Chicago native Maura Walsh is a visual artist and concert enthusiast. This year she raised $37,000 for local music venues battling the financial hardships of the pandemic with Our Tiny Guide to Chicago’s Best Music Culture Spots, which she created in 2019. She’s also working with nonprofit fundraising initiative Support Chicago Arts to launch Tiny Guide to Chicago Arts, which will help an even wider range of local performance spaces.
As told to Jamie Ludwig
I remember being a teenage girl, learning how to drive, and sneaking out to go to concerts—I’d tell my dad I was going to my friend’s house. Obviously the Bottle and Double Door were always 21 and over, but I remember calling them begging them to let me in and saying, “I’m not going to drink, I just want to see the show.” So when I turned 21, it opened up the whole world. I usually went alone, which my dad would be mortified to hear, but I wasn’t going to let not having anyone to go with stop me. It was just so important to my well-being to see live music.
I had a lot of hardship and sadness in my childhood, and for some reason being in a crowded, tiny music venue where there were lots of the people who probably felt just like me was really life altering. I really don’t know if I’ve ever felt happier than I do at a show.
I tended to gravitate towards heavier music, like punk rock, hardcore, metal, industrial, and experimental shows, but I always tried to keep an open mind. Sometimes my dad would say, “I want to see this blues guitarist,” and I’d go with him. I just think it’s really important to our mental health to share creativity and to be physically present with creativity.
Music venues are the kind of places where people could say, “Oh, this isn’t super important right now,” but so many people have lost their jobs, their livelihoods, or their whole lives they put into these businesses. And they’re so important. I remember some lady commented on one of my projects like, “Shouldn’t you be helping build houses for homeless people?” These places get written off as “Oh, they’re just a bar” or “They can put their programs online,” but they’re more than that, and we’re going to lose them if someone doesn’t help.
A couple of years ago my partner and I were at the Chicago Diner, and I was talking about this little sketchbook thing I was drawing. We thought, “Oh, it’d be cool to make a little guide to places we would recommend to a friend who was coming to Chicago and wanted to check out the live music scene.” I drew a small little book with about 30 music venues, record stores, and a couple of places to eat and drink. I posted a video of me opening up the book on Facebook when it was done. Somehow I woke up the next morning and had all these people begging me for a copy. I made around 150 copies, which sold out immediately, and I made another edition, which also sold out. And then I sort of dropped it, because I got busy with other things.
And then COVID-19 hit. Last year, my partner and I kept track of how many shows we went to, and it turned out we went to 53 concerts in 2019. We’d purchased a bunch of tickets for 2020, and we started getting refund notifications. A random thought popped into my head, “Oh, I have this drawing. I can post it and give the money to help show some support.” I thought I would just raise a little bit, but word spread, and after just a few months I raised about $37,000 to give to these venues.
So that was that. Then recently I got an e-mail from this great person named Bridget Gunden at Support Chicago Arts, asking if I wanted to collaborate with them to help out theaters and other spaces in Chicago that are also hurting.
Thirty-seven thousand dollars is a lot, but divide that by 30 spaces—it’s not that much money. So we have to keep going. With Support Chicago Arts, we came up with a new Tiny Guide, which includes 21 spaces more focused on the performing arts and theaters. They are donating 100 percent of the profits to the Save Our Stages nationwide initiative. I’m hoping these sorts of projects will inspire others to jump up and help, and continue to ask their legislatures to make major changes and to support our stages. Our city is just exploding with creativity and music and art, and all of these truly irreplaceable spaces are in danger of closing.
When I started my first guide, I was trying to figure out, “OK, I want to draw these little places, but how do they fit together?” All of these places make up the whole culture. It was about finding out how they all fit together and letting the architecture of the building find its place in the drawing. There’s no hierarchy, there’s no implied importance, and all these places are literally touching each other and connected; they’re physically supporting each other and Chicago. I’m kind of developing that a little bit more, and I’m working on some secret, exciting new things.
You know how you hear about small rivalries between certain bars or places? That’s silly. We’re all literally in this together—we’re all fighting. So this is like I’m forcing you together and connecting you, in a way. But it’s from a place of love. I think that’s why this format works so well for these drawings—these places are connected whether they like it or not.
A couple of months into the pandemic I noticed some venues were also taking their time and resources to support the Black Lives Matter movement, or doing food and supply drives. These are organizations in the midst of not knowing if they’re going to stay open, and I think that in itself is an incredible gesture of what Chicago should stand for: “We’re gonna help you out even when we are hurting.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was thinking, “Oh, people could frame this drawing and put it on their wall, look at these places, and think, ‘I can’t wait to go back there when it’s safe.'” We’re not going to lose them all, necessarily, but we have to remember them and support them. When things are back to normal, if they are ever back to normal, we can’t take this for granted. v