Kathleen Cerveny, Director of Institutional Learning and Arts Initiatives, The Cleveland Foundation
2014 ROBERT P. BERGMAN PRIZE
Photo by Rob Muller
As a little girl in Middleburg Heights, Kathleen Cerveny so thoroughly enjoyed her first exposure to the arts – drawing landscapes with her artistic father – that she wanted more. By the time she was in 8th grade, she spent most of her Saturdays on the third floor of the Cleveland Public Library, immersing herself in books about dance or listening to recordings of Old Vic Theatre Shakespeare productions or exploring the Cleveland Museum of Art’s extension exhibitions in the basement.
“I wanted to be a ballerina, a torch singer, I wanted to do it all,” she fondly recalls. “So, I’ve always been fascinated with all of the arts.”
While attending Nazareth Academy for Girls (which later merged with St. Joseph Academy), one of her teachers who had graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art recognized Kathleen’s talent and encouraged her parents to send her to art school. Because she graduated early at 16, she had to wait a year before CIA would accept her, so she spent the year working as a gofer for an advertising agency. She went on to graduate from CIA with her BFA in ceramic art in 1969 and worked as a professional ceramic artist for 20 years.
“I was the first person in my family to get a degree,” Kathleen informs. “From that point forward, the arts have always been the through line of my life.”
Early on, she also put herself on a track that would expand the scope of her capabilities within the arts by immediately getting involved in advocacy work as one of the founding members of the New Organization of the Visual Arts (NOVA), a service organization for visual artists in Cleveland. She also served as Board President for Ohio Designer Craftsmen, a statewide organization for professional craftspeople. She also briefly worked as a development officer for a social service agency.
Then, in 1987, Kathleen became the first producer for arts programming at WCPN, Cleveland’s public radio station, a perfect cap to the diverse experiences that made her the ideal person to become the Program Director for Arts and Culture at the Cleveland Foundation in 1991.
“When I look back at all of the different things that I’ve done, I see that it all added up to what I have had the amazing opportunity to do at the Cleveland Foundation,” she says.
Initially, her responsibility was to oversee all arts grantmaking at the Foundation. Since the late ‘90s, when the Foundation redoubled its role in arts and culture, her primary role has shifted to serving as a proactive capacity-building grantmaker. “We have worked hard to design programs and offer technical assistance to cultural organizations to improve their business practices, to professionalize the management of arts and cultural organizations, and to help build financial capacity in terms of working and innovation capital,” Kathleen says.
Today, she also runs the Creative Fusion program, which aligns with the Foundation’s globalization agenda for Cleveland. The program brings artists from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South America to participate in extended residencies that enable them to connect to the cultural community and local artists and results in performances and exhibitions of the work they develop while here.
“Kathleen knows how to find and work with a wide variety of collaborators to accomplish great things,” says Steve Minter, former Executive Director of the Cleveland Foundation and the one who hired her.
For Kathleen, one of the most significant and rewarding achievements was the collaboration with the Gund Foundation to study what the region needed most for the future and create the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture and the sin tax funding to support the basic needs of the cultural sector and its artists.
“Our ability to identify those areas as critical needs and put in place what was necessary – and it took ten years – to get the community to agree to provide substantial public support, I would count those as our greatest accomplishments,” she concludes.
Through it all she’s kept her own hand in the arts by writing poetry. Kathleen now serves as the Poet Laureate of Cleveland Heights, and in July, she will graduate with her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.