CLEVELAND, Ohio – Northeast Ohio’s newest high-ranking artistic leader says his life was transformed by early exposure to the Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall and the glittering medieval armor of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Now he wants to make sure more people can enjoy experiences like the ones he had growing up in the Hough and Glenville neighborhoods of Cleveland. He also wants to ensure that the city’s enviable cultural sector becomes even stronger and more influential.
Jeremy Johnson, 59, began working in his hometown on Monday as the first CEO of the Assembly for the Arts, the new umbrella organization designed to uplift Greater Cleveland’s creative industries. Johnson has worked for the past 27 years as a respected arts administrator in Newark, NJ
As Assembly Leader, Johnson will be the primary regional spokesperson for all of Greater Cleveland’s creative industries. It’s a role he’s going to invent, like an actor playing a role in a play for the first time, or a conductor creating a new composition.
“We are in the process of preparing a score and a songbook,” he said in an interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. “What are the pieces? Who are the sopranos, violas, tenors and basses? How are we going to fix this? Where is the rhythm section?
“I have a role as a conductor, but everyone has a role in the composition.”
Johnson returns to Cleveland after serving as Assistant Vice President of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Philanthropic Liaison Officer for the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers in Newark City and, most recently, Executive Director of the Newark Arts Council.
“It’s great to be back,” he said. “I’m just thrilled.”
Elevate the arts
The goal of the Assembly is to provide a unified voice for a billion dollar creative economy in Northeast Ohio that includes both nonprofit cultural organizations and for profit businesses. , ranging from architecture and graphic design to film, musical performance and recording.
Its activities, carried out separately through its allied organizations, will include political campaigns, candidate recommendations, research on the impact of the arts and efforts to develop the city’s creative sector as well as size and diversity. artistic organizations, audiences and cultural offerings.
The Assembly was born out of an alliance of three key organizations that support the arts in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.
They include Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the public agency that distributes $ 12 million a year to nonprofit cultural organizations, community projects, and individual artists with money raised through the 30-cent tax. the pack on county cigarettes.
The former Cleveland Arts, now called the Assembly for the Arts, is also part of the Assembly. It is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to advocacy, cultural policy, racial equity initiatives, research, marketing and membership services for organizations. cultural nonprofits, individual artists and creative businesses.
Finally, the Assembly includes the Assembly for Action, a 501 (c) (4) body empowered to lobby elected officials, support candidates and run campaigns. In 2015, under its former name of the Arts and Culture Action Committee, the organization spearheaded the campaign that helped convince Cuyahoga County voters to renew the 10-year cigarette tax with a margin. by 75%.
The three organizations will be linked by a handful of overlapping board memberships, and they will act collaboratively in their own spheres.
Cleveland philanthropist and cultural entrepreneur Fred Bidwell, who played a leading role in the founding of the Assembly and will serve on the boards of the Assembly for the Arts and the Assembly for Action, has called Johnson a valuable boomerang for Cleveland.
“He brings a great experience to Cleveland from Newark,” Bidwell said. “I think that makes him the perfect person to run the business.”
As executive director of the Newark Arts Council, Johnson led the formulation of a cultural plan for the city that called for greater public and private funding; for more physical spaces in which artists could perform, rehearse and create; and for greater coordination between arts organizations.
As a philanthropic liaison in Newark from 2007 to 2016, Johnson straddled then-mayor Cory Booker, now U.S. Senator from New Jersey, for six years and then worked with current city mayor Ras Baraka.
At City Hall, Johnson helped negotiate more than $ 50 million in private sector support for public-private projects aimed at enriching cultural activities for city residents, according to the Council of New website. Jersey Grantmakers.
And at the Performing Arts Center in 1998, Johnson helped launch the free and popular annual Sounds of the City concerts. The event takes place outside of Chambers Plaza at the Performing Arts Center every year, except in 2020, when it took place online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Due to crime and unrest in the late 1990s, “the idea of people gathering in Newark was alarming,” he said. But the concerts showed that Newark would be more than “a city where there were negative attitudes, where people were literally afraid of the city,” he said.
Transformed by art
Johnson embarked on an artistic career after living life-changing personal experiences growing up in Cleveland.
Members of the Johnson family, originally from Georgia, migrated north to the Mahoning Valley to work in the Youngstown steel mills after World War II. After Johnson’s father died when he was six, his mother married Reverend Albert Hicks, who was invited to lead a Baptist church in Cleveland.
Johnson, who is black, remembers what it was like to move from a racially integrated neighborhood in Youngstown to the all-black Cleveland neighborhood of Hough just after the 1966 riots, now widely labeled in the community as an uprising.
Johnson said his mother used insurance money from a policy held by his late father to buy a piano. He immediately hooked. His mother enrolled him in classes at Music School Settlement, where he walked a mile and a half each way from his home on East 90th Street.
He first heard the Cleveland Orchestra perform at Severance Hall during a grade three class trip from Columbia Elementary School.
“I couldn’t sleep for weeks,” he said.
But while he loved Brahms and Schubert, Johnson was also captivated by
Mahalia Jackson and the Jackson Five. He learns gospel music and performs on Sundays in churches where his stepfather is pastor.
As a teenager, he regularly visited the Cleveland Museum of Art, marveling at the collection of medieval armor. On the bus rides to and from Upscale Hunting Valley University School, where Johnson earned a high school scholarship, he stopped by a branch of the Cleveland Public Library to borrow sheet music he could not afford to buy.
“Music and art was a place for me as a nerd, a person who was more bookish than some of my siblings,” Johnson said. “The arts were my escape route. I became a man of art because I was rooted and cultivated in Cleveland Ohio. ”
Johnson went on to earn a BA in Psychology from Kenyon College and an MA in Arts Administration from the University of Iowa.
Today, he said he is well aware that Cleveland has a much more robust cultural sector than one would expect for a city of its size. And he is aware that cultural nonprofits have been severely damaged during the coronavirus pandemic by lost revenue and layoffs.
While Johnson is keen to see the industry revive, he has said he would not be happy with the resumption of the status quo. He wants to see the growth of the city’s creative industries, both for-profit and not-for-profit. And he would like to see if the arts could help alleviate minority communities that have been mired in poverty for decades.
“The arts can be a helping hand out of hopelessness and despair,” he said.
He rhetorically asked if the arts can “move anyone from the lower middle class to the upper middle class overnight.”
“I don’t have an answer to that,” he continued. But, no doubt drawing on his own life experience, he said: “I can tell you that is a key lever.”