Ohio Citizens for the Arts is advocating for the preservation of state arts funding as the legislature and Gov. DeWine look to balance the pandemic-crashed budget.
During the six years she ran her Downtown gallery, Angela Meleca enjoyed being her own boss. She also liked the freedom of being able to support a range of arts groups.
“For so long, I liked being Switzerland, if you will,” says Meleca, who from 2013 to 2019 owned the Angela Meleca Gallery on East State Street. “I was very much involved in the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus Museum of Art and Columbus College of Art and Design.”
So, when she learned of a job opening at the nonprofit organization Ohio Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for public funding for the arts, “There was a little bit of: ‘Gosh, I don’t want to pick sides,’ ” says Meleca, 50.
In November, Meleca became the executive director of the group, which operates as both a 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organization. It hires lobbyists to plead the case for arts funding with government officials while helping its members—which include the Columbus Symphony, BalletMet, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland—speak up.Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
“It’s a 24/7 effort in which we are communicating the impact and the value that our members in the arts and culture sector add to everyday life,” says Meleca, who before opening her gallery was involved in the state political scene, serving as statehouse bureau chief for the Ohio News Network and later as press secretary for the Ohio Senate. Her familiarity with the corridors of power and enthusiasm for the arts made her a good fit for the new job.
“We wanted somebody who was passionate to come in and understand the depth of what was needed—and, of course, be able to appreciate the work,” says board member Demetries Neely, executive director of the King Arts Complex.
Ohio Citizens for the Arts was established in 1976 as part of a wave of similar state organizations formed with the goal of making more public money available for arts, says former Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Lawson.
“Most of the state arts agencies in this country were starting to feel that they weren’t really receiving the kinds of money they needed to support the growing arts scenes,” Lawson says. “We were right at the forefront of that, saying, ‘Hey, we need to educate people. We need to get people over to the legislature.’ ”
Despite the organization’s rich history, Meleca’s first order of business was to raise its profile. “I’d never heard of Ohio Citizens for the Arts,” she says. In December and January, she toured the state, checking in with member organizations to learn about artists outside the major population centers of Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland. “How powerful would we be to have a unified voice for arts and culture in Ohio come together under one umbrella?” she says.
Ironically, Meleca’s wish for greater collaboration and communication came about with the coronavirus pandemic, which, as she describes it, risks decimating arts groups and the $41 billion economic impact they have on the Ohio economy. “Where there are theaters, restaurants come around,” says Meleca, “If Ohio Theatre closes or the galleries close, or if Short North Stage closes, slowly that whole vibrancy erodes.”
As the state decides how to cut its spending to make up for expected shortfalls this year, the arts should have a voice at the table, she says. “If there are going to be cuts, the cuts need to be equitable.”
Ohio Citizens for the Arts has acted as a conduit of information about arts groups to the DeWine administration as bans on gatherings are lifted. It solicited perspectives from Ohio’s museums on best reopening practices, which were then submitted to the state. “We’ve had two statewide art director calls,” Meleca says. “Now we’ve been looping in botanical gardens and history museums.”
Meleca offers a sobering view of the fate of the arts in Ohio—she anticipates an 18- to 24-month recovery for many groups—but she is driven by a sense of mission. “I wanted to shake things up, and Covid-19 helped me achieve that,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes, I’m wondering, ‘Oh boy, be careful what you wish for.’ ”
Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.