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KIRSTEN LEENAARS



Present Tense, 3-channel video installation, 2019, video still

Arts 77 shores up the city's creative infrastructure


Last week's announcement of the city’s "Arts 77" plan was a jaw-dropper.


Issued jointly by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), and the Chicago Park District, it described a "citywide arts recovery and reopening plan" for Chicago’s 77 community areas with an initial investment of "over $60 million to support local artists and organizations."


$60 million! For an arts community devastated by the pandemic and facing an uncertain future, that's an impressive figure. It sounded like manna from heaven.What it mostly is, however, is manna from the future.


A major chunk of the money for Arts 77 is coming from the capital improvement budgets of the city and the Park District. It's money intended for long-term infrastructure projects and funded by long-term public debt.


So a lot of that $60 million will pay for brick-and-mortar-and-equipment improvements to civic and cultural facilities. At least $40 million will be spent to upgrade "theater, music, dance, and visual art presentation capabilities" at city cultural centers, many in parks on the south and west sides.


Thanks to a private donation of $15 million in services, the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall and Rotunda at the Chicago Cultural Center will be returned to its late-19th-century glory. That includes a museum-quality restoration of the rotunda's 62,000-piece art glass dome.


Work on the G.A.R. rooms will continue through 2021, but the rest of the Cultural Center will reopen June 2, with a new shop selling work by local artists, and a "new mission" linking the People's Palace to Park District neighborhood cultural centers and regional libraries, in what DCASE Commissioner Mark Kelly calls a "citywide cultural center ecosystem."


The money that'll flow more directly to local artists includes $3.5 million to purchase and commission work for the International Terminal expansion at O'Hare Airport (there's a call out now for submissions), and $15 million from the city's capital budget that'll be spent on other new neighborhood art projects over the next five years. Although Chicago's had a 1.33 "percent for art" ordinance for civic construction since 1978, Kelly says this is the first time public art has made it into the capital budget on its own; he sees it as recognition that public art is "part of the infrastructure of the city."


Among projects up for grabs right now is a new Neighborhood Access Program that'll hand out $1 million in grants of $5,000 to $50,000 each to "support the cultural vitality in neighborhoods.” DCASE is looking for ideas. Also open for proposals is Chicago Presents, which will grant up to 100 awards of $5,000 to $30,000 each for neighborhood cultural events this summer. They'll even kick in the cost of one or two soloists or groups from their new Chicago Band Roster. (Musicians: the roster has open slots.)


DCASE's most direct support for artists, its annual Individual Artists Program grants, have already been decided for this year, with 162 artists announced last week as recipients of project-based awards of $800 to $5,000, while 13 additional "Esteemed" artists (half of them musicians this year) are getting $10,000 each.


The Arts 77 announcement also included a list of grants from a new source, a $1.2 million Artist Response Program (funded in part by an anonymous donation of $750,000). A total of $600,000 from this program will be disbursed by seven arts organizations that will "regrant" it to about 60 artists. Those regranting groups are ConTextos, Folded Map Project/Englewood Arts Collective, Full Spectrum Features, Greater Southwest Development Corporation, Jazz Institute of Chicago, Kartemquin Films, and the National Museum of Mexican Art.


Another half-million dollars from the Artist Response Program is going to five individual artists and artist teams in project-related grants of (drum roll here) $100,000 each. The five winners, chosen from over 200 applicants by DCASE-appointed panelists, are Tonika Lewis Johnson; Santiago X; Kirsten Leenaars with Circles & Ciphers; Hector Duarte, Nicole Marroquin, and Gabriel Villa; and the team of Aquil Charlton, William Estrada, Andrés Lemus-Spont, and Marya Spont-Lemus.


What kind of projects took the big prize? Tonika Lewis Johnson says she'll spend her grant on making "landmarkers" for homes that were sold in the post-WWII era via unscrupulous land sale contracts that were the only financing available to many Black homebuyers in Chicago. It's a project she's working on during a residency with the National Public Housing Museum. Kirsten Leenaars, in partnership with the restorative justice organization Circles & Ciphers, will use the money for their second video project, exploring through "rhyme and rap in parks and abandoned lots" what "collective freedom looks, sounds, and feels like" to young people and others in the Rogers Park community.


And Hector Duarte says the grant his team got will pay for a "massive mural" on two walls of the Pilsen Housing Cooperative, and for public programming at the site, which is across the street from the National Museum of Mexican Art. "The art we are creating is about a vision in which communities come up with their own effective solutions to entrenched problems" like gentrification and displacement, Duarte says. "In this case, residents collectively owning their neighborhoods."


Award decisions were made by panels selected by DCASE staff; lists of panelists and award winners are available on the city website. DCASE says information about additional financial grants and programs for the arts "will follow in the upcoming weeks."






Present Tense, 3-channel video installation, video still, 2019

Chicago announces Arts 77, a huge increase in arts funding, with $60 million for artists, concerts and new public art at O’Hare


In the biggest show of civic support for the arts in years, if not decades, City of Chicago officials are expected to announce Tuesday a major new initiative called Arts 77, drawing its name from the 77 Chicago neighborhoods. The plan, they claim, represents a new city investment of over $60 million to support local artists and organizations throughout the city.


“It’s unprecedented and it’s right for the times,” said Mark Kelly, the commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), in an interview Monday. “It means it is no longer ‘DCASE delivers the arts’ but the entire city government is now involved. It’s embedding the arts in the city. Think of this as a new Works Progress Administration project for the entire city.”


To illustrate what he said was a sea change in thinking, brought about by the pandemic, Kelly said that the past budget for public art in the City of Chicago has been a very modest $100,000 per year. Going forward, he said, the amount will increase $3 million a year over the next five years, with funds flowing from the city’s capital budget.


There will also be an additional $3.5 million in funding to acquire new public art for the new international terminal currently in planning for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, designed to “celebrate the work of Chicagoland artists through large-scale commissions and acquisitions, and to provide international visitors a dynamic and welcoming first impression of our city.”


The city claimed that up to 30 Chicago-area artists will participate in this program, which it said will represent “the largest single acquisition of works by Chicago artists by the city in the last 30 years.”


The city claimed that up to 30 Chicago-area artists will participate in this program, which it said will represent “the largest single acquisition of works by Chicago artists by the city in the last 30 years.”


Arts 77 will be an overarching branding of multiple programs and initiatives, most of them new. In addition to the O’Hare project, other initiatives include the Neighborhood Access Program, the Chicago Band Roster, the Chicago Presents grant programs, a program called Culture in My Neighborhood (a $40 million collaboration by DCASE, the Chicago Park District, and Chicago Public Library), Individual Artists Program grants, Artist Response Program grants, and $18.5 million in other art and infrastructure investments.

The Neighborhood Access Program will offer $1 million in new grant funding in chunks ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. Chicago Presents will offer more small grants ($5,000 to $30,000) aimed at activating cultural programs (such as concerts) in Chicago neighborhoods (Kelly said the concerts could be either for-profit or nonprofit events). The Band Roster is a new database representing some 200 Chicago musicians who presumably could play such concerts.

The Culture in My Neighborhood program is a newly branded initiative designed to support cultural programming at the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago’s Loop, the Chicago Park District neighborhood cultural centers, and the Chicago Public Library regional libraries — mostly through grants and commission opportunities for artists and organizations.

Mark Kelly, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, speaks in Grant Park in in 2019. Kelly helped announce the ambitious, new Arts 77 program to fund arts recovery in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

Notable for its size and scope and carefully designed to cover the whole city, the new initiative is separate from the $4.7 billion in relatively flexible federal money expected to flow to the City of Chicago in COVID-19 recovery funds from the Biden administration, although arts groups also are lobbying for an additional $25 million slice for the arts from that one-time-only pie. “Beyond all the loss and devastation the cultural sector has suffered,” said Claire Rice, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois in an interview, “this sector will be a cultural part of the economic recovery. Rice also said that Chicago historically has lagged behind other major cities, such as New York, in city support for the arts. Certainly, New York officials have been more visible to date in highlighting the necessity for the recovery of Broadway and other arts sectors crucial to the local economy.


“We have felt the full throttle of the pandemic,” said Carlos Hernandez, the executive director and founder of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, in an interview. Hernandez is a member of the group, dubbed Enrich Chicago, lobbying for the piece of the coming federal funds.


City officials said that a determination as to the Biden recovery money has yet to be made, but they highlighted efforts they see as newly responsive and extensive, calling their Arts 77 “a new direction for Chicago’s cultural policy, in which the arts are embedded in initiatives and strategies across City government.”

“With this incredible program,” said Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a prepared statement, “we will not only be able to revitalize this critical sector and provide support to our artists, creative workers and organizations, but also place the arts at the center of our city’s recovery efforts.”


As part of the Artist Response Program, announced in January, five Chicago artists and artistic teams have been awarded $100,000 grants from DCASE. Those moneys have flowed to Tonika Lewis Johnson; Santiago X; Kirsten Leenaars with Circles and Ciphers; Pilsen Housing Cooperative with Hector Duarte, Nicole Marroquin, and Gabriel Villa; and an artist team with Aquil Charlton, William Estrada, Andrés Lemus-Spont, and Marya Spont-Lemus. Other artists will be supported by $50,000 to $100,000 grants sent to other arts organizations and designated for “regranting” to artists. Those organizations were named as ConTextos, Folded Map Project/Englewood Arts Collective, Full Spectrum Features, Greater Southwest Development Corporation, Jazz Institute of Chicago, Kartemquin Films, and the National Museum of Mexican Art.


The announcement also included a promise of further programs in the near future, including advocacy and public awareness campaigns for the arts and film-production sectors, as well as additional recovery funds for arts organizations. It also heralded something called “We Will Chicago,” which it dubbed “the first citywide plan where artists will play a central role in creating public policy.” The idea, Kelly said, was to embed artists in the entire process by which the city engages with the public. As for the federal funds, Kelly said he “loved the advocacy that is out there” and said he recognized that even $60 million won’t solve the problems wrought by a pandemic that has closed venues, laid off artists and brought most of the cultural sector to its knees.


“I am confident,” he said, suggesting that Enrich Chicago has a high chance of success, “that the city will respond positively in its commitment to the arts.”


Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.



Present Tense, 3-channel video installation, 2019, video stills

Leenaars received one of the Artist Response direct grants ($100,000) from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to develop and produce a video project with the restorative justice organization Circles & Ciphers in Chicago.


About the grant:

Through its new Artist Response Program, DCASE has awarded five artists and artist teams $100,000 grants. The City of Chicago is facing a critical moment in its history as the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies systemic racism and the history of disinvestment on the South and West sides of the city and presents an opportunity to rebuild towards equity. Recognizing that artists have always played an important role in advancing the causes of justice and equity, DCASE seeks to support artists in developing projects that engage the public in a constructive, civic dialogue that will propel our collective action, facilitate progress, and make Chicago a model city for the nation as it faces the difficult work ahead.


About the video project Beyond the Box: Reimagining Freedom:

What does collective freedom look, sound, and feel like? This question and its political stakes will guide our second collaborative multimedia project. Through the creation of performative actions, through rhyme and rap in parks and abandoned lots in the Rogers Park neighborhood we will activate these spaces as sites for our own radical imagination and as sites for healing, joy and community. We invite the young people that are part of Circles & Ciphers, as well those who are currently incarcerated, to respond to the notion of collective freedom based on their personal experiences, including considering the ways Covid-19 and the prison industrial complex have impacted their lives and communities. The produced videos and performances will serve as interventions in public space.

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