Two days after Governor Rod Blagojevich delivered his budget address back in February, a rare e-mail alert was issued by the Illinois Arts Council, the government agency that doles out grants to arts organizations statewide. Signed by IAC chair Shirley Madigan—the wife of house speaker and Blago foe Mike Madigan—it warned that the governor’s plan for fiscal 2009 won’t undo the previous year’s $4.5 million cut in arts funding. That message was followed a few days later by one from IAC executive director Terry Scrogum, confirming the bad news: the council’s budget would remain more or less flat, at $15.2 million—23 percent less than the 2007 figure of $19.8 million.

Scrogum’s tone was resigned. The budget process, with its inevitable negotiations and adjustments, is just beginning, he noted, but “this year may be an especially difficult one due to the condition of the nation’s (and collaterally, the state’s) economy. We are truly sorry to bring you this news.”

Nevertheless, the next week a battle flag was raised. Another mass e-mail went out, this one from Ra Joy, head of the Illinois Arts Alliance, the nonprofit advocacy group. Under the headline “Take Action Now!” Joy called for a fight against the nearly 30 percent cut in arts grants that had been the end result of the arts-funding slash of 2008. He noted that Illinois now ranks behind hardscrabble states like Alabama and Louisiana in per capita funding for the arts; that we’re one of only three states that cut arts spending in 2008; and that 73.4 percent of the 435 respondents to an online alliance survey “plan to reduce or eliminate their education, outreach, or free public programs” because of reduced IAC funding. He urged recipients to click through and send a letter to their lawmakers demanding that the IAC budget be increased to $24 million, or about $2 for each state resident. (Alliance communications coordinator Scarlett Swerdlow says the campaign generated 3,772 such messages.)

It’s a familiar scenario: the cuts, the urgent call to action, the deluge of identical e-mails to legislators. The alliance followed up by releasing a report on the online survey, which was conducted in January and February. Longer on anecdotal quotes from respondents (72 percent of them in Chicago and its suburbs) than on hard numbers, the report points to everything from kids in Back of the Yards losing after-school dance classes to patrons paying more for their tickets to Light Opera Works shows in Evanston. And the smaller the organization, the report said, the bigger the impact. Chicago’s fledgling New Leaf Theatre—part of the nearly 25 percent of surveyed nonprofits reporting budgets of under $50,000—told the alliance that further cuts in state grants may shut them down.

In most cases, IAC awards are capped at between 10 and 15 percent of an organization’s budget. But they offer a couple of outsize benefits. First, as noted by both Olga Stefan of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition (which got only half the IAC infusion it expected) and Lyle Allen of the League of Chicago Theatres (down 15 percent), the grants provide the hardest kind of money to come by: general operating funds. Unlike private donors, who usually want to spend their money on specific, high-profile programs, the IAC gives unrestricted money that can be put to work where it’s needed most, even if that’s somewhere as unglamorous as the boiler room. More important, the grants validate their recipients in the eyes of other potential donors. As a survey response from Theatre Building Chicago puts it, “Our IAC grant... positions us to find other, private funders. A continued reduction would lower our leverage.”

Scrogum says no qualified organizations were dropped in FY2008; grants were simply reduced across the board. Operating money went to 801 organizations, and 490 additional grants—including 38 $7,000 fellowships—were given to individual artists or groups. Operating costs at the Illinois Arts Council, which were 10 percent of budget when the budget was close to $20 million, have not been reduced, according to Scrogum. “We’re looking at ways to become more efficient,” he says, “but you still have to evaluate everything.”

Legislative wrangling over the budget will continue at least until May, and citizens got a chance to comment on it during a recent series of statewide hearings. One late-March meeting, in Lakeview at the Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, drew half a dozen arts leaders along with nearly a hundred other advocates for various causes. Members of the arts contingent blamed the IAC cuts on everything from bad blood in Springfield to the national defense budget; the Pegasus Players’ Arlene Crewdson and Juan Dies of the Sones de Mexico Ensemble each used their two minutes at the mic to argue that the arts return more to the state than they take. Meanwhile, the panel of legislators also heard that full-time caregivers for the disabled earn poverty-level wages of $17,000 a year and that the state Department of Human Services is so understaffed that, for example, the Northern Cook County office has only 56 workers to handle 70,000 cases. As one speaker put it, there was no shortage of “urgent moral matters.” Gives you an idea of what the choices are.

Worth Its Weight in Cadmium Red

With the exception of the Public Broadcasting Corporation, which the Bush administration is looking to dump in two years, the picture on the national front is cheerier. The National Endowment for the Arts got a $20 million boost—its largest in three decades—to $144 million. And a bill to do something about a discriminatory tax situation that’s been affecting artists for 40 years is being studied in Congress.

Ergo, another e-mail campaign. A recent message from Americans for the Arts (the IAA’s national counterpart) calls on artists to send a prewritten letter urging their reps to vote for the Artist-Museum Partnership Act. As things stand now, anyone who owns a piece of art can donate it to a charity and take a nice fat tax deduction equivalent to its current market value. But if the artist who created the work donates it, only the cost of materials can be deducted. We’re talking canvas and paint. This is a patently screwy arrangement, and local artists, who are often hit up to donate their work for charity auctions, have frequently lamented it.

On the upside, all kinds of art qualify under the proposed act, including “literary, musical, artistic, or scholarly compositions or similar property,” so long as the work’s value is established. An NEA report (based on a meeting hosted by NEA chair Dana Gioia and dominated by museum officials) makes the case for passage, arguing that the change will encourage artists to donate their work and especially aid small and medium-sized institutions.

But the way this legislation’s written, an artist can earn the deduction only for donating works acquired to be retained—say, in a museum collection. So that painting you ponied up for the benefit auction at the food pantry? The answer’s still no.v