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Game Changers: Assembly for the Arts CEO Jeremy Johnson on growing Cleveland's creative industries

'I'm all about jobs and the work of creatives to make the city greater. So we see that happening.'

CLEVELAND — Jeremy Johnson spent more than three decades living on the east coast before returning to his hometown last year to take on an exciting new role.

"I feel like I've come back to Cleveland. I recognize the street names, but the city looks different. It feels different. The leadership is different. The people have a certain excitement about them," Johnson told 3News anchor Dave Chudowsky in a recent interview. 

But the biggest driver for his return?

"Of course, one of the main reasons why I'm here is arts and culture, which has taken off."

And there is plenty of excitement that Johnson has come home to help shape the future of our city.

Last year, he was named the first President and CEO of Assembly for the Arts -- a brand new umbrella organization that aims to elevate Northeast Ohio’s creative industries.

Credit: Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson at Deep Roots Experience Gallery in Cleveland's Fairfax Neighborhood.

"We are an industry, a $9.1 billion industry, that that accounts for some 65,000 jobs. That generates literally more than $3 billion to our tax coffers every year," Johnson explained. "So we have to raise up that and then we have to draw attention to that. And we literally have to bring people together in different ways."

The timing couldn’t be better as arts organizations are starting fresh after pandemic closures and cancellations. Johnson says their research shows that the arts and culture industry was hurt worse than any other industry during the last two years.

"Whether it's organizationally or individually, we are still in a moment of recovery and reinvestment. And thankfully, the arts and culture industry is primed to come back out and we’re fighting," he said.

It's a role Johnson is uniquely primed for. He grew up in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood before attending the University of Iowa then becoming a leading arts administrator in Newark, New Jersey.

Johnson says he knows the impacts of his hometown's art and culture firsthand. He recalled the excitement of field trips to Severance Hall to see the Cleveland Orchestra and seeing holiday theater performances at the historic Karamu House.

"It was really part of my upbringing. I want that for the next generation and the next generation after that."

Credit: Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson was a church musician on Cleveland's East Side in the 1980s.

It’s that motivation that brought him back home. But Johnson says, despite the pride we take in our arts scene, Northeast Ohio still has room for improvement.

"The interesting thing about our region and especially about Cleveland proper [is] we are a great arts city, and we're one of the few great art cities that doesn't have a point person for the arts in our city hall to really work with our mayor to be that bully pulpit. ... and we're so happy to be making some progress and getting that that happening. So stay tuned for that."

Important strides have also been made in collaboration with Cuyahoga Arts and Culture in just in the last few weeks to secure $3.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the arts.

"I'm all about jobs and the work of creatives to make the city greater. So we see that happening. And Assembly is happy to help work with both government artists, creative organizations to see those dollars reinvested and raise awareness, raise visibility across the region and across the nation," Johnson said.

Credit: Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson poses with artists at Sankofa Arts Plus Gallery in Glenville.

But finding future funding will remain a top priority -- in order to ensure Northeast Ohio’s arts and culture continue to be an important piece of what makes this region so special.

Johnson told 3News that Assembly and their partners are continuing to work together to address a shrinking revenue stream for arts and culture -- one that comes from cigarette taxes.

"Cuyahoga County made national headlines when voters twice went to the polls and said, we, we will tax ourselves, we will tax cigarettes to create a pool of money that supports the great arts across the county. And that vote really created the stream of dollars at its height. It was $20 million going to this arts and culture industry," Johnson explained. "I always say the good news is we started it. The other good news is, is that fewer people are smoking now. [But] what that means is that there are fewer dollars in that pot of money."

Johnson says Assembly will work closely with government entities and organizational partners to seek alternate revenue streams, continuing to ensure Northeast Ohio’s arts and culture remain an important piece of what makes this region so special.

"It touches every aspect of our lives, our economy, public safety, public health," Johnson said. "At a time where we have been cloistered for safety reasons, at home with our cell phones, with our computers, the arts bring us out to brush up against other people who may look like us or may not look like us. The arts are key tool to bring us together, and I think that will make for a better society."


Editor's note: Video in the player above was originally published in a previous edition of Game Changers on May 25, 2022.

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