Many years ago, I sat in on a half-day seminar on how to read and make sense of the financial reports issued by nonprofit organizations. It was conducted by an accountant and, to the best of my memory, sponsored by the Arts and Business Council of Chicago. I’ve put what I learned in that seminar to use so many times since, I consider it the most valuable half-day of my work life. Like ninth grade typing class and driver’s ed, it turned out to be genuinely useful training.
So I’m coming to news about changes at the Arts and Business Council as a fan. Founded in 1985 as Business Volunteers for the Arts (the name changed in 1994), A&BC is a subsidiary of Americans for the Arts, with its own nonprofit tax status and a mission to bring business know-how to the cultural sector. For nearly 35 years, it has recruited volunteers from the corporate world for pro bono consulting gigs at nonprofit arts organizations. They’ve been in demand to work on marketing, finance, and strategic planning, and it’s not unusual for them to progress to service on an arts organization’s board of directors. A&BC trains for that too.
But when Kristin Larsen took over as executive director in May of 2017, she found a less vibrant organization than she remembered from a previous stint there, as director of programs, back in 2001. (In the interim, she’d been executive director at two theater companies: Remy Bumppo and Stage 773.) A&BC had been bigger and busier then, she says; now, its staff of four and cohort of about 300 volunteers looked underutilized. When she asked the staff how much more work they could handle, they told her they thought they could triple it.
Part of the problem, she says, was that A&BC hadn’t been putting itself out there. At the medium-size arts organizations that make up the bulk of its clients, young arts administrators come and go quickly, and institutional memory about resources can be lost. At the same time, there’d been a shift in the funding that supports the council. Earned (program) income makes up only about 15 percent of A&BC’s budget; the rest comes from business sponsorships and charitable support, which had become increasingly hard to land.
“In 2019 I wrote over $1 million in proposals, and was unable to raise any new money,” Larsen says. “The economy is strong, endowments and profits are growing, and more money is going into philanthropic funding, but it’s not going to the arts. The large foundations are addressing bigger issues that have long gone unmet, issues like public safety, mental well-being, veterans’ affairs, and the income gap.”
Larsen notes that the arts can address those issues as well. But a series of “Heat Maps” published by the Field Foundation in 2017 and again in 2019 demonstrated race-related local inequities: areas of Chicago that are less than 10 percent white were found to be relative arts deserts (home to just 13 percent of the 387 arts organizations working in CPS ), with poverty levels double those of the rest of the city and violent crime a stunning 350 percent higher. According to the maps, from 2015 to 2017, 28 percent of Field Foundation grants went to organizations headquartered in those areas.
This led A&BC to undergo a racial equity audit and take a look at where its own work was being done. “For the five years ending in 2018, we’d reached only 36 of the city’s 77 communities, most of them on the north side,” Larsen says.
By the end of 2019 A&BC had extended its reach to 59 of the 77 communities, and in December Larsen announced that 2020 will be a year of further change. The audit, she wrote, “granted us the opportunity to rethink business as usual and simultaneously confront the obstacles that lay before us—namely, like our nonprofit partners, questions of sustainability and relevancy. It also allowed us the opportunity to reframe and recenter our work.”
There’s some catchy naming attached to these changes, but basically they amount to giving priority to artists and arts organizations in areas of the city that have been marginalized, primarily through the opening of field offices (“Annexes”) that will offer free drop-in meetings with A&BC staff one day each month, as well as pro bono sessions by appointment with volunteer consultants and fee-based workshops on topics like income generation and audience development. Through a partnership with the Chicago Park District, Annexes will be housed in park district cultural centers and field houses in South Shore Cultural Center, Austin Town Hall, Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Douglas Park, Piotrowski Park, Marquette Park, Sherman Park, Palmer Park, Calumet Park, and Hamilton Park; dates will be posted on the A&BC website calendar page.
A&BC’s traditional team consulting projects, including pro bono strategic plans, will be limited to no more than 20 annually, and available through a newly competitive process that will favor applicants in underserved communities. Quarterly events where organizations can pitch themselves to potential board members will also move to the west and south sides.
It remains to be seen whether putting themselves in the neighborhoods will bring the artists and arts organizations they hope to help through their door. (Official nonprofit status isn’t necessary, Larsen says.) But if it works as planned, A&BC stands to reinvigorate itself as it nurtures others. v
An orientation for business people interested in volunteering is scheduled for 10 AM-2 PM Saturday, January 25, at the Back of the Yards Branch of the Chicago Public Library (apply/register by January 12 at the A&BC website); A&BC staff will hold its first field office (Annex) hours from 9:30 AM-5:30 PM Saturday, February 8, in South Lawndale; check the A&BC website, www.artsbiz-chicago.org, for location.