Two people hold hands as they look at a display of colorful posters on the wall at the Chicago Cultural Center
Credit: Courtesy Public Media Institute

We started with a bang. In January, a mob of supporters of the last presidential administration attacked the United States Capitol building in D.C., grabbing lecterns, posting selfies, and leaving a trail of confusion and “released on own recognizance” privilege in their wake. And it’s possible 2021 will end with a whimper. The new Omicron variant is quickly taking over (as of this writing it’s been found in more than half of new COVID-19 cases nationwide) and as the numbers rise, the steady reopening of cultural spaces in Chicago that we witnessed this year is clunking down to an unplanned stop. 

Chicago-based cultural theorist and professor Lauren Berlant, who passed away at the end of June after a long battle with cancer, wrote in their acclaimed 2011 book Cruel Optimism about the potential of our collective imagination working in response to capitalism in troubled times like these. Berlant posited that we express our fantasies of resistance “in regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty, lateral agency, and sometimes, counterabsorption in episodic refreshment, for example in sex, or spacing out, or food that is not for thought.” We saw many arts organizations band together in 2020 to respond to institutional racism in a way that we haven’t in recent memory, but did it work? And with a more localized perspective: in Chicago, what exactly is the work that our cultural scenes have to continuously be engaged in to reset the wrong? 

Everyone who decided to engage in art in 2021 didn’t automatically charge themselves with completing these arduous tasks, although to our collective credit, Chicago art communities really did band together to work on mutual aid support for marginalized neighborhoods over the last year. One example was the near-weekly supply drives that Humboldt Park’s Read/Write Library engaged in; their north-side resident-heavy audience was called upon to help provide money, water bottles, and snacks to be redistributed at places like Hyde Park’s Brave Space Alliance, and Read/Write Library’s patrons packed the space with donations. The library itself is facing a tough haul over the next few weeks as its landlord has decided to raise the rent, and soon the ten-year-old organization will find itself trying to build community with a new set of neighbors. 

Public Media Institute, the nonprofit entity that hosts art and other cultural programming largely at Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere, was also no stranger to the roller-coaster rides that were the regimes of exhausted practical sovereignty in Chicago art this year. I spoke with PMI’s managing director Nick Wylie about some of the challenges the organization dealt with in 2021. 

An installation of archival work from Lumpen activities at “Successful Failures.” Credit: Courtesy Public Media Institute

Salem Collo-Julin: Can you give me a sense of how the audiences were for your programming this year? Did people show up?

Nick Wylie: We started the year with appointment-only viewings at Co-Prosperity, and are ending it by shutting down a gift-filled art shop (Buddy at Chicago Cultural Center) during the week of Christmas . . . we’ve tried everything in between. 

Two weekends ago, we hosted sold-out performances at Co-Prosperity three nights in a row. We hadn’t been allowed the space to be that packed in two years. Everyone was required to show proof of vaccination. It was before Omicron hit Chicago. Some people came back for all three nights. I forgot what shows like that felt like. 

Then, that Sunday, a staff member was exposed to COVID-19 at an off-site gathering and tested positive. Less than two weeks later we feel like we are in a totally different place. (Our staff member is doing OK and was vaxxed as well as got their booster). 

What are the biggest challenges that the venue faced this year? 

The biggest challenge this year were performers, organizers, and a single staff member who did not take vaccination seriously. Not getting vaccinated and making excuses for anti-vax folks who they wanted us to work with made for difficult friction. 

We ended up giving up a city grant of over $20,000 because the organizers didn’t want to go forward without unvaccinated musicians included, playing horns into crowds. We tried listening to their arguments, but after having had so many friends and community members get sick, seeing so many deaths, no argument for working with the unvaccinated made sense. Some of these relationships have not yet recovered from these . . . disagreements. Hopefully we’ll heal.

PMI seems to have done pretty well funding-wise this year, but were there any financial streams that dried up or disappeared?

The Shuttered Venues Operator Grant and other federal funds have been giant nightmares, and we are still on the hook to pay some of them back. Media funding is on a big downward trend, with the exception of the McCormick Foundation’s generous project funding, which might unfortunately end next year, it seems. We need to figure out what to do to keep [Lumpen Radio] healthy and active, in the absence of these streams. Especially of concern is the fate of the multilingual radio program Communities Amplified without this support.

There are bright points, though. The Reva and David Logan Foundation helped us distribute so much PPE, so many diapers, sanitary products, and other necessities, via our Community Kitchen project at the peak of the pandemic, and they have now assessed our current situation, dependence on foundations, and have challenged us to raise $50,000 from individual donors; if we do, they’ll match it. We don’t have any big rich check writers in our community, so we are inching toward this one small donation at a time.

In general there is a new generation of funders who really get to know an organization’s needs and the sector’s needs and are able to suggest and collaborate on significant funding. Among those that I think are doing heroic work, with amazing new(ish) grant officers or programs, include the Joyce, Logan, Walder, and Builders foundations. City and federal grants have been less nimble, and could obviously be better staffed to deal with the need. The city has offered us free space for Buddy and our current exhibition “Successful Failures,” but to be honest those have both been money-losing projects, as cool as they are. We just need to find a way to keep it sustainable. 

Find out more about Public Media Institute’s projects at
“Successful Failures: 30 Years of Lumpens, Radical Media, and Building Communities of the Future” is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through 2/6/22.

What do you think 2022 is going to bring for both art and Chicago?

The standard answer is “hybrid programming”—stuff that’s both livestreamed and live. This is a cool dream but I think only the most-resourced projects will be able to do that well. We’re all going to have to have staff check patrons for vaccine cards, so there will have to be staffing at doors and front desks, even at free shows.

We may not keep bars open, so that income goes away, and ticket sales will stay way down, so even breaking even (let alone hiring a bunch of tech staff to record and broadcast) sounds like a big lift for artist-run projects like ours. 

But we are working to continue to learn from other folks who have been managing. Recently, in collaboration with the Experimental Sound Studio in a project funded by Arts Work Fund, we wrapped an interview series with artists in conversation with engineers who did interesting livestream projects over the past two years. Those should drop in January on Lumpen TV (viewable via Twitch) and ESS’s website, and they’ll be followed by a digital and physical publication containing guides, tips, and reflections from livestreamers. 

We’ll also see more radio on TV, we hope. The Yollocalli youth just did some rad anti-capitalist Christmas programming on Lumpen Radio and Lumpen TV last Saturday, and it was amazing. More people getting the means of livestreaming and jumping on various platforms is inevitable, COVID-19 or no, but I think another scary summer will get more converts to finally join the world of the stream. 

Also I think we can probably expect climate change.

That is a joke because I don’t want to cry anymore. But yes, speaking of funders, I think they may start to look at whether saving the earth seems like something they’d like to enlist culture’s help in. We would like to help.

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