Erin Harkey, a Black woman in a shiny purple top, stands in the lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center
DCASE commissioner Erin Harkey at the Chicago Cultural Center Credit: Patrick Pyszka/City of Chicago

How bad is COVID-19 damage to the arts sector?

Arts Alliance Illinois says it’s been researching that question and will be releasing the results any day now. I didn’t have them by press time, but it’s safe to assume they’ll be brutal.

The heads of both the AAI and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events published recent op-eds in Crain’s describing the situation as “a horror movie,” and the arts landscape as “devastated.”

And that was before Omicron began shutting down holiday shows in venues that had so recently reopened.

How much of this damage might be permanent? Will we see once-great city centers turned to hulking ghost towns, their offices, theaters, museums, shops, and concert halls forever emptied out?

Are we going back to normal anytime soon? Or ever?

Just before the holiday break, I put those questions to someone who’s thought a lot about the future of city centers, University of Michigan professor of urban and regional planning Mark Rosentraub. Too soon for a definitive answer, he said, but “normal is not likely something that’s going to occur as fast as we had hoped.”    

He also said that catastrophes “don’t really institute new trends. They simply accelerate existing trends.”

Movie theaters, for example, have been under siege for a while, Rosentraub said. “You can blame Samsung and Sony for that. With or without a pandemic, movie theaters have a problem.” Ditto for the decentralization of populations and jobs: it was already happening. COVID just stepped on the accelerator.

Which underscores a point the arts leaders made in their op-eds. Here’s AAI board chair Michelle Boone and executive director Claire Rice: “The truth is, the issues facing creatives today existed long before COVID-19. Despite the incredible value the arts-and-culture sector brings to our city and state, the arts have always struggled with lack of funding . . . Creatives have long stitched together gig work and lived paycheck to paycheck, often without basics like health insurance or stable housing.”  

Like the problems facing movie theaters, starving artists predated the pandemic.  

Still, as DCASE’s new commissioner Erin Harkey wrote, “Revitalizing our city’s arts and culture scene is essential to [the city’s] post-pandemic recovery.”    

Harkey, who was officially appointed to her storied job just last month but has been on the DCASE staff since 2016, told me last week, “The good news is that while we have been devastated, the cultural sector has definitely shown its resilience. Our talented artists and our venues, as we continue to navigate this and try to safely reopen, really give us renewed hope for better times ahead.” 

Here’s more good news: thanks to $10 million from the city’s 2022 corporate budget (itself bolstered by nearly $2 billion in federal recovery funds), and $16 million from the American Rescue Plan (to be spread over two years), the DCASE grants program, which puts cash directly into the hands of artists and arts organizations, is getting a mega bump-up this year, going from $2.7 million to $20.7 million.  

And they’re looking for advice from the public on how to spread that cash around. Harkey says DCASE needs to assess existing programs, and also to set up new programs for arts organizations, “especially those providing services in neighborhoods that have traditionally been underserved,” individual creative workers of all kinds, and small arts businesses. Keep an eye on for current opportunities (with immediate deadlines) and others that’ll be coming up in the near future.  

This month, in collaboration with Arts Alliance Illinois and the Chicago Cultural Alliance, DCASE is hosting “Chicago Arts and Culture: Funding and Futures,” which consists of two informational webinars with Harkey (January 11 and 21), and four “deep dive” online focus groups (January 5, 14, 18, and 19).

They’re also inviting the arts community to take a brief online survey aimed at identifying the efficacy of DCASE’s current funding programs and the challenges arts workers, arts organizations, and small arts businesses are facing. Register for the online meetings and find the survey at Focus groups will be kept small, with reservations accepted on a first-come basis.  

Three of the four focus groups were already taking names for a waiting list when I attempted to register Monday. That reminded me that Chicago’s seen its share of pro forma public input sessions, designed and managed to validate whatever’s already been decided. I don’t think this will be one of those, but even if it were, the amount of money in play suggests that it’ll be worthwhile to participate. As Mayor Lori Lightfoot put it in her year-end message, these are “once-in-a-lifetime resources.”

So step up, starving (or formerly thriving) artists: there’s a big pot to split here.