Kristen Levy wasn’t born and raised in Cleveland, but she’s been here her entire adult life (excepting a four-year sojourn to Los Angeles), and she’s “definitely a Clevelander,” she states. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Kristen moved northeast in 2002 to attend Case Western Reserve University. She’s passionate about her adopted city, its strengths and its opportunities. “Cleveland is a scrappy city — we may be an underdog, but we push hard to achieve what we want.”
As the newest Arts Cleveland staff member (she was hired in April 2019), Kristen, who’s a filmmaker/-writer as well as an arts administrator, fits right in with her co-workers, several of whom know firsthand about the battle to earn a living while also managing to practice one’s art. In addition to holding down what she calls “retail and other survival jobs,” Kristen worked for several years in various fundraising positions at institutions such as the Center Theatre Group and the American Film Institute in L.A., and at the Cleveland Institute of Art. “Fundraising happened to be where I landed [professionally],” she explains, “but the goal has always been to have a job in arts administration.”
She’d known that since grad school at Cleveland State University’s Maxine Levin College of Urban Affairs, where, in 2011, she earned a Master of Public Administration degree with a focus in Nonprofit Administration. Her concentration on arts administration was a somewhat individual one, she recalls, given that “many of my peers were interested in the economic development aspect” of the degree. But because Kristen loved the arts — she’d been studying dance since the age of four and involved in theater since fourth grade — she chose to center her attention on arts-related topics and courses when she could.
Her MPA capstone project, in fact, examined the public and cultural value of a film industry in Cleveland. “I noticed that my peers in the Levin College were studying all sorts of important and interesting things about the city,” she explains, “but not one person I encountered was focused on the arts. Because film was interesting to me, and had appeal to the public, it seemed like a natural route” for her project.
Kristen’s interest in film wasn’t merely scholarly: While researching her project, she was involved as an actor and a producer in the productions of her then-boyfriend, who was finishing his degree in film at CSU. The couple, who had met in 2008 while working in a theater production at Cuyahoga Community College, married in 2012 and then moved to L.A., so that her husband could earn a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production at the University of Southern California. Kristen acknowledges that she gained invaluable experience and contacts while living on the West Coast, but, she says, “I began to resent the fact that I had to live in L.A. or New York [City] or Chicago to make films.” As strongly pro-Cleveland as ever, she and her husband “wanted to move back here the moment we heard that CSU was creating [the School of Film & Media Arts].” In summer 2016, the pair came back to Cleveland. (Unfortunately, Kristen says, their move date was two weeks after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA Championship.)
On their return, Kristen began working for the Cleveland Institute of Art. A couple of years later, while looking through Creative Compass, Arts Cleveland’s artists’ clearinghouse, she discovered the posting for her current position. When she read about the opening, she remembers, “I thought, ‘That job description is me! That’s my job!’ ” The position “not only draws on all of my nonprofit experience,” she says, “but also on a lot of things I learned in grad school but haven’t used since.”
Like all recent hires, Kristen is ambitious about what she hopes to achieve in her new situation, and her aspirations encompass Arts Cleveland, the city and the region. In the short term, her goals are unsurprising: to raise funds for the arts service organization so that it can expand its capacity to deliver services and move forward with new activities. But her longer-term dream, she admits, is much bigger than that: “Especially given its rough-and-tumble [economic] history,” she says, “I’d love to see Cleveland build a robust independent film-and-TV industry.”
Another aspect of her vision is that generating such an industry locally would be a way to address the issue of Northeast Ohio’s stagnant population. Kristen would “love to see people who’ve left Ohio [to pursue arts careers] come back.” And a thriving regional film industry would allow actors, filmmakers and other artists to work in their fields here “and have a house and a yard and a dog,” she notes. “You wouldn’t have to live your whole life in a studio apartment,” as many artists do in more expensive cities. She and her husband are good examples of her point: Both are able to work in their fields (her husband is a part-time faculty member at CSU’s film school) while also practicing their art. Contrary to accepted wisdom, Kristen points out, living in Cleveland is providing the pair with “much better opportunities than if we’d stayed in Los Angeles.”
Of those opportunities, her new job may be the one she’s most grateful for, because “It allows me to support not just one [arts and culture] organization,” she says, “but to support all of them, and the community generally, to make Cleveland a better place to live.” Ultimately, she adds, “I want to help change the idea of what arts and culture can be and mean for the city.”
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