Rahm, Boeing and the Arts: a modest proposal

April 12, 2011

Dear Mayor-Elect Emanuel:

Perhaps you already are familiar with the CityArts Program, but if not I want to tell you about it and suggest something wonderful you could do to make it secure. Over the years I've been an arts business reporter in Chicago, one of my favorite stories to report has been the annual grants made to local cultural organizations through CityArts, initiated in 1979 through the Department of Cultural Affairs (now Cultural Affairs and Special Events). CityArts doesn't give a lot of money to any one artist or entity, but it gives a modest amount of money to a great many, thereby spreading the City's largesse (alright, the taxpayers' largesse) far and wide to virtually every 'hood in town.

Grants are based on the budgetary size of the applicant in four tiers ranging from emerging arts organizations with annual cash income under $150,000, to institutions with annual income of $2 million and up. At Tier I, the current maximum grant request is $3,000, which can make a big difference to a little troupe operating on $50,000 a year. At Tier IV the maximum grant is $10,000, which makes virtually no difference at all to a museum or orchestra or theater with a budget of $15 million or $50 million a year. Still, it might fund an internship or three and it gives to the recipient the imprimatur of the City of Chicago.

CityArts is a joyful idea precisely BECAUSE there are far more smaller non-profit cultural organizations than large ones and far more grant recipients in the lower tiers than in the top tier, so for once most of the bucks are going to the little guys rather than the same old big guys. Even better, in all the years I’ve reported on the CityArts Program, I’ve never heard a complaint that it’s unfair or clout-connected. Hey, $3,000 hardly is enough money to waste your clout on—if you have any clout. You don’t need to know someone in the Hall to get a CityArts grant. In short, the CityArts Program has been a model of how public money should be spent and how a city program should be administered.

Now, CityArts has NEVER been funded at more than $1 million a year since the program started. Still, in its best years, CityArts makes grants to several hundred organizations large and small covering arts education, choirs, dance, theater, instrumental ensembles, children’s' arts programs, museums, social service agency arts programs, concert series, film, TV, new media, etc., etc. As long as an organization has a cultural function, and meets application guidelines (including, for example, proof of liability insurance), it's eligible for a CityArts grant, and also can apply for a renewal of the grant in two successive years.

In this manner, CityArts has distributed thousands of grants totaling $22 million in 32 years. It's hardly a notch in the total outlays of the City of Chicago, but CityArts has had major impact. But the diversity and basic fairness of this program have not protected it from budget cuts. Since the economy tanked three years ago, CityArts has been reduced by 50% and currently is funded at $500,000 a year.

But now, right now, Mr. Mayor-Elect, you and your advisors have an opportunity to engineer a major, vital and important retooling of CityArts. It is time to privatize the CityArts Program or, more accurately, to turn it into a significant public-private partnership. Let the City pledge $1 million annually to CityArts, which sum to be matched by a corporate sponsor in return for naming rights. Suddenly, CityArts would be quadrupled. The point would not be to increase the size of the CityArts grants (well, maybe a little) but to greatly increase the NUMBER of grants.

All the key people to analyze and recommend this idea already are in place among the 13 members of your transition-team Committee on Arts and Culture. The line-up includes representatives of several CityArts recipients and also representatives of several major arts and culture funders, among them the head honcho for the Boeing Company's corporate giving. Hey, there's an idea: the Boeing CityArts Grants! What say Chicago and Boeing enter into a 10-year partnership to fund the CityArts Program? Boeing would have its name splashed on more programs and posters and websites and tweets and Facebook pages and press releases than it can count, and actually would be doing genuine good at an extremely modest cost on a city-wide basis, bringing arts and culture to every corner of town.

Even better, why not ask Boeing if they would make their matching grant upfront? The funds could be placed in an escrow account or trust that would earn sufficient interest to extend the life of the program: the Boeing CityArts Trust.

If not Boeing, there certainly are many other possible private partners from the financial, industrial and service sectors of the Chicago economy. Why not ask Donald Trump? What's he doing in Chicago besides collecting rent and paying reduced property taxes? What about Chicago Community Trust or the MacArthur Foundation? Would they partner on CityArts? How about a giant Chicago general contractor? The Pepper Construction CityArts Trust is a little long, but I'd take it!

The point, Mr. Mayor-Elect, the hope is that you, your transition team and the City of Chicago might embrace this proposal and, in the words of Jean-Luc Piccard, "Make it so!"