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Culture Cash: Illinois' spending for the arts has held steady in tight times

It wasn't music to their ears. For the second time in three years, Republican fiscal worries were shouted down by the Democratic legislative majority. There was little Republicans could do, so they sounded off about "pork" projects greasing the skids for a $54 billion state budget. 

Out came a list detailing millions in "Chicago Goodies," allegedly attained at the expense of the suburbs and downstate. The $219 million tab included funding for the Chicago Sinfonietta, the official orchestra of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. A $94,000 state subsidy for a private ballet company didn't sit well with some lawmakers. The same could be said of the $1 million earmarked for the Beverly Arts Center on Chicago's far South Side and a $400,000 grant to Little Black Pearl, a community arts group that works with children in four South Side neighborhoods.

Like most everything else in Illinois, the arts aren't insulated from politics. And that may be why, despite faltering state finances, the arts have managed to maintain — in some cases even boost — their funding from public coffers in recent years.

It also helps explain why community arts projects can get labeled pork. 

That perception, however, doesn't match reality, a top state Democrat argues. "The programs, I think, if you examined them, all have merit and all would stand on their own, so people who want to call them pork-barrel projects, I think, are just not well-informed people," says Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat. "People who choose to attack them are people who have opted not to spend, you know, two minutes looking something up on the Internet or calling someone and asking what their program is about. They're not well-informed."

The Chicago Sinfonietta grant, for example, was earmarked for Audience Matters, a program that introduces classical music to middle school students in Chicago Public Schools. A musician from each section of the orchestra (brass, percussion, string, woodwind) visits classrooms, teaching students about different instruments and key historical periods in classical music. Students also learn how to behave at a classical music performance, as they and their families receive complimentary season tickets to the Sinfonietta. "If people really think that providing this kind of a music exposure to children of our city is pork, then there's probably not a whole lot that I could do to convince them otherwise," says Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. "Our job is to go out there and provide the best program that we can for the kids. The investment of the state funds has allowed us to do that. We've been able to double the number of participants this year as compared to last year. It's not like any of us are getting personally wealthy. It's not like we're building a $50 million bridge to nowhere, like they have in Alaska." (Alaska's lone congressman secured more than $200 million in federal money this year for a bridge to an island of about 50 inhabitants.)

Here in Illinois, there is no cushion for extravagance. Annual state deficits are in the billions, and state government has been months behind on its bills. 

Simply put, state funds have been hard to come by, which is why arts advocates are relying on a foundation of solid relationships and earned trust they say should sustain Illinois public arts funding in the near future.

The budget for the Illinois Arts Council, the main conduit for state support for the arts, grew to $20.6 million this year. The $1 million increase put Illinois among 34 states that have boosted public support for the arts, according to Americans for the Arts, a national nonprofit organization.

Even with that increase, though, the council's budget remains roughly $2 million smaller than it was six years ago — before the national economic downturn. Still, it could be a lot worse. The council escaped the budget axe in 2004, when knockdown, drag-out state negotiations involving both parties resulted in cuts of up to 4 percent in most state agencies. 

The council's exclusion from the cuts led some to suggest Democrats were playing favorites. The council is chaired by Shirley Madigan, the speaker's wife. Board members include Margaret Mell, Gov. Rod Blagojevich's mother-in-law, and Harper Montgomery, deputy governor Bradley Tusk's wife.

"It's hard not to wonder about that connection and I admit I have wondered about that," says state Sen. Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican who serves on multiple Senate appropriation committees. "I think arts funding in Illinois has done relatively well, even given the fact that we've had some pretty significant budget shortfalls. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that approach."

With state resources in scarce supply, the council's allocation faces strict scrutiny. Skepticism, perhaps even envy, churned about the House chamber last May, when members discovered the $1 million grant to the Beverly Arts Center. Members of the Legislative Black Caucus wanted to know who was steering grant money to a mostly white neighborhood. It turns out the grant was an initiative of Democratic Senate President Emil Jones Jr., the second African American to lead the upper chamber. Before legislative redistricting, the Beverly Arts Center fell within Jones' South Side district. He had secured $1.5 million in state grants to help build the 40,000-square-foot building.

But clout isn't everything. Arts advocates say they deserve credit for showing officials the many benefits of public support for the arts.

"Certainly there is an increasing awareness, I believe, at all levels of government about how important the arts are to the life of the state and the communities that are contained within them, and that is everything from economic development to the academic performance of children and youth," says Terry Scrogum, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council. 

A bare-bones administrative approach also bolsters the council's case. "Approximately 90 percent of our appropriation goes for programs," Scrogum says. "The vast majority of that goes out to local arts agencies, community organizations across the state, and it provides a lot of stimulus for the creative economy, which is certainly a substantial contributor to Illinois' economy."

In fact, nonprofit arts projects contribute nearly $2 billion a year to the Illinois economy, according to a study commissioned by the Illinois Arts Alliance. That study showed the art industry growing about 12 percent annually from 1996 to 2002.

The move to put art in public spaces can have a more indirect economic impact, making a community a more desirable place to live. Boeing officials cited Chicago's vibrant cultural life when the aerospace giant decided in 2001 to move its headquarters from Seattle. (Of course, the city and state also put up more than $50 million in relocation incentives that bested offers from Dallas and Denver.)

After Boeing's arrival, Chicago converted a dreary rail yard into Millennium Park, a $475 million crown jewel for a city with a proud tradition of accessible public art. Millennium Park mirrors the earlier transformation of Navy Pier from a dormant shipping hub to a downtown destination where a giant Ferris wheel shares space with a Shakespeare theater.

Mayor Richard Daley backed both efforts and scores of small-scale beautifications that have pumped life into the heart of the city. It's a far cry from the bleak urban landscape that greeted the famous outdoor Picasso statue four decades ago.

Adjacent to Civic Center Plaza sits the largest collection of contemporary Illinois art. Painted sculptures illuminate the public spaces of the James R. Thompson Center, a building named for the governor who was instrumental in creating the state's Art-in-Architecture program. By setting aside a half percent of the cost of new state building construction, the Art-in-Architecture program since 1977 has generated $10.8 million to acquire more than 600 pieces of art. 

Scrogum says the arts can have an indirect economic impact in smaller communities, too. He calls the Hoogland Center for the Arts, opened in 2004, a cultural anchor for downtown Springfield. The same goes for the Rialto Square Theater in Joliet and the Coronado Theatre in Rockford, a 1927 venue that reopened in 2001 after major renovations.

"Businesses — major corporations, smaller corporations — look at the quality of life in any community where they are looking to locate," Scrogum says. "And we certainly believe that we, through the groups that we fund, help to contribute to that."

And that gives arts advocates good reason to polish their relations with the General Assembly.

"I think they've made a convincing case over the years of the importance of arts education and arts in public places," says Brown, Madigan's spokesman. "I think the work of people supporting the arts, like the Illinois Arts Council, has been good. It's a good track record and that will bode well for the future." 

llinois Issues, December 2005

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