Mary Louise Hahn, Community Arts Leader


Mary Louise Hahn would have loved to have been a creative artist. "That wasn’t in the cards,” she said. But she loves the arts. It’s easy to see how passionate she feels as she takes a visitor on a tour of her art-filled Cleveland home. Luckily for her adopted city, her appreciation of the art and culture extends well beyond the walls of her home.

Two of Cleveland’s most prestigious arts-awards organizations—the Cleveland Arts Prize and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award—would not be what they are today if it were not for Hahn’s vision and drive.

In fact, before she got involved, both organizations were low-key albeit prestigious operations. Each brings local, national and international recognition to the artistic accomplishments of remarkable individuals.

Softspoken and modest, Hahn credits her mentors with her success. They are the late Martha Joseph, a co-founder of the Cleveland Arts Prize (CAP), Frances Taft, a longtime Cleveland Institute of Art professor  and the late Katherine “Kay” Williams, arts patron.

Hahn took up the reins of the Cleveland Arts Prize from Joseph, who founded it at the suggestion of composer Klaus George Roy. Over the course of her 10 years as volunteer chairwoman(1990–2000) , Hahn enhanced the organization'slocal and national image. She expanded the board, increased the endowment and the cash prizes awarded to honorees, made the judging process more inclusive, launched a college scholarship program and established the tradition of mounting the awards ceremonies at important cultural venues.

“She paid attention to every detail and kept all the volunteers bubbling along with the same sense of enthusiasm,” noted Franny Taft, who served on CAP's board during Hahn's tenure. “For many of us, Mary Louise Hahn was really synonymous with the Cleveland Arts Prize.”

Not one to just walk away, she made herself available for a year after she stepped down to ensure a smooth transition.

In the early 1990s, the Cleveland Foundation’s executive director, Steven Minter, recruited Harvard University professor of African and African-American studies Henry Louis Gates Jr. as to serve as chairman of the jury for the foundation-administered Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which recognize authors who have have made important contributions to our understanding of racism or our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures. With the administrative assistance of Mary Louise Hahn, Gates brought new vigor to the then 50-plus-year-old honors program. The jury was bolstered with renowned intellectuals, the cash prizes were increased to $10,000 and, by making attendance at the Cleveland-based awards ceremony a condition of winning, the event was turned into a compelling, literary-star-studded evening that consistently plays to capacity local audiences.

“Under Mary Louise’s watch, the ceremony has become an occasion suited to the depth and importance of the prize: intimate but grand, reverent but convivial,” Gates has stated. “For more than [20] years, Mary Louise has been a force in Cleveland’s arts and culture scene.”

Hahn will admit to having strong organizational skills. “But," she averred, "I think my real strength is understanding the value that a team brings to things. I have always had tremendous support from others.”

—Susan Ruiz Patton

Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 •