Ohio Arts Council board member under fire for 'offensive' comments

Erica Thompson
ethompson@dispatch.com
Screen capture of social media comments made by OAC board member Susan Allan Block

Ohio artists and organizers are calling for the resignation of an Ohio Arts Council board member who appeared to voice her support on social media for the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Susan Allan Block, of Toledo, wrote on Facebook on Thursday, “No Peace! No Unity! No Concession! No legitimacy to a stolen election!" She also called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris a "whore."

Her comments have drawn the condemnation of Gov. Mike DeWine, who reappointed her to the position in 2019 after she was originally named to the post in 2016 by then-Gov. John Kasich.

In response to inquiry about Block’s comments, DeWine’s office provided the following statement to the Dispatch: “Susan Block’s comments are highly offensive and do not represent the views of this administration.”

DeWine’s office did not immediately confirm if additional measures are being taken.

OAC Executive Director Donna S. Collins’ response was more tempered.

“The Ohio Arts Council staff does not comment on the personal opinions of its board members,” she said in a statement to the Dispatch. “They were not made on behalf of the agency, and they do not pertain to the agency or its mission.”

Greater Columbus Arts Council President and CEO Tom Katzenmeyer condemned Block's comments in a letter, which was emailed and hand-delivered to the offices of DeWine and Lt. Governor Husted on Friday morning. (The Dispatch was provided with a copy.)

"I am writing this morning to request the immediate removal of Susan Block," Katzenmeyer wrote. "Incendiary hate speech cannot be tolerated in Ohio, let alone by a high-ranking government appointee."

Block, of Toledo, Ohio, is married to Allan Block, chairman of Block Communications, Inc. — a company which owns both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade newspapers. The Dispatch attempted to reach out to Block through Block Communications, Inc., where she is a former board member, but did not immediately hear back.

Her comment and other posts were shared widely Thursday, even after she made her Facebook page private and deleted her Twitter account. She faced swift criticism from community members who cited a pattern of inflammatory remarks,

Much of the momentum started with longtime Columbus arts organizer Andrew Dodson, who posted a screenshot on Facebook, encouraging the arts community to demand her removal. The post has since been shared approximately 100 times since Thursday.

“I was immediately compelled to say something,” said Dodson, 37, of Grandview Heights, who is on the board of We Amplify Voices, a nonprofit that has received funding from OAC. “It’s just offensive. There are so many good people that could fill that seat (instead).”

In 2019, the Pittsburgh City Paper reported that Susan Allan Block shared anti-Muslim conspiracy theories on Facebook.

The Dispatch also captured screenshots of Block’s earlier tweets before she deleted her account. In response to DeWine’s affirmation of First Amendment rights during the Black Lives Matter protests last May, she wrote, “What is happening is nothing less than domestic terrorism! How dare [you] condone these animals!”

In a post last June, she criticized New York State legislation granting immigrants driver’s licenses. “This will make it very easy for illegals to VOTE! What next, will they give them gun permits too?!”

Multiple Columbus artists said they were disgusted by the social media posts over the years.

“I was pretty disappointed when DeWine renewed her appointment,” said Casey Weber, 36, of Franklinton, the former CEO of the Columbus Idea Foundry . “I don’t think this is really an isolated, out-of-character emotional outburst. I think it’s a pattern of discrimination and disrespect for a lot of different members of the community, and she is rewarded with a board position for a rather important arts and culture organization.”

Married couple Beth and Ralph Walters, of Uniontown, Ohio, who operate the Artists Wrestling League , said they were also familiar with Block’s social media posts. They called her comments racist and said those — not her political beliefs — spurred them to demand her resignation.

“There is no room for that,” said Walters, 50. “We have so many diverse cultures involved in the arts scene and their work matters. Their voice matters. Their place in the art community matters. … This not only stains her, this stains the OAC. They should never have allowed someone like this in.”

Columbus artist and teacher David Butler, who is Black, said he had a visceral reaction to Block’s comments about Harris.

“Why is [she] able to spew hate and harmful language towards Black women?” asked Butler, 37, of the East Side. “Does she need to sit on a board of an institution that could possibly give more Black women artists money? I think that’s a problem. … You can’t just like some of us.”

Butler also added that the OAC is “disconnected” from artists of color, women artists and younger artists.

Marshall Shorts, an artist and designer, who is also Black, said he wasn’t surprised by Block’s comments.

“Black organizations have had complaints about these institutions for a long time,” said Shorts, 37, of Bronzeville/King-Lincoln, who is a founding board member of Maroon Arts Group, which has received funding from the Ohio Arts Council. “OAC is funded by Ohioans’ tax dollars. In that regard, it should represent a certain level of integrity and ethics.”

Franklinton artist Mona Gazala said she was also concerned about the potential influence of Block’s beliefs on the organization.

“Is this kind of sentiment determining who gets funding and who doesn’t?” said Gazala, who owned and operated her own arts space and artist residency program for years.

“If you’re going to take any kind of leadership position at an arts organization, you have to understand that what you’re saying is representative of that organization. … You’re under the microscope whether you want to be or not.”