ARTFUL joint statement regarding situation with building owner :: 05/16/22.
Thanks to all who came out for our fifth anniversary party last month. It was a much-needed break from the grueling fight to ensure the future of ARTFUL and the Coventry PEACE Campus. We’ve kept a lot of that story to ourselves over the last few years, but now, we think, it’s time to start sharing. People need to know how foolish and unnecessary this struggle is.
We encourage you to read this letter in full, and please show up to the Library Board meeting on Monday, May 16th at 6:30 pm at the Lee Rd. branch – 2345 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts., OH 44118. Or come early for the Give PEACE a Chance – Rally for PEACE. You can also sign the petition that a local community member started, and send a letter to the Library board, Cleveland Heights City Council & Mayor, University Heights City Council & Mayor, and to the CHUH School Board (we’ve made it easy – click here). You can review our assessment of the documents we received through a public records request on the Coventry PEACE Campus website, and we will be updating that often as we finish each review. You can also follow along on ARTFUL’s Facebook or Instagramaccounts, and CPC’s, as well.
We love our Library
We want to begin by making it crystal clear that our concerns and frustrations are not with the Library itself, certainly not the wonderful and dedicated staff people who work at our favorite local branches. The Library has an irreplaceable role in our community, and makes us all a better, more informed citizenry. WE LOVE OUR LIBRARY! However, this project has given us a unique perspective as to the way in which Library leadership conducts business — a perspective you only gain after months and years of observation and working with someone.
Our frustrations are not new
In the summer of 2020, Heights Library executive director Nancy Levin issued a press release accusing the Coventry PEACE Campus of owing the library $100,000. We were shocked by this. At the time, we were negotiating with Levin and others from the library for the long-term lease that was to take effect this year. We were meeting and corresponding regularly, and this supposed $100,000 debt had never come up. We learned of it through an inquiry from a reporter who was asking for our response to the press release the Library had released on July 9th.
We issued our own statement, explaining that this was simply false, and we were at a loss to explain the claim. Many of our supporters showed up to the next library board meeting (conducted via Zoom), negotiations got back on track, and we moved on, keeping our increasing frustrations to ourselves. In hindsight, that was a mistake.
So where did the accusation come from? Deborah Herrmann, the library’s fiscal officer, had made a series of accounting errors. After we brought this to their attention, the Library admitted that we owed them nothing. As it turned out, this was just the first in a series of mistakes we’ve had to help the library staff correct. And for a long time we assumed that they were errors. But in recent months, we’ve started to wonder if the first one, at least, was less an accident than an attempt to make CPC appear irresponsible. How else to explain running to the press instead of bringing it to our attention?
Levin never clarified, retracted or apologized for the false claim in her press release. And she’s done nothing to correct the impression among a few in the community that we’re freeloaders when in fact, as she well knows, we cover all building costs, pay rent to the library and are building a reserve. Her comments have damaged our reputations and she does not seem to care. Maybe because it’s the narrative she wants.
We have no way of knowing if any faulty accounting was presented to the library board, before it voted, at Levin’s strong urging, not to grant the long-term lease. We were completely shut out of the decision-making process. We do know that they relied on out-of-date information from a (2019) report by a consultant. We easily could have helped them avoid that mistake if they had just talked to us and explained what criteria they were using for their vote.
Our plan was not a burden – their plan is
After the vote, Levin told people that we were being “alleviated of the burden of property management.” As if we hadn’t been managing the building very effectively — and through a pandemic — for years, and also preparing all that time to take on the few responsibilities that weren’t already ours! It’s so paternalistic. Aren’t we silly women artists fortunate to have the burden of leadership lifted from our frail shoulders!
Now it’s spring and they still won’t communicate with us except through their attorney. They are making major decisions for businesses that most of them haven’t bothered to learn anything about, whose directors they won’t talk to, and a building most have never even toured. In emails we obtained through public records requests, Levin repeatedly urged the board members not to engage with us. And astonishingly, they’ve followed her orders. Who works for whom here?
Levin used to say that the building cost the library too much (it didn’t), but now her solution to that is to spend more. The library spent almost $15,000 on a completely unnecessary “feasibility study,” and didn’t even wait for the results of that before moving ahead with the highest-bidding private management firm. They’re going to pay nearly $3,000 per month to a company that won’t be on site and that will bill hourly for most of the actual work — work that CPC did for years for FREE. Work that Shannon has been overseeing and is receiving certification in as we speak.
We have a chance at funding through Cleveland Foundation, but as the building’s owner the library has to participate in the process with us, and Levin won’t. Her response was, “I would never put all of my eggs in the Cleveland Foundation basket.” What does that even mean? Does she know more about funding than us longtime non-profit organization leaders? Why on earth would they refuse to let us seek funding to make major capital improvements to their building?! Is this all just spite? An extended temper tantrum for some perceived slight? We’ve heard that the board members feel “attacked” by us daring to speak up for ourselves, and their lawyer said in a letter that we’ve “assaulted” library staff. This is what we’re dealing with. We’re just angry women. Maybe we should have smiled more.
The need to defend ourselves
The minutes for the December 20, 2021 library board meeting quote Levin as saying that people spoke in support of the tenants but not CPC. She knows damn well that no one was distinguishing between the tenants and Coventry PEACE, Inc. It’s like saying someone supported all of the library branches but not Heights Library. Imagine being that petty.
Levin also once called us “spoiled children” in a meeting. And so one of the mistakes we think she made is deciding that CPC is this small group of people she has grown weary of. CPC is a vision that grew out of community input more than a decade ago, after the school board closed Coventry School. That input is why we’re here.
The closest thing we’ve ever gotten to an explanation for the abrupt change came in December. In a meeting Levin told CPC representatives, including ARTFUL’s Board President, that she was concerned that if CPC were managing the building, we might fail in a year or two and that would make it harder for the library to pass a levy in 2024. She said she was “willing to take the PR hit now,” rather than then. So in other words, because this successful project might fail in the future, she needed to make sure it fails now. We don’t want to believe that’s really the strategy, but it does, in a perverse way, explain everything that has followed.
We’ve been mostly silent about all of this — the accounting errors, the false narratives spread about us, the inexcusable ways we’ve been treated — in the hopes that if we just endured it all we could eventually get back to the work of realizing the vision. But the community deserves to know how badly this valuable asset is being managed by the library leadership, and what will be lost if it stays on this course.
We won’t just go away
The other mistake Levin has made is thinking we’ll just go along or go away. We won’t. We’re going to keep consulting with our attorneys about legal options. We’re going to continue to make our case to the community that CPC purchasing the building, or converting to the long-term lease that was outlined in the agreement, is a win-win for everyone, including the library.
In a recent Cleveland Heights City Council members spoke of Cleveland Heights being the “Home to the Arts”. This point of pride has not been earned only by the council, or the mayor, but mostly by the amazing local arts organizations that operate within this city, and by those who choose to live here who are artists, or because of their love of the arts. City leaders enjoy the moniker as one that makes Cleveland Heights unique from other communities in northeast Ohio. But we find ourselves asking if they are willing to fight for that point of pride? Can they continue to use this reference with a clear conscience if they sit by and let the literal home to the arts shutter and be demolished? Can they look the 30+ artists at ARTFUL in the eye when they say the words “Cleveland Heights is home to the arts”?
Throwing it away is unthinkable
We don’t think it’s biased to say that this beautiful, organic, diverse safe space is something of a miracle. Very few cities have the capacity to build something like this, organically, with a few small but committed tenants and a lot of community support. But every city wishes it could. Throwing it away is unthinkable. And yet here we are, struggling against an adversary that used to be a partner in the self-styled “home of the arts.”
Even after all of this, if Levin would take a breath, put her apparent animosities aside and resume discussions with us, there could still be a peaceful solution. If she won’t, we’re going to keep fighting for this vision, because it’s important. We’ll even work with the library again one day, as partners, as we were always supposed to be.
Brady Dindia, board president, ARTFUL Cleveland
Shannon Morris, executive director, ARTFUL Cleveland