Ballot Box puts public art to the vote

Perhaps you’ve already heard: this year is a pretty big election year. And while you are going to hear a lot of folks encouraging people to get out there and vote this year, the folks at Northeast Shores Development Corporation in Cleveland are urging residents of the Collinwood neighborhood to participate in a different kind of election.

Collinwood is a neighborhood of 17,000 residents in one of the only places where people can live on the shores of Lake Erie. It is a “proud mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood,” as Northeast Shores Executive Director Brian Friedman describes it. “We have economically challenged families where employment and education opportunities elude them as well as people who have more choice. We try to bridge those groups by using arts as an engagement tool amongst those people because it’s a language everyone understands.”

The demand in the neighborhood is high – Collinwood has the lowest time on market for homes than anywhere else in Cleveland – but they have made sure that the prices remain stable.

“We haven’t seen the kind of negative signs of gentrification yet and are keeping a close eye on that,” says Friedman. “We’re still selling artists homes as low as $65,000, and making sure artists have a road to own their commercial spaces as well as buy their homes. We’re not trying to bring in some absentee landlord who’s not going to renew the lease on a gallery so they can collect more money from a Starbucks.”

For the past decade, Northeast Shores has provided support for artists around community development, especially evident in the energetic Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District. Friedman says they have funded around $200,000 to almost 200 different projects, all tackling aspects of community development through the lens of art.

“We’re asking artists to think creatively about vacancy and youth engagement, to engage teens around workforce employment opportunities, and we have done this in a variety of different ways,” Friedman explains. “We have done this on a first-come, first-served basis, and we have also done a panel review process where community members read and examine proposals and give the artists feedback.”

The Ballot Box Project is their latest effort to engage the residents of Collinwood on community arts projects.

“The point of Ballot Box is to intentionally explore which arts interventions happen in 2016 using the very traditional American concept of everyone votes and majority rules,” says Friedman.

This is a model known as “participatory budgeting,” an idea for inclusive development that is gaining national traction, and it is the first of its kind in Ohio.

Supported by a $120,000 grant from ArtPlace America, Northeast Shores is using this democratic decision-making model, in which the residents of the community most impacted by the development decide how to allocate part of a public or municipal budget, to determine how this arts development fund is spent in Collinwood.

First the neighborhood decided on four subjects to focus on: healthy eating, youth engagement, Collinwood history, and vacancy. The artists submitted their project proposals up to $15,000. Friedman said their received a range of proposals from $388 up to the full $15,000.

“The artist will receive what they requested if they are successfully elected,” Friedman explains. “So the minimum number of projects is eight. If the top eight all ask for $15,000, that’s all that will get funded. We’re basically going to make sure one of each of the four subjects gets a project; after that, we will keep going until the entire amount is deployed. No matter what, eight projects will get funded.”

A total of 45 proposals were received, 36 of which will be on the “ballot” when voting starts on March 4. (The nine others were eliminated for lack of viability or incompleteness of application.)

“All of these are definitely placemaking activities, whether permanent public art or a variety of public performances, and all have a piece where community can engage in the art making,” says Friedman. “It’s not simply acceptable that the public can come and see it made; they must also have a role in the creation of it.”

The next steps happens March 4-9, when all of the nominated artists will set up tabletop displays (like at a middle school science fair) in various places around the city – an ethnic hall, a senior living facility, a community center, and a Salvation Army – and pitch their ideas to the voting public. People can only vote once but they will have several days of voting in multiple different locations. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections created a ballot for them that will help validate the sanctity of vote, and anybody over the age of 14 can vote.

“This will be the first type of ballot they will ever engage with,” Friedman says of the younger voters. “This is their first chance to see what will happen they turn 18 and can participate in an actual vote.”

The vote will also be ushered in with the “Democracy on the Move Parade” on the evening of Friday, March 4, looping through the whole Collinwood neighborhood. “This will build the movement and make lots of noise to remind residents to vote and raise regional awareness on the power of participatory budgeting and arts-placed development.”

One of the goals of this project, Friedman says, is to see if participation in this project translates to the other big vote this year – will this help to increase voter participation in the 2016 presidential election? He thinks it might.

“Throughout this process we have reminded people to make sure they are registered to vote,” he says. “We will be able to remind them it’s not too late to register for an absentee ballot for the Primary Election [in June] and they can sign up for that with us – we’ll be able to register them on the spot, and they can still be a registered voter for the Presidential Election [in November].”

For Friedman it’s not just a matter of getting the neighborhood residents involved and civically engaged, but also getting the artist community to be civically active.

“We’re constantly looking at different frames of reference in which we can work with the artist community,” he says. “With Ballot Box, it’s the artist as voter and the artist as politician: they’ll be campaigning for their specific projects. There is a statistically low vote in minority neighborhoods, so we’re hoping to increase the overall vote, but we’re also hoping to possibly spark a deeper understanding for artists of the importance of being civically engaged in the democracy process.”

Northeast Ohioans: join the Collinwood movement here.