2020 ROBERT P. BERGMAN PRIZE
Shortly before his death in September 2019, at his last board meeting for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, Steve Minter revealed an early experience that drove his deep-seated passion for the arts. Today, Robyn Minter Smyers recalls how her father, the first President of the CAC board, recounted how his parents scrimped and saved to buy him a violin. “He attributed his lifelong love of classical music and the arts to their parental sacrifice,” she says.
While he didn’t go on to become a particularly special musician, music played a large and formative role throughout his childhood. Young Minter played in the orchestra at Kinsman High School in a small town about 40 miles south of Ashtabula, where he graduated in a class of 16.
“His experiences growing up opened his eyes to how his life could be enhanced by the arts,” Robyn says. “Then when he attended Baldwin-Wallace College, he was exposed to much more, and it cemented for him a lifelong belief that museums, performances and interactions with the artists were essential to quality of life.”
Among the numerous achievements of his distinguished career, Steve would become the first African American to lead the Cleveland Foundation, the Cuyahoga County Welfare Department, Massachusetts’ public welfare commission and what is now the American Public Human Services Association. He was also the founding undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education.
Throughout, however, he also found time to establish himself as a true arts patron. When the couple was younger and just out of college, they would attend free theater productions, concerts or poetry readings or visit the city’s amazing and free art museum.
“For them the magic of Cleveland was you didn’t have to be a person of tremendous resources to access it,” Robyn says. “Our mother became a docent and very active with the Women’s Committee of the orchestra and of the art museum.”
As they matured and were able to afford it, Steve and his late wife Dolly maintained season subscriptions to the Cleveland Orchestra, Karamu House, Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theatre Festival, and Playhouse Square. According to Robyn, those institutions and arts were all things that were part of her parents’ regular life. Over the years, for example, they visited museums not only in Cleveland, but all around the world.
“My father really believed Cleveland was the best city in the world in which to live because of the accessibility and the affordability of the arts,” she says. “He also believed mightily that each child’s and each community’s access to arts education and enrichment were essential.”
As the Cleveland Foundation’s president and chief executive from 1984 to 2003, Steve galvanized support for Playhouse Square, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, and the Fund for Our Economic Future. Additionally, he boosted the foundation’s endowment from about $300 million to $1.3 billion and boosted grants by 450 percent.
“He certainly was very proud of the tremendous work the foundation has done over the years supporting the arts,” Robyn says. “But he was particularly proud of his role in helping to spearhead the investment of county residents directly in the arts through the passage of the levy that enables Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.”
Along with her sisters Michele Minter and Caroline Minter Hoxby, Robyn was very excited that her father would be recognized with the Bergman Prize. “We felt very honored that his legacy of supporting the arts would put him in the company with so many people he has worked with and supported over the years on the list of Cleveland Arts Prize winners,” she says.
Steve’s long-time colleague at the Cleveland Foundation and dear friend Mary Louise Hahn says: “Steve and Bob Bergman greatly respected and liked each another, so he would have been deeply touched to receive the prize that bears Bob’s name.”
Steve and Dolly also made sure their three daughters were raised with the arts, Robyn adds, starting with piano lessons at a very young age, and all sang and performed in musical theater and are regular supports of the arts as adults. Her parents made sure to pass along their love of the arts to the next generation, too, often taking their five grandchildren to museums, galleries, and performing arts events, especially Cleveland Orchestra concerts.
“My parents were true arts lovers and oriented their lives around it as source of tremendous joy,” Robyn says. “They worked very hard to ensure that through both their professional and volunteer work to ensure that everyone had the opportunities that they were enjoying.”