CHICAGO — Mark Kelly witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of the pandemic on Chicago’s arts and cultural programs. And now, as he prepares to retire, he’s getting to see the beginnings of its comeback.
Kelly has served as commissioner for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events since 2016, when he was appointed to the position by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He retires Oct. 29.
One of the last hurrahs in the job came Thursday, when the city announced a $26 million budget increase for arts and cultural programs.
“This is a particularly exciting time — I’m joining Mayor Lightfoot in this announcement where we have brought $100 million beyond DCASE’s operational budget to support the cultural landscape,” Kelly said in an interview. “I think it’s fair to say that I’m going out with a bang.”
Over the course of Kelly’s tenure, he oversaw a “seismic” shift in the way Chicago values its artistic and cultural scenes, he said.
“Our cultural grants budget when I started was $1.7 million — which, relative to other cities, was incredibly low,” Kelly said. “This next year, our cultural grants budget increases from $2.7 to $20.7 million. That places us near the top, if not the top per capita, for cultural grants budgets across the country.”
The $100 million being touted by the city includes a new $2.3 million Chicago Creative Worker Relief Fund. The program will disburse by the end of 2021 hundreds of grants worth $2,000-$5,000 to artists, musicians and other creators left out of unemployment benefits.
“We’ve been trying to assemble funds wherever we can to support impacted artists, in particular,” Kelly said. “This relief fund is coming from CARES Act funding. It’s wide open to anyone in a broad definition of ‘arts.’ …. We’re going to get this money out very quickly.”
Kelly also reflected on equity and inclusion. He said conversations about history and racial equity have become a greater focus of the city agency and Chicago’s cultural character.
“We’re the birthplace of jazz, gospel, blues and house — this incredible music scene across genres,” Kelly said. “The list goes on. But that being said, Chicago has historically never fully embraced that idea and understood how important our cultural vitality is.
“A lot of that has to do with race and systemic racism. So much of the creativity in the city has come from the South and West sides, and the city has historically failed to recognize it.”
This round of investment in arts and culture is representative of a shift in the narrative of Chicago’s creative scene, Kelly said, adding that much of the funding will go to creative communities and artists on the South and West sides.
“I think 10 years ago, we didn’t have the funding we have now because it was easy to see the arts as a frill, an extra,” Kelly said. “But the arts [are] about the life of the city.”
Moving forward, Kelly gives a full vote of confidence in the team he leaves behind and the opportunities ahead with more money in the budget.
“When we program going forward, it’s to bring connectivity to the city, to strengthen the cultural landscape with events and not just become another competitor in cultural affairs,” Kelly said. “$100 million has come forward to support the cultural landscape. It’s a pretty big deal.”
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