Artistic Choice

November 16, 2011

One  of the many artistic muses at The Cleveland Museum of Art

One of the many artistic muses at The Cleveland Museum of Art. By Charles Meynier (Paris, 1763 – 1832), Clio, Muse of History (1798). Image Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

It’s next time again.

“All art is quite useless.” With this provocative phrase Oscar Wilde ends the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey and begins his only published novel. I’ve always loved this quote. It’s like a slap in the face. It sets up all sorts of reverberations. What can you actually do with Art besides enjoy it? Art may be useless but that doesn’t mean it is not valuable.

This became very tangible to me after recent mind expanding visit to Gerhard Richter’s amazing retrospective at the Tate Modern museum in London. On view were several of his colorful so called “squeegee” paintings. Abstract, dense, thickly-painted canvases that somehow evoke the feelings of sunlight on water. I love these paintings and was stunned to see in the paper the following day that one of these gorgeous works recently sold at auction for three times the reserved price; a staggering 20 million dollars. Useless yes. Worthless no.

One of Gerhard Richter’s “squeegee” paintings just sold for 20 million dollars. Seems pretty expensive until you compare it to other things we value. According to Forbes, this year’s 50 highest paid athletes earned $1.4 billion combined or $28 million on average. Le Bron James who left Cleveland for Miami was 6th on the Forbes list at $40 million

Does this mean Art is only valued by and reserved for the rich? Certainly not. I will never be able to own such a painting but that does not prevent me from enjoying such masterpieces in the museums. Some of these institutions in both the U.S. and abroad receive public tax money, which raises lots of questions. Does art have any value to a community? Should public money fund the arts? Is art and culture only a playground for the wealthy or can anybody join the game?

To be honest, I am usually more interested in writing about the experience of art than its economics, but for the past three months I’ve been captivated by these ideas thanks to several new friends and collaborators at WVIZ/PBS ideastream – in Cleveland.

We have been working on a short mini-documentary, for national broadcast, about how the arts are funded in Cleveland. Along the way we’ve had the opportunity to meet several experts in the field of public funding of the arts. We’ve had the chance to interview them, think about the value of art in its contribution to not only quality of life issues but also how it’s power can be harnessed as an economic engine. This has been a truly fascinating experience and one I’m anxious to share.

The Money Changer and his Wife by Marinus van Reymerswaele, 1540, oil on panel, Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Money, art and power have been linked together for a very long time. A recent show at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence investigates these issues in an engrossing exhibition with the fabulous title: Money & Beauty – Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities. The exhibition, typical of the curators at Palazzo Strozzi, does several things right. Not the least of which is to commission a bona fide journalist/writer (Tim Parks) and an independent art historian (Ludovica Sebregondi) to do the descriptors. Instead of just dry information you get an extremely well written and literate point of view. Each descriptor is “signed” so you know who is saying what. I don’t know about you but I really adore exhibitions that tell a story. So why didn’t anybody ever think of this brilliant idea of hiring real story tellers before? (Maybe others have done this but I have never seen it.)

This transformed an exhibition with only a few masterpieces into a show where the ideas expressed outshone the art. That’s OK. It kept you completely involved in the sequential presentation of the artworks, artifacts, books, coins and treasures that were all carefully arranged to illustrate the ideas. You walked away having had an unforgettable experience.

Much of the show was about the great Florentine and fabulously wealthy banking family of the Medicis who are also perhaps the most famous patrons in the history of art. Lending money in their time was not considered an honorable profession and the exhibition demonstrated how they used the their art patronage to improve their image and solidify their power. I never really understood before why money lending was so frowned upon (other than the biblical representations of the moneylenders in the bible). How’s this for a beautifully written descriptor:

In the Church’s list of capital sins, Usury stands with Avarice. The usurer sins because he sells the interval of time between the moment when he lends and the moment when he is reimbursed with interest: he thus trades time, which belongs to God alone.

Marble  statue of Terpsichore

Marble statue of Terpsichore, one of the nine Muses, or goddesses of creative inspiration. By Antonio Canova (Italian, 1757-1822), 1816, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund

So what does this all have to do with how Cleveland funds the arts? It points out money is important but it’s not the only thing that matters. On the other hand, art is almost never free and while we value all sorts of things, if we want to have art in our communities, we need to figure out how to pay for it. Wealthy patrons and corporations can only do so much. Public money funds all sorts of things for a region’s economic development and education. The question comes down to what a community thinks is important?

In 2006, the community in Cleveland decided to fund the arts with a tax on cigarettes. We passed a carefully designed ballot issue to funnel money into arts and culture. So why is this news? Because it adds up to 12 million dollars a year! That’s the sort of investment that would even get the attention of a Medici. One of the very smart people we interviewed in the mini-doc, Karen Gahl Mills, who runs the State agency Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) responsible for distributing these funds says, “It is three times what the Ohio Arts Council provides for the entire State.” She also points out, as far as national rankings for public money dedicated to the arts is concerned, the States of New York and Minnesota are numbers one and two, but Cuyahoga County is number three.

So if the community is helping to bankroll the arts what do we get out of this “investment”? The short answer is: jobs and economic growth. The music industry alone in Cuyahoga County provides 800 million dollars every year in economic activity.

Tom Schorgl and Karen Gahl Mills are two of the reasons public arts funding works so well in Cleveland

Another one of the other interviewees in the story and the man who really put this initiative together, Tom Shorgl of the Cuyahoga Partnership for Arts and Culture (CPAC) spends a lot of his time measuring, researching and analyzing these sorts of things. His agency works with arts organizations and artists to make them more self sustaining and help them with business skills to make them more successful. The strategy is working. To put this in perspective, the Ford plant these days employs about 3,500 people. Tom explains an independent research group recently looked at Cuyahoga County and discovered the Arts & Culture sector includes over 1,200 businesses and over 15,000 full time jobs.

I find it reassuring and impressive that Cuyahoga County has found a way to help pay for some of the “useless” art delivered by The Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Playhouse Square, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, WVIZ/PBS and 90.3 WCPN ideastream along with over 140 other arts organizations who currently receive part of their funding from the arts tax. Oscar Wilde and even the Medicis would approve.

The main title of the mini-doc features a charcoal drawing triptych by Laurence Channing, who recently received an arts fellowship funded by the cigarette tax.

Artistic Choice airs on most PBS stations around the country on Friday November 18th. The 16 minute mini-doc runs after a one hour documentary Women Who Rock. The full program runs from 9 –10:30 p.m. Check local listings.


  • Murray says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this short documentary! Well done it certainly got me thinking.

  • David Rankin says:

    Tom… Quite a well thought presentation of Cleveland’s unique “artistic nature”. Good job!

  • Natasha says:

    I was raised at small Russian town in Sybiria and moved to big historical city on my own when I was 15. The life in Sankt-Petersburg Russia was not easy for me but I always enjoyed the cultural aspect of the city and Art became huge in my life. When I found out about cigarette tax’s money I was excited. I am very happy to live in Cleveland. Tom, thanks again for letting me to work on that project with you.

  • Michelle Moehler says:

    As I knew I would, I really enjoyed your mini-doc. I loved all the history and the contrast of contemporary arts programming for younger generations. So diverse. So visionary. So impressive. Made me so proud to live in Cleveland!

  • Martina says:

    dear Tom,

    You have again wowed me, in thinking about this issue of money and art, and value and worth. I think it is a marvelous achievement that you got that cigarette tax passed. In California, for a parallel example, we could not get a cell phone tax of 50 cents if you called 911, which would have helped cover all the ERs in California. The big telecommunication companies killed it. We desperately need to figure out how to pay for the needs of the community, regarding health care. If you drive from one area to another, and you have a stroke, you may desperately need that ER to be fully prepared to meet your needs, even if it is in a poor part of the state.

    This is off your topic, but to me it is still a big question of “distributive justice”. I love the statue of Terpsichore that you show with such lovely light! I am delighted to hear about the proliferation of the arts in Cleveland, due to this great tax. But also, it hangs on smokers, and maybe it would be more just to tax something that is used by all the people? I understand the fascination with the Medicis, and their power, and how they used art to further their goals. I would love to read the captions on all the art works in that show at Palazzo Strozzi. I really do not personally understand how to make money from art. My poems cost me more to publish than I can make from selling them, but still, I love having them in books. What a miracle it is, that you have savvy people helping make art available to the public, in so many ways! I believe in museums and orchestras being part of the budget of a city. Thanks as always, for a reflection about something so intriguing and mysterious!

  • Jane Bredendick says:

    We watched here in Wisconsin! Congratualtions Tom! Artistic Choices was inspiring. It made me want to move back to Cleveland!

  • tjball says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to post the program here on the Telos website down the road. However, the program will be repeated on Saturday night November 19th in Cleveland. Women Who Rock starts at 9:30 Saturday night and our little mini-dock should be on around 10:30 or so.


  • Rose Breckenridge says:

    I’m unable to watch this program tonight (Nov 18) because I’ll be at a Severance Hall concert. Will you post it online so I can watch it there?

    If yes, please inform we of when and where to access the documentary online.

    Thank you.

    Rose Breckenridge

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