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Counting for culture 

How the census impacts arts funding

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Children at the “Huichol” mural at the National Museum of Mexican Art, one of many museums that can afford to stay free thanks to census-related funding. - COURTESY NNMA
  • Children at the “Huichol” mural at the National Museum of Mexican Art, one of many museums that can afford to stay free thanks to census-related funding.
  • courtesy nnma

You might know that data from the census is used to draw congressional and state legislative districts, determine the number of House seats a state has, and distribute federal funds for things like Medicaid, schools, and emergency preparedness. (That last one's particularly relevant now.) But you might not know that getting an accurate census count is also important for the arts. Census-related funding in Illinois helps put foreign language curricula in schools, supports the careers of local artists in every discipline, and assists with keeping museums like the Block and the National Museum of Mexican Art free of charge.

"We want everybody to be able to experience art," says Carlos Tortolero, the president and founder of the NMMA in Pilsen. "It's not for the elite, it's not for the well educated, not for people with money. It should be for everybody, which is why the museum is free, that's been my philosophy about being accessible to everybody. The arts should be for everybody and not just for a few people."

The census takes place every ten years. It is widely acknowledged that Illinois was "historically undercounted during the 2010 Census efforts," and is expected to be undercounted again this year. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic only exacerbates this problem. According to a 2018 George Washington Institute of Public Policy report, in 2015 alone, Illinois lost more than $122 million in health and human services funding for every 1 percent of the population not counted in the 2010 Census. Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle puts it another way: "Every person represents between $1,400 and $1,800 per year in federal funding." The 2010 response rate for Chicago was 66 percent; this year's goal is 75 percent. Of course, an undercount impacts the arts landscape of Illinois as well, which is devastating for a field that is already underfunded.

"The cultural landscape of the city is absolutely integral as to why this is a world-class city," says Mark Kelly, the commissioner of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). "It's the cultural life of Chicago—and architecture and visual arts and music and theater and dance and the list goes on—that makes this an important city that people come from across the world to visit. And the economic equation for the arts, it always needs and assumes governmental support because it's not built on a for-profit foundation. It's always underfunded, underappreciated. We absolutely need governmental funding."

Kristin Abhalter Smith received a $2,100 artist project grant from the IACA in 2018 that helped pay for materials and performers for a project called "Antecedent." - PATRICK GORSKI
  • Kristin Abhalter Smith received a $2,100 artist project grant from the IACA in 2018 that helped pay for materials and performers for a project called "Antecedent."
  • Patrick Gorski

Federal arts funding is directed to states by the National Endowment for the Arts. By law, 40 percent of the NEA's annual budget is allocated to state and regional arts organizations. For the 2018 fiscal year, NEA's programs budget was $121,650,000, so $48,322,000 was directed to arts organizations across the country. Illinois's federal funds go to the Illinois Arts Council Agency, which then disseminates that money to artists, museums, and arts organizations across the state. State organizations are required to match that federal funding at least one to one. In 2018, the NEA granted $850,800 in federal funds to the IACA, which contributed an additional $9,471,730. Population is an important factor in calculating how much grant money the NEA gives to each state and regional arts organization.

The IACA's main initiatives are to provide operating and technical support to arts programs throughout the state, advance arts education, and support working artists. The IACA funds statewide efforts, such as Poetry Out Loud and the biennial conference One State Together in the Arts. It also offers a wide range of funding opportunities, including grants for touring Illinois artists or ensembles; support for individual artists or arts programming; summer youth employment in the arts; an ethnic and folk arts master/apprentice program; and an Artist Fellowship program, which supports established artists.

Edra Soto was a 2019 fellowship recipient in the category of visual-based arts. She was one of 17 recipients, each of whom was awarded a $15,000 grant. For Soto, an interdisciplinary artist who creates large-scale and cost-intensive sculptures and installations, securing outside funding is crucial.

"It's a really unstable situation, making large-scale projects," she says. "It can become a challenge. Sometimes institutions don't have enough money to support those projects. Sometimes I use a grant to supplement what institutions cannot supply."

The IACA fellowship helped Soto fabricate and install two iterations of her ongoing project, "GRAFT." One was installed at the Chicago Cultural Center, the other at the Smart Museum. Soto considers "GRAFT" an architectural intervention. It's a poetic recreation of what are called rejas, or iron screens, which are ubiquitous in the artist's native Puerto Rico.

"Everything always costs much more than anticipated," Soto says of her work. "It's not only the fabrication but the installing, transporting. Insane. People don't understand how much it costs to do that, and how you have to always patch things, however the money comes in."

The IACA also disseminates funds through its Community Arts Access program, which designates arts organizations throughout the state as regranting entities. In Chicago, the CAA partner is DCASE. DCASE already awards grants to artists and art organizations from its own budget, but its partnership with IACA allows it to disburse an additional $140,000 each year to local artists through its Cultural Grants program. DCASE awards a total of $700,000 annually in competitive, panelist-reviewed individual artist grants. In 2020, 171 artists received funding; the average award was $3,600.

"It's not just a vote of confidence, because they received grants in this competitive process, but also it just keeps them going and respects their importance as part of the economic life of the city," Kelly says of the artist grantees.

Artist Edra Soto was able to create “GRAFT” thanks in part to a IACA fellowship. - COURTESY EDRA SOTO
  • Artist Edra Soto was able to create “GRAFT” thanks in part to a IACA fellowship.
  • courtesy edra soto

Public funding is also useful as a vote of confidence for private philanthropy. The NEA website notes that "even a low level of public funding can stimulate private giving." NEA grants "provide a significant return on investment of federal dollars with $1 of NEA direct funding leveraging up to $9 in private and other public funds, resulting in $500 million in matching support." The Block Museum found this to be particularly true for their recent, groundbreaking exhibition "Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa." The Evanston museum has received some funding for general operating expenses from the IACA for at least half of the last ten fiscal years, though the amount makes up only a small amount of total revenue for the Block. (In fiscal year 2018, the IACA contributed $20,200; the Block's total revenue that year was $4,785,626.) Lisa Graziose Corrin, the Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Block, says the museum was able to leverage IACA funding for "Caravans of Gold," which subsequently won a highly competitive National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

"When you have support, when you're applying for very big grants, whether it be NEA, the NEH, or competitive national foundations, if you are able to say, well we've already raised X, or we will match what you give us, with the state Arts Council funding, you begin to be able to leverage in order to demonstrate capacity to do things at the level of 'Caravans of Gold,'" she says. "That Arts Council funding also shows that we have support in our community for this work, right? If the people of Illinois don't think what the Block is doing is relevant and meaningful to them, why should a national foundation come in and support you? So it's very important, it's as important through the message it sends as the dollars it gives."

Corrin says that without that $350,000 NEH grant, the "Caravans of Gold" exhibition, which broke the museum's attendance records and opens this year at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, wouldn't have happened. "Caravans of Gold" was the first major exhibition to use artworks from the medieval period to highlight the importance of Saharan trade and the networks between West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to 16th centuries. It featured loans from Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria—many of which had never left their home countries; the cost of shipping and installing these works was not insignificant. "You need the resources to be able to realize a show that museums of that caliber want to bring to their own communities," she says.

IACA's disbursement of funds is not without criticism. The IACA is run by a full-time staff, helmed by executive director Joshua Davis-Ruperto and governed by a council made up of private citizens who are appointed by the governor. The council has been chaired by Shirley Madigan, the wife of Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan, since 1983. Madigan is the spokesperson for the IACA. She has been under criticism in recent years for distributing funds to grantees who pose what could be seen as a conflict of interest and for failing to hold council meetings for a period of over two years, all the while granting millions of dollars that had not been officially voted on. A 2017 state audit also found noncompliance in several areas, including council members serving after their tenure had ended, failure to properly reconcile cash receipts, and various inadequate controls over grant procedures, among other violations. Madigan declined to be interviewed for this article.

The opening of “Caravans of Gold” at Block Museum, a record-breaking exhibit that wouldn't have happened without a $350,000 NEH grant. - COURTESY BLOCK MUSEUM
  • The opening of “Caravans of Gold” at Block Museum, a record-breaking exhibit that wouldn't have happened without a $350,000 NEH grant.
  • courtesy Block Museum

Government funding for the arts is crucial for its survival; private donations don't come close to the breadth of government giving. According to the NEA website, "charitable giving as a whole in the United States is geographically disproportional, with rural areas receiving only 5.5% of all philanthropic dollars." A mandate for the NEA as well as for state organizations like the IACA is to bring the arts to all communities, particularly those that are underserved.

"That's important. It's not the Chicago Arts Council, it's a state council, and the funds are distributed to places I haven't even heard of!" Tortolero says. "The state does a good job, the Arts Council, in making sure that people throughout the state receive funds so it enhances everybody's opportunity to enjoy the arts."

The National Museum of Mexican Art is situated in one of the areas in Chicago that is considered hard to count or with populations less likely to fill out their census form. Almost half of Chicago's population—an estimated 1.3 million people—is considered hard to count. This includes immigrants, non-English speakers, college students, and people without homes, and is concentrated on the south and west sides of the city. More than two-thirds of African Americans in Chicago live in these tracts, as do more than 60 percent of the city's Latinx residents.

Tortolero can understand why some immigrants may be hesitant to fill out the census form. "I think the Trump administration's tactics against immigrants, you know these SWAT teams coming out and stuff, and the citizen question—they just did it to scare people," he says. "But you know what, I think it's going to work with some people. I think if I didn't have papers and I get something from the government about census forms to fill out, I'd be kind of leery to fill it out, I'll be honest with you."

There is a statewide effort to encourage people to take the census: the Illinois Complete Count Commission. Toni Preckwinkle oversaw the formation of a similar coalition for Chicagoland, the Cook County Complete Count Census Commission. The commission has awarded $1.9 million in grants to local community organizations to try and raise awareness around the importance of the census, particularly for those hard-to-count areas. Those areas are often places where there is already a lack of opportunities to engage with the arts.

"I've always been a big proponent of the arts," Preckwinkle says, noting how vital NEA funding is to the IACA. "I always say that arts enliven and enrich our lives."

While the IACA plays a significant role in supporting and uplifting artists and art organizations in the state, it is clear there is still a need for more funding. Chicago artist Kristin Abhalter Smith received a $2,100 artist project grant from the IACA in 2018. The funds helped pay for materials and performers for an installation at the gallery Ignition Projects. The project, called "Antecedent," involved the creation of inflatable sculptures, an ongoing series of Smith's, that resemble the "air dancers" often seen outside the opening of a new business.

"Obviously it would be nice if there were more funds available," Smith says. "While it's helpful to get $1,000 or $1,500 to work on something, it's still not going to come close to covering all of the expenses that you're going to have as an artist, in terms of infrastructure. And it's also being able to pay other people. It seems like they're putting gestures forward to try to give, to have some kind of system in place to support artists, but I think that more attention needs to be paid to what the actual livelihoods of artists are, and how that can be supported fundamentally on an economic basis."

According to data from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, art and cultural production accounted for 224,102 jobs in Illinois in 2017, and generated more than $30 billion for the state's economy. A report from the NEA shows that at least one-third of artists are self-employed, compared to 9 percent of all U.S. workers, which typically means they make lower wages than regular full-time workers and have little or no benefits. From 2010 to 2014, self-employed artists "earned an annual median income of just under $42,000, about $14,000 less on average than earned by full-year/full-time artists on payroll."

Soto agrees that funding often falls short of costs, adding that the financial challenges of making art and supporting yourself as an artist don't necessarily lessen as one's career progresses. "Reaching a mid-career level has put me in a more visible position for institutions to notice my work," she writes over e-mail. "Opportunities for national presence are greater when you have more experience. This also means that the financial challenges are greater as well. It is not well understood or supported in general because it is not fresh news. The mid-career status comes with the assumption that it has been supported already."

While the IACA has a limited amount of funding to give, and could arguably do a better job of disbursing those funds, it undoubtedly plays an outsized role for the arts in Illinois. Art is always valuable, not only for the jobs it creates and the economic benefits it brings to the state, but for its potential to transform lives, to help us envision a different future. And, as the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, music, movies, and books are often the first thing we turn to in dark times.

Soto sees art as a reflection of our cultural values and an opportunity to find connection in isolated times. "Now more than ever, art has become the form of communication that allows us to connect, discern from the overlooked and advocate for others," she writes. "Art is in everything and is everywhere. We need art."   v

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