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Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot join to create an emergency fund for the arts and artists in Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot join to create an emergency fund for the arts and artists in Illinois

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In an attempt to boost the battered arts and cultural communities in the Land of Lincoln, the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago will join with philanthropies to create a new emergency fund. Dubbed Arts for Illinois, the fast-tracked initiative will be seeded with at least $4.5 million in unrestricted support for artists and artisans, many of whom now find themselves out of work. It will also support nonprofit cultural organizations across the state, most of which are now bereft of income, with some staring total ruin in the face.

“We want artists to know that they have a broad base of support in Illinois,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

“As you know, my wife and I are great supporters of our cultural life in this city,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, also in a Tuesday interview. “Artists are suffering. Music venues are closed. Galleries are closed. Theaters are closed.”

By taking time to discuss the new fund personally, despite the demands on their time, the two political leaders both said they wanted to signal the crucial importance of the arts community to the city and state -- as well as their understanding that with theaters, concert halls, clubs and retail outlets all closed indefinitely, the sector has been brought to its knees.

“The arts are crucial,” Pritzker said, shortly before he extended his stay-at-home order through April 30. “We know that people are experiencing anxiety because they have to stay inside so much, but I promise you we will come together again in public. I just ask that people pay attention to when the data says that our current problem will peak, and also to when we will come off that peak. That way, they might be able to see their way toward the other side of this. I see it. And making sure that artists are still producing and creating is going to be vitally important as this great state and this great country recovers.”

Those intimately involved in the creation of the fund, which also is aimed at such backstage cultural workers as ushers, ticketing employees and production hands, include Illinois first lady M.K. Pritzker and Chicago first lady Amy Eshleman. Nora Daley, the daughter of former Mayor Richard M. Daley and a longtime arts supporter, was also part of the foundational group, which motivated other institutional funders.

Arts for Illinois will, in essence, have two administrators. The Illinois Arts Alliance, a statewide advocacy group, will administer funds for nonprofit organizations, with the Chicago-based 3Arts group administering funds for individual artists, also throughout Illinois. “The intent,” Pritzker said, “is to help artists who are sole proprietors of their own businesses and often forgotten in terms of other benefits.”

Some individual artists, such as musicians and actors, will also be able to access help from the CARES federal stimulus legislation, which, following intense lobbying by arts unions and advocacy groups, extends unemployment benefits beyond the traditionally employed.

Claire Rice, the executive director of the Illinois Arts Alliance, said her group has been hurriedly collecting data on the economic carnage afflicting the arts in Illinois. Even using just a small sample, she said, she already knew of $100 million in lost box office revenue, with lost jobs in the arts, both contracted and full-time, adding up to tens if not hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans.

“This sector needs to be heard and seen,” she said, “and it will be a critical part of how we put our communities back together.”

Rice also said the intent was to cut red tape and get the money out to the places where it most was needed, with as few restrictions as possible.

In addition, the city and state jointly created a new one-stop website, artsforillinois.org, launching Wednesday night. The idea is that quarantined Illinoisans, including the state’s students, will be able to access free rotating cultural content from multiple Illinois providers, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Rockford Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Children’s Theatre, that can be enjoyed while complying with the official edict.

One interesting feature of the new site includes visual artwork by Illinoisans, as created at home, much of it in response to the coronavirus crisis. The site will also feature streamed concerts and comedy, as well as poetry, curated by the Springfield Area Arts Council.

The final size of the fund, and the details of how it will be distributed, remained fluid Tuesday, although applications will open Wednesday. Although other vehicles for aid are springing up, the intent is to create a high-profile fund that will attract significant additional donations from other entities, including individuals with the means and desire to support arts and culture in Illinois.

“In this time when we are looking at a lot of people who are suffering,” said Lightfoot, speaking at the end of the working day, “this is a moment for people to step up and support the cultural life of our city. I’m hopeful that the work the first ladies are doing together will tap into the generosity of our citizens.”

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