly been lived for others and who has found incredible joy and reward in the process. You had to pay attention.

After her keynote, Ms. Yeh stayed in Cleveland to offer a workshop for local grass-roots community workers and artists the next day. Participants came by invitation from the Foundation’s Neighborhood Connections small grants program – and boy, did they come! Registration was capped at 150 and by my count there were more than 100 that showed up on a very rainy day at the neighborhood Senior Center at East 79th and Quincy.

Lily had said the day before that “Community building is very slow and sloppy” but things were far from slow and amazingly well ordered throughout the five hour workshop. It was quite a sight to see 100+ people of all ages, diversities and experience working together by neighborhood (more than 15 Cleveland neighborhoods were represented).

Lily offered a model and a process for neighborhood groups to identify community strengths and weaknesses, create a vision for the future and make sure that every voice was heard and represented. Using color, shape, imagination and a lot of interactive sharing, each group created a symbol and chose a color to represent their neighborhood. With paint and colored markers and lots and lots of big sheets of paper, each group collectively drew a picture, a diagram of their challenges, their current situation and their hope for the future of their community.

It was an enormous amount of work, undertaken in a very short period of time. I was privileged to assist Ms. Yeh and while I learned more than I can say from the experience, one lesson – a technique, actually – will stick with me.

When things got loud or confused and Ms. Yeh (a small woman with a soft voice) needed the group’s attention, she didn’t yell or clap her hands. She started to sing.

“Time to come together, time to come together,” she sang, walking from group to group, taking someone’s hand, encouraging them to sing with her and take another’s hand until everyone was singing “Time to come together,” and had gathered in a big circle. Gentle, respectful, joyful, powerful.

Finally, one of Ms. Yeh’s comments keeps reverberating for me – especially as the news about the Gulf oil spill fills every waking hour of the day. There is a correlation between the waste of people and resources within our cities and the devastation of our irreplaceable oceans. As Lily said, “Maybe some are guilty in catastrophe – but all are responsible.”

Information Is Different Than Knowledge

Published originally on March 8, 2010 as part of Kathleen Cerveny’s Arts & Ideas blog for the Cleveland Foundation.


Discussing character developmentThursday, 3:30 p.m., when most students are on their wayhome from school, seven high school students from various Cleveland Metropolitan schools (John Hay, Promise Academy, Cleveland School of the Arts and John Marshall) gather at John Hay High School in University Circle to meet and work with internationally renowned Turkish playwright Özen Yula.

For more than two hours these bright young people, who volunteered for the program, are challenged to create characters and scenarios, and improvise scenes among themselves as part of the important background research into character development and the crafting of a compelling structure for a play.

Overseen by the district’s Director of Arts Education Tony Sias, these students will work with Mr. Yula two days a week after school for the next eight weeks and in the process write and perform in their own play. Their first homework assignment included researching important events in Cleveland, the U.S. and the world during the years 2007-09, which will be the time frame for the play.

“But information is not enough. Information is different than knowledge,” according to Mr. Yula. It is not enough for a writer or an actor to have information about the people or the situations in a play. “You need to know what the knowledge means – the ability to analyze is critical for the artist.”

The premise of the student’s play is deceptively simple: three characters, from different backgrounds, become friends in college and then go their separate ways, only to come together a year after graduation.

But their diverse backgrounds and the different experiences each has after university will create the interest, the conflict and the resolution that will form the unique story of the play. “Something happens to make a character more than just a person,” according to the playwright, and Özen helped the students understand that their play must have believable characters, not just stereotypes.

I was privileged to observe this early developmental session for the play, and was impressed with the very important questions and choices the students began to wrestle with. Simply deciding who the characters were – their ages, backgrounds, race and gender, economic status – raised very critical questions the students had to resolve. Should they all be black? How diverse should they be and still be both believable as friends and representative of Cleveland? Where will each go after graduation and why?

One question struck me as profound. In response to Mr. Yula’s comment about how the playwright must like his characters; “If you don’t like them, you can’t write them,” he said, a student asked, “Do we have to like them at the beginning or can we grow to like them?” This engendered a fascinating discussion about finding the humanity in people – and in the play’s characters, even when you do not like what they do in the play.

This was not easy work for these students. But I was very impressed with the seriousness of their engagement – and I can’t wait to see the play they make. I will be following the development of this work as well as Özen’s engagement with the community via CSU and Cleveland Public Theater through October. So stay tuned.

Reverie Sans Madeleines*

Published originally on March 8, 2010 as part of Kathleen Cerveny’s Arts & Ideas blog for the Cleveland Foundation.


I attended the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) board meeting this week (why does no one from the arts community except a representative from our commercial classical radio station ever show up to these open, public meetings?) and suddenly was caught by thoughts of how much has changed in our arts community in the past decade. Most of it for the better.

Ten years ago we had no organized advocate and public policy agent for the arts. Now we have the well-established Community Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC) with a robust mission of research, policy, and capacity-building for the arts sector.

Ten years ago, no one in Cleveland could even imagine dedicated, tax-based local support for the arts – all the arts, not just the big guys. Artists, too. Today, the resources from the cigarette tax, administered by CAC have made Cleveland/Cuyahoga County one of the nation’s top five sources of local government support for the arts and, along with the services and opportunities provided by CPAC, one of the most artist-friendly cities in the country.

Ten years ago Great Lakes Theater Festival was contemplating closing its doors: in debt, without any street presence, performing in a space twice the size and cost of other classic theaters in the nation. Today it has completed a successful capital and endowment campaign, balanced its budget for eight years in a row and performs in one of the most visible, innovative and audience-friendly ‘rooms’ for theater in the country.

Ten years ago the Cleveland Orchestra steadfastly clung to its elite persona, touting its ‘world class’ status while ignoring the fact that it lived in a shrinking city with an aging audience base. Today, while still facing financial challenges, the organization has also begun to face the need to change its culture and embrace new ways of serving the community and a future audience that will look nothing like the patrons of the past.

Ten years ago Playhouse Square was banking on the potential of the Allen Theater to host long-running Broadway shows, attracting tourists and generating the revenues to support the local resident performing arts companies in PHS’s large and expensive theaters. No sooner was the renovation done than the business model for touring shows changed. Today, no one can book a Broadway show for more than a few weeks.

But the expensively renovated Allen has become the focal point for growth opportunities for both Cleveland StateUniversity’s drama department and the Cleveland Play House, which itself has seen incredible change in the past 10 years. CPH has evolved from a venerable but dowdy institution in serious threat of extinction by virtue of its own version of elitist separatism, to an energized, collaborative and forward-thinking organization, which sees its future as part of the city’s robust theater district – not separate from it. Hurrah!

A Film Festival that clawed its way back from the brink to become one of the best in the country according to Time Magazine, and which surprises itself each year by exceeding its own ambitious expectations – despite blizzards and global economic crises. But we have seen losses in the past 10 years too. Two ballet companies. Two chamber orchestras. One opera company. One science/health museum. To name the most visible.

Still, from my vantage point – and despite the Great Recession, which will continue to present challenges for all sectors in the years to come, I have to say that Cleveland’s cultural sector is in a better place today than it was a decade ago. Those challenges will be financial, of course, but perhaps more important and difficult to surmount will be the challenges of serving an increasingly and differently diverse consumer base for culture than in the past, as I have said here and elsewhere before.

It will be interesting, 10 years from now, to look back and see what our cultural community looks like. I plan to be living in a condo downtown and walking to the theater by then. And maybe hopping the light rail out Euclid to the museums and the Orchestra (one can dream).

*BTW, I claim to make the best ‘classic’ Madeleines this side of Paris.

From the Garden To The Camps

First published by Kathleen Cerveny on March 29, 2010 as part of her Arts & Ideas blog for the Cleveland Foundation.


RehearsalWhat do Adam and Eve, Jews, Japanese Americans, Armenians and Native Americans have in common? These and other peoples have all experienced exile from their homeland and the hardship and conflict of being displaced.

Some, like Japanese Americans during WWII, and Native Americans even today, were exiled within the borders of their own country – to internment camps and reservations. Others were forced out of their homeland to wander and face discrimination in other lands.

The commonality and brutality of exile across the centuries and the globe is the subject of “codename:EXILE” a play being developed and produced by Cleveland State University drama students under the direction of visiting Turkish artist in residence, Özen Yula. The play tells the stories of eight different groups of exiles from different historical eras. It will be performed in CSU’s Factory Theater April 22 through May 3, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. Contact the box office at 216.687.2109 for tickets.

I was privileged to view a rehearsal of the play this week and was impressed with the commitment and energy of the 22 students who make up the cast and crew. Özen is also impressed with the students, remarking that many of them hold jobs as well as attending classes, yet they bring great passion to their work with him. (Rehearsals go late into the evening.)

Stage directionFrom what I observed, this play will be filled with powerful images and very dramatic, often stylized action. The audience will have a unique experience as well, since the stage is being built around and through the entire black box space of CSU’s Factory Theater. The audience will be required to move and turn to follow the action as it moves around them. I’m told that the unique experience will actually begin as soon as audience members enter the theater. (I won’t say any more. You’ll have to find out for yourself.)

Özen’s work at CSU is part of his long-term residency in Cleveland, supported by the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program. He’s already helped a group of Cleveland Municipal School District teens create their own play, and will be working with Cleveland Public Theater this spring and summer to write and produce another world premier for CPT’s fall season. More on all this later. For now, here’s a few photos from the rehearsal at CSU.

Size Matters

Published originally on March 8, 2010 as part of Kathleen Cerveny’s Arts & Ideas blog for the Cleveland Foundation.

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about sustainability in the arts recently. This includes the sustainability of Cleveland’s arts sector as a whole and of individual organizations.

But what does sustainability mean? At face value it seems to imply that anything that currently exists should figure out a way to keep existing. I’m not sure that is always a good idea – or even possible.

Times change, economies change, people change and communities change. Programs that worked well in the ‘90’s may not be filling the needs of a community or even an organization’s mission in the 2010’s.

What?! Missions should change?! Maybe. Sometimes. If an organization is producing work for a narrow and shrinking audience of ‘appreciators’ eventually the art being produced will die with this audience.

I think that’s what’s happened, in some cases, to classical ballet – an elegant but mannered art form and a necessarily acquired taste for a minority of individuals who were fortunate enough to have been introduced to it at an early age. And the sense of entitled elitism that too often is associated with the arts – be it ballet, classical music, contemporary art or opera – does more than shut out new ‘appreciators.’ It keeps an organization from making the internal cultural shift necessary to seek and seed relevance beyond its own traditions.

Change is a required nutrient for the sustainability of a healthy arts sector itself. Art is dynamic – it must be to be alive. An arts community or sector must also be dynamic if it is not to lose vibrancy and relevance over time. While there is no barrier to entry into the nonprofit realm (generally a good thing) it is completely unrealistic to expect that new nonprofit organizations can continue to come into an already crowded field unless some others depart. This is particularly true in communities like Cleveland, where the supporting population continues to shrink.

For existing organizations, the pressure to sustain their existence too often pushes them into unrealistic expectations for growth. Bigger budget, new programs – sometimes even co-opting the programming of other organizations, or going off-mission just to attract funding. Rarely do organizations look to right-size themselves within the funding and artistic capacity they know they can sustain.

Funders too often add to this problem with the constant desire to fund new programs rather than providing steady and flexible support for organizations consistently doing a good job. Recent Arts Journal blogs on this topic are worth reading.

So size matters – of organizations and of an arts sector itself. And size, plus the ability to change with the times are issues intrinsically linked to sustainability. In my view, the capacity for dynamic adaptability is far more valuable and desirable for individual organizations as well as arts sectors as a whole, than is the static and often misleading concept of sustainability.

Evaluation is Not a Thing: It is a Way

Originally published July 18, 2010 by Kathleen Cerveny as part of her Arts & Ideas blog for the Cleveland Foundation.


I just returned from a very meaty and reflective meeting on the role of evaluation in philanthropy (NOT as dry a subject as it may sound!).

It was organized by the Evaluation Roundtable, a program of the Foundation Center to improve philanthropy. The Roundtable was held in Baltimore, at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, headquartered there. Thought leaders in the field presented a number of rich discussion topics, including a first look at the history of the uses of evaluation by charitable foundations – a history that goes back only to the 1980’s, in terms of dedicated staff and evaluation units within foundations.

Within this 30-year span, four distinct ‘eras’ were identified – a lot of evolution and change in such a short period of time. The progression through these eras shows how evaluation has moved from being used by funders as simply an after-the-fact research tool to prove what worked and what didn’t within stand-alone projects. It’s current role is more of an ongoing tool for strategy development, learning and to measure the impact of the pro-active work of foundations – often over decades-long programs and initiatives.

The titles given to evaluation staff and units is telling in this regard. In the ‘80’s it was “Research and Evaluation.” Today it’s more often “Organizational Learning and Evaluation.”

There was a lot of discussion at the Roundtable about the natural tensions between evaluation to prove an idea or theory, and evaluation for learning and improving performance over time. Foundation boards, in their important fiduciary and oversight role, want proof of impact and accountability for the use of resources. Program staff tends to seek learning from evaluation in order to be more effective in their work.

The discussion surfaced an important shift in intent for the proactive work of foundations that deeply affects evaluation as well. Foundations are becoming more aware that they cannot, by the sole virtue of their grantmaking, solve entrenched social problems. Rather, the challenge is to better understand the root causes of problems and develop strategic approaches to address these causes. Here, evaluation as a learning tool and a strategy development tool is key, and long-term initiative frameworks must be flexible enough to adjust to learning as it is acquired.

Most pro-active and strategic grantmaking within foundations begins with a Theory of Change. This is a term of art for a framework that offers a rationale for the initiative, identifies the inputs and strategies that will be employed to effect the change that is desired, and a clear understanding of the outcomes that will demonstrate success. Too many Theories of Change have expectations that go beyond the power of a single funder to effect. Too many are fuzzy on the strategies/actions required to make change. And too few have clear outcome measures that will show whether the work is being successful.

The Roundtable surfaced many, many valuable lessons. I’ll note just two here.

1. A Theory of Change must be:

  • Plausible (realistic in their expectations for success)
  • Do-able (enough management capacity and strategies that have a good chance of being implemented)
  • Knowable (clear and measurable success indicators at specific steps a long the way). You can’t evaluate what you can’t measure.

2. Although funders never intend to do harm with their initiatives, any effort to make change at the systemic level will always involve winners and losers. Funders (or other actors) must decide what constitutes harm and have good reasons for acting to make change that may not be perceived as beneficial to all who are affected.

Finally, to sum up my experience of the Roundtable, I’d like to paraphrase a saying that was coined by the Kentucky Arts Council (Art is not a Thing; it is a Way). Evaluation is not a “thing” you do once when a project is over. It is a way of continuous learning within organizations wishing to do well and do good.

Painting On Water

Published originally July 29, 2010 by Kathleen Cerveny as an entry for her Cleveland Foundation’s Arts & Ideas blog.

Serpil Sevgen is a Turkish school counselor and artist who uses the arts as a tool in her counseling work with youth in Istanbul. Serpil is another of the foundation’s Creative Fusion artists and she has brought both her counseling and her artistic skills here to work with the dedicated young people in Young Audiences’ summer ArtWorks program.

Serpil’s specialty is in the ancient Turkish tradition of paper marbling – painting on water and transferring the design to paper or fabric. (Think of all the beautiful marble-like or feather designs inside linings of old book covers – or on the Kleenex box sitting on my desk at work.)

It was not clear at first if Serpil would be able to come. Her employers – the government of Turkey, which runs the national education system – did not fully understand the value of her work and why an American organization would want to use her services. They did not immediately grant her permission to leave.

Serpil had to take one of the officials from the Ministry of Education with her on a trip to Spain, where she was demonstrating her technique. After observing her engagement with students, the official understood the unique approach Serpil takes in helping young people discover things about themselves while learning this mesmerizing and challenging art form. Permission was granted and Serpil now has a friend in the Ministry of Education.

Serpil and studentI observed several of Serpil’s classes in the big tent on Wade Oval that houses Young Audiences’ program She begins with games that help her students begin to think about aspects of themselves – how they relate in groups, what their ambitions are for themselves – what their personal philosophy of life might be. With this as a foundation, she introduces the delicate and quiet approach needed to engage with the art form. She explains the special water and natural chemical mix that will hold paint in suspension on its surface, the tools – simple brushes made of horsehair or straw, combs, sticks. And then she demonstrates how to hold your body steady, focus and release the paint onto the surface of the water.

Each design is unique to the person making it and can never be repeated. She encourages each student to think about what the colors mean to them and to think carefully about every color and every delicate stroke they make to energize the paint into a flowing design.

It is like magic when the paper is laid on the water and then pulled slowing out, transferring the design to the paper and leaving the water a clean canvas for the next student. See examples of their work below.

Each member of the class watches intently, learning from the work of his or her predecessor. It was so interesting to see how focused, quiet and serious the students were – and how they appreciated each others’ work. When I asked what one student noticed about her first try at this new art form she said, “I was nervous, but it was so peaceful. I didn’t think about anything else. My mind was completely calm. I don’t ever remember anything ever being that quiet for me before.”

Delicate touchPainting transferedLaying paper on waterPainting detailPainting with patienceSuccessConcentrationBlue Hearts paintingPainting on silk

Blooming Euclid

Published originally at the Cleveland Foundation site on August 24, 2010.

I have had occasion, these warm summer days, to walk outside for lunch. In addition to being able to get out of the frigid office air conditioning, my great delight has been walking up Euclid Avenue toward Public Square. Yes, you heard me – a delight to walk up Euclid Avenue. What a difference a few months make!

In addition to the fabulous restaurants on and around E. 4th Street, the striped brick walkways and the geometric patterned crosswalks make the walk a pleasure. And the flowers! My goodness, the flowers!

The sweetly lyrical planters that dance along Euclid Avenue sidewalks can’t help but bring a smile. They look like they were designed by Disney Studios. And the exotic plants in them turn the street into a tropical jungle. What fun.

Then there’s the gorgeous, overflowing color and texture of the median strip plantings along the Health Line bus route. A garden in the middle of the street, going for blocks and blocks. And somebody must be taking good care of them. Not a wilted planter or withered planting anywhere. A sign of a city that cares about its pedestrian traffic. How nice.

And when I walk the other way towards the Cleveland State campus to visit Café Ahroma or Elements (great food there, by the way) or the Farmer’s Market on Thursdays, there’s more beautiful city jungle-scapes. CSU has always done a fabulous job with its landscaping. In every little pocket of the campus and around all its major buildings there is lush greenery and flowers.

So downtown is blooming this summer. It feels like we’ve arrived.

Plantings in front of Idea CenterPlanting junglePlantings in median

The Arts Reformation 2.0

First posted September 20, 2010 on the Cleveland Foundation site.


In a number of past blog posts I have talked about how the world within which the arts now function has changed so dramatically that there are real questions about the relevance of the arts as traditionally experienced.

I wrote about this dilemma, among other things, in an op-ed piece the Plain Dealer published earlier this year. It is the topic of abiding interest among funders and arts managers nation-wide who are thinking hard about how to engage the audiences of the future in art forms that, to some, may seem stuck in the past.

But no one – and I mean NO ONE tells it like Ben Cameron does. Ben is a dear friend although I get to see him rarely. We served together on the Board of Grantmakers in the Arts some years ago. He has served the arts via philanthropy from the corporate sector (Target Stores Foundation), from inside the industry (Theater Communications Group), and now as the Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Foundation. He is one of the arts sector’s preeminent thought leaders – and a great wit to boot.

If you care at all about the arts, I encourage you to take 13 minutes of your life and spend it with Ben.

Nothing I could say could do his presentation justice, so I won’t try. Enjoy.

It IS about the Language

This entry was originally posted September 24, 2010 by Kathleen Cerveny on the Cleveland Foundation site.

Among the many rewards of working here at the Cleveland Foundation, one that I particularly enjoy is the opportunity to have some connection to the Anisfield Wolf Book Award ceremony each year. If you don’t know about this award (and shame on you if you are in the literary world and you don’t), it is international in scope and the only award for books that contribute to our understanding of race and social justice and whose authors help us appreciate the rich diversity of human cultures.

The jury is distinguished beyond belief: the chair is Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. from Harvard; Poet Rita Dove, University of Virginia; novelist Joyce Carol Oates, Princeton; Steven Pinker, Ph.D., Harvard; and Simon Schama, Ph.D., Columbia. The award is administered by the foundation from a fund created in 1935 by the visionary poet, humanist and philanthropist, Edith Anisfield Wolf.

For the past several years the foundation has added the voice of a young person to those of the distinguished authors who read their work as part of the annual ceremony. In the past it was an elementary school student who had worked with local poet Katie Daley through our SmART in the City summer arts camp for inner city 5th and 6th graders.

This year was special, however, it being the 75th Anniversary of the Award and we wanted something special. We found it in a gem of a young poet that we discovered through Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio’s ArtWorks program.

Kevin Ritter is a Senior at Lakewood High School. He spent last summer in the ArtWorks program studying theater and creative writing with local actor and performer Jimmie Woodie. I previewed some of Kevin’s work in considering him for the awards ceremony and found his poems thoughtful, well-crafted and accomplished. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He decided the occasion needed a new work, and in the space of a week he wrote a poem specifically for the ceremony.

You can read about his experience and how he came to write the poem in his post on the Anisfield Wolf Book Award blog. It’s a great story. You can also see and hear Kevin deliver his poem to the Severance Hall audience here. I’ve posted a few photos of Kevin on stage and with the Award winners as well.

I had a wonderful time working with Kevin and I know that he will go far with his writing and performing. He’s off to college next year – but hasn’t decided where yet. Here’s his poem, titled 11:9 after the chapter in the Bible in which the story of the Tower of Babel appears.

Kevin Ritter reading his poemKevin Ritter with Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners11:9

by Kevin Ritter

There was a time when we were of one language.

We spoke and understood each other’s words.
We understood what everyone intended to say.
How glorious it was!
How beautiful understanding is!

We tried to build a tower to reach God.
The tower reached towards the heavens.
God didn’t like the tower very much
and took away our common language.
We couldn’t finish the tower.
No one could comprehend.
Some called it noise.
Some called it miscommunication.
Some called it gibberish.
Some called it Babel.
But we managed;
we built temples, cathedrals, mosques
in praise of the God that created this earth,
even though we couldn’t really agree
on who this being was:
what he or she looked like
or spoke like, or believed in.

We built libraries, schools
so that we might understand each other again,
even though we couldn’t always agree
if it was worth the hassle of grasping
what someone else was thinking – saying;
the hassle of comprehending one another.

But we managed.
And one day we understood –
it wasn’t about language.
That’s a minor barrier to cross
compared to what it is
to understand someone else
without having met them
without having seen where they live
without having eaten their meals
without having looked out on their life
as we look out onto ours.
It was never about the language.
It was about building bridges, and tearing them down
and putting up walls, and tearing them down
and building towers and not being able to complete them
because we tore down the bridges
and put up the walls.
It was never about the language.

So come, build a tower with me.
Let me look into your eyes
and understand what it is to be you.
Look into my eyes
and understand what it is to be me.

It isn’t about the language.

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