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With Coronavirus Canceling Major Events And Festivals, City Officials Grapple With How To Fund The Arts

The city's special events department is facing big budget cuts in 2021 because of the pandemic's effect on tourism dollars. Some aldermen are demanding city leaders find more arts funding.

Blues Fest is one of many major summer events that had to be canceled due to coronavirus.
Blues Fest/Facebook
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CHICAGO — Even in a “pandemic budget,” the city needs to find a way to fund arts programming, progressive aldermen argued Thursday.

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events is set to have its budget slashed from just over $40 million in 2020 to a “bare-bones” $24 million in 2021. The pandemic halted tourism and cut into the revenue streams that prop up the department, including hotel taxes and events.

Although not officially canceled, the budget does not include funding to support two staples of Chicago summers, Taste of Chicago and the Air and Water Show, saving $9 million.

Unlike other city agencies, the department doesn’t receive a dollar from the city’s corporate fund, the largest of several funds comprising Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $12.8 billion budget, Commissioner Mark Kelly told aldermen during a virtual budget hearing Thursday. 

Kelly said Lightfoot is committed to the arts, but his department is an outlier among similar departments in other large cities, and it lacks sufficient funding even in the best of times.

“I believe our mayor gets this. She is so committed to the arts. But what’s the path forward” in the pandemic economy? he said. “I think the challenge for the city, for us, for you as aldermen is to find additional resources that can supplement” the department.

At a separate news conference Thursday, Lightfoot argued the economic reality brought on by the pandemic forced the cuts.

“What you have to understand is that [the cultural affairs department] is funded by a revenue stream: hotels and restaurants. Those revenues have just gone through the floor, so it’s not like there’s a pot of money sitting there,” she said.

With new cases of the virus surging, now is not the time to “be thinking about big, outdoor events” like the Taste and Air and Water Show, Lightfoot said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
People gather at Ohio Street Beach during the 2017 Chicago Air and Water Show.

During the hearing, progressive aldermen argued the city should look to its corporate fund to boost funding for the department. 

“More than any fund in our budget, the corporate fund is a reflection of the values of the city of Chicago. And it disappoints me that nothing in that fund goes to” the department, said Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st).

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) said it “saddens” her arts are “usually the first thing that we think about cutting whenever there are issues with the economy.” 

Kelly walked a tightrope during the meeting, avoiding directly criticizing Lightfoot but agreeing with aldermen the city needs to prioritize arts funding.

“The 56 million tourists that came to Chicago in 2019 … because of the cultural vitality, the architecture, the art, it’s the public gardens, public spaces, the theaters, it’s the music clubs, and we so underestimate and undervalue what it means to Chicago. We’re a world cultural capital, but we don’t think or act like it,” he said.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), a former battle rapper, said the department’s meager budget is “heartbreaking” and urged his colleagues to advocate for resources for the department.

“This is a value I don’t think we truly understand. The opportunities that are being provided to people of color in the city, to people who don’t have means, the opportunity and hope to get out of their current environment —that’s provided by this department in a way it’s not by others,” he said.

Even with the limited funds, Kelly expressed hope his department would make an impact. The department has extended its Year of Music celebration into 2021.

Programming for the Year of Music is uncertain due to the pandemic, but Kelly said it may provide an opportunity to “move away from the grand festivals in Millennium Park” and towards “city festivals.”

“I want Jazz Fest and Blues Fest and House Fest and Gospel Fest,” he said. “We want this to be about the clubs, about the venues, about ticketed events. It’s not just about free. We’ve got to support artists and the cultural landscape.”

The department will also help distribute 120 $10,000 grants to struggling theaters, clubs and other live entertainment venues throughout the city. 

Credit: Brittany Sowacke/Block Club Chicago
The Taste of Chicago is one of several events cancelled this year because of coronavirus. City leaders say funding for next year isn’t certain.

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