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TIMOTHY MAGAW, Craine's Cleveland Business  |  January 06, 2014

Cleveland Foundation is upping ante on arts

A Cleveland Foundation effort aimed at helping local arts organizations find new ways of drumming up business appears to be working, and the foundation is putting more money behind the initiative.

In 2012, the foundation awarded $15,000 grants - risk capital, if you will - to several cash-strapped nonprofits to experiment with audience-engagement efforts they otherwise couldn't have afforded. Now, the foundation is doling out even larger grants to scale the initiatives that have shown the most promise.

Last month, the foundation awarded $200,000 to Cleveland Public Theatre and $80,000 to DANCECleveland for their respective projects, and other sizable grants could be on the way.

"All of these non-attenders, if you will, that we're trying to attract haven't seen the arts as something they participate in," said Kathleen Cerveny, the foundation's director of institutional learning and arts initiatives. "We saw that as one of the biggest challenges of the arts going forward."

This year will mark the final phase the foundation's Engaging the Future initiative, which the foundation quietly launched in 2011 as a way to cultivate new audiences in order to keep arts organizations vital for years to come.

The initial phase focused on providing operating support to the 11 organizations involved and workshops designed to help them adapt their business models to the current economic climate. The second phase was focused on providing seed money for the engagement efforts. Now, the foundation is looking to build up some of those projects.

"What's happening at the Cleveland Foundation around Engaging the Future is incredibly rare, and it's visionary," said Raymond Bobgan, Cleveland Public Theatre's executive artistic director. "One of the biggest problems with the arts across the country is the lack of ability to borrow money for innovation and the entrepreneurial side of things. This allows us to the make the kind of investment a for-profit would already be making."

Cleveland Public Theatre's initiative - dubbed Cultural Engagement Continuum - is a training and outreach program for specific cultural communities. The idea is to grow actors from the community who are of the ethnic population represented on stage.

The prototype for the initiative was Teatro Publico de Cleveland, which cultivated actors from Cleveland's Latino community. The first production, "Cuando Cierras Your Eyes," debuted in November to sell-out crowds. The recent grant will let the theater expand the project, allowing for a full production schedule for its 2014-2015 season, which will expand into highlighting other ethnic communities.

"We have to diversify our audience," Mr. Bobgan said. "We know that people come to see a show because they're being represented or they can relate to what's on stage. We're opening up to a whole new audience."

DANCECleveland's project created a 15-member street team of sorts for the local dance company. The team was comprised of dancers, choreographers, teachers and other dance professionals who worked their own personal networks to publicize DANCECleveland's events.

Besides the latest influx of Cleveland Foundation money, the project attracted dollars from the Doris Duke Foundation to help dance companies across the country replicate it.

"Most people don't have a personal relationship with dance," said Pamela Young, DANCECleveland's executive director. "Our own community of dancers, dance educators and choreographers are so dedicated and any information they share more broadly with the community is going to build a new respect for this art form."

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