Dollar bills raining down on illustrated instruments
Credit: Amber Huff

When COVID-19 swept the country, music venues were among the first to shutter, throwing tens of thousands of live entertainment professionals out of work and sidelining artists who depend on touring income. The National Independent Venue Association formed in April 2020 and currently represents more than 3,000 performance halls, promoters, and festivals; it’s done much of the heavy lifting during the push for government financial support of these crucial community hubs. NIVA’s call to arms laid out the stakes bluntly: independent venues were the first to be closed and would be the last businesses to reopen at the end of the pandemic. A June 2020 NIVA survey of roughly 2,000 music-industry professionals revealed that 90 percent of independent venue owners and promoters expected they’d be forced to close up shop permanently without aid. 

COVID-19 of course threatened not just venues but also the fan and artist ecosystems they foster and the people who form those communities. Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) did its part to help the local arts community through this era-defining turbulence—which fell during what was intended to be the Year of Chicago Music. “The first thing we wanted to do—and it surely wasn’t just for musicians, but with a special emphasis in the Year of Chicago Music—is to do everything we could to help support arts relief for the Chicago arts landscape,” says outgoing DCASE commissioner Mark Kelly. 

That included launching the Performing Arts Venue Relief Grants Program with support from the only slightly less new Arts for Illinois Relief Fund as well as the Walder Foundation. In October 2020, DCASE invited local for-profit and nonprofit venues to apply for $10,000 slices of a $1.2 million pie. “We were able to make awards to over 100 organizations,” Kelly says. “Was it enough? No, but it helped keep everyone afloat.” 

That initiative went public two months after DCASE announced the recipients of its 2020 CityArts Program grants, which distributed $2 million among 191 nonprofit arts organizations. The National Endowment for the Arts chipped in too, providing DCASE with $250,000 as part of the CARES Act. The CityArts grants were split into two categories: general operating grants ranging from $2,000 to $30,000 (35 of which went to music organizations), and special project grants aligned with the Year of Chicago Music, which ranged from $2,500 to $56,200. (Full disclosure: the Reader received a special project grant.) Among the recipients are classical music school Access Contemporary Music, urban-arts youth-development program Kuumba Lynx, and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. 

DCASE also helped artists one at a time, and last year’s Individual Artist Program grants came through right when they needed to; the city announced the grantees at the beginning of April, just weeks into the pandemic. DCASE bestowed grants on more than 160 artists to help them complete a specific piece of work. “In a typical year, about 20 musicians would receive awards,” Kelly says. “But in the Year of Chicago Music, we got a lot more music applications.” Nearly 60 musicians received grants ranging from $850 to $5,000, including trans pop singer-songwriter Ellie “SuperKnova” Kim, euphoric rapper Clinton “ShowYouSuck” Sandifer, jazz saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi, and multidisciplinary composer and performer Ayanna Woods

“We also for the first time had our Esteemed Artist Awards,” Kelly says. “These are $10,000 awards, and seven musicians in 2020 received that award.” Only 13 people received this highly prized DCASE grant, and the seven musicians among them were more than worthy: jazz vocalist Dee Alexander, Radio Free Honduras founder and guitarist Charlie Baran (aka Carlos Barahona), blues veteran Katherine Davis, Dolly Varden bandleader Steve Dawson, contemporary classical pianist Mabel Kwan, jazz-scene linchpin Mike Reed, and blues singer and drummer Larry Taylor.

DCASE also helped organize and fund virtual performances that gave local musicians much-needed paydays, sometimes replacing its beloved summertime series with Web-only events. SummerDance in Place, for example, moved SummerDance’s usual dance lessons and concerts into the online space, helping folks learn salsa, swing, and line dancing wherever they were. Millennium Park at Home replaced Pritzker Pavilion’s eclectic in-person shows with online sets from the likes of alt-country veteran Jon Langford and South Asian soul-fusion artist Zeshan B

“In all this, we were just trying to hire local, get some money to musicians, put musicians in front of an audience,” Kelly says. “I think our viewership was over a half a million, which is not a small number when there was a hell of a lot of competition for eyeballs.” In the fall, DCASE also partnered with the Chicago Independent Venue League on CIVLization, a virtual concert series that benefited local concert halls, their staff, and the artists who played in them.

Supporting local musicians during the pandemic also meant helping them plan for what might come after the crisis. In April 2021, DCASE opened applications for Chicago Presents through the Arts77: Arts Recovery Plan. Recipients have yet to be announced, but at the time the department envisioned supporting at least 50 cultural events taking place between mid-August and the end of October with grants of anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000. 

“We realized that in order to do this safely, these might have to be micro-outdoor live in-person events,” says DCASE performing arts program director Mariam Thiam. “That involves permitting, either with the city or the parks, depending on the location, and so we have to structure it so that people understood they have to have a COVID plan in place—all these things that are really new for presenters.”

DCASE and its volunteers on the Year of Chicago Music steering committees have been scrambling to confront the pandemic for almost a year and a half now, and all their tinkering and retooling began to bear fruit when local clubs started inviting local musicians back onto their stages a few months ago. If you’ve been going to shows at all, you’ve probably seen one organized by a DCASE grant recipient or featuring a musician who’s recorded with the department’s help. And if by chance you haven’t, you’ll have plenty of chances to change that during the month of Chicago in Tune. 

“I think Chicago in Tune will be the great cultural coming-out party for the city,” Kelly says. “It’s going to be everywhere, and music is going to be in every neighborhood—I think we excite Chicago and excite the world, and set a new expectation for how we support music in Chicago.”