The CityArts Program: an open letter to DCASE

November 17, 2011

Early last April, when Rahm Emanuel merely was Mayor-Elect, I used this blog space to send him an open letter about the CityArts Program. I never heard back from him. I was disappointed because Rahm had recently cited a theater review by my colleague, Chris Jones, in the Tribune, and saw an Off-Loop play based on Jones’s favorable write-up. Since I am older than Chris and have a much-longer career as a journalist, I naturally assumed the Mayor-Elect would pay attention to me. After all, I am Chicago’s senior theater critic (true), but that and $4.35 will get you coffee at Starbucks.

I know, however, that members of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) have read my last two blog posts here, which have been about the restructuring of DCASE now taking place. With that in mind, I’m revising my April Open Letter to Rahm as a memo to DCASE Commissioner Michelle T. Boone. I hope you’re reading this, Commish.

MEMO TO MICHELLE BOONE

Over the years I've been an arts business reporter, one of my favorite annual stories has been the grants made to local cultural organizations through CityArts, initiated in 1979 through the Department of Cultural Affairs (now DCASE). 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-$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 small 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, I’ve never heard a complaint that CityArts is unfair or clout-connected. Hey, $3,000 hardly is enough money to waste your clout on—if you have any clout. 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 33 years. It's hardly a notch in the total outlays of the City of Chicago, but CityArts has had major impact. Even so, the diversity and basic fairness of this program have not protected it from budget cuts. Since the economy tanked four years ago, CityArts has been reduced by 50% and currently is funded at $500,000 a year.

But right now the Mayor and DCASE 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.

What say Chicago and the Boeing Company (for example) 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 the Harris Bank? Or Macy’s? Or the CBOE? What about Chicago Community Trust or the MacArthur Foundation? Would they partner on CityArts? How about a giant Chicago general contractor? Can you envision the Pepper Construction CityArts Trust?

Mayor Emanuel already has discussed both privatization (he’s done it with blue cart garbage pick-up) and the sale of advertising on public structures (such as bridges), so my proposal would seem to mesh with his economic ideas. Also, in 2012 DCASE expects to create a comprehensive cultural plan for Chicago, as Emanuel promised to do when running for mayor. It would be more than appropirate to include an expansion of CityArts as part of that plan.