The dome in the Grand Army of the Republic Rotunda Credit: Courtesy Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events

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.”  v