“The Arts Matter”

A Conversation with Terry Scrogum & Jennifer Armstrong of the Illinois Arts Council

The Illinois Arts Council is a state agency created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1965 to encourage development of the arts throughout the state. Like nearly all arts groups, the agency has been hit hard in recent years by reductions in funding. We spoke with Terry Scrogum, executive director, and Jennifer Armstrong, director of Community Arts Development, to get their take on the arts and cultural landscape in Illinois, circa 2011.
Many arts organizations have seen their state and federal funding cut by more than half over the last few years. What has been the impact across the state?
We have also seen local municipal funding cut, as well as state and federal. This has resulted in fewer grants made at the local level, including our regranting partners. With fewer public dollars, there is an increased focus on growing membership bases and private donors. This leads cultural leaders to strengthen their current fundraising and resource development skills and seek out new revenue streams. We have also seen a great deal of cuts in staff and in programs delivered. Some organizations have made the decision to close their doors.

Does the IAC see any light at the end of the tunnel in reversing this trend?
The economic recession we are experiencing appears to be one whose effects will be felt throughout society for some time to come. Arts organizations would be well served to view this as a sea change rather than a blip on the radar. Given these factors, it is very important for all groups to look at their sources of revenue and determine how best to match those needs with the practical realities of fundraising and other methods of revenue generation. The time for short-term strategies must give way to strategic, longitudinal thinking and action

Where public sources of funding have been cut, are private sources filling the gaps?
In some cases, private foundations have been able to help with filling the gaps, but this would be expected mainly in the urban areas. Corporate and foundation giving have generally not been a major source of overall funding downstate—there simply are not the numbers compared to more urban areas. Their funding, like elsewhere, has been reduced.

Describe how you work with local organizations like our own ArtsPartners. What is their role in keeping the arts on the community’s agenda?
ArtsPartners is what we call a Local Arts Agency: a community-based organization or agency of city or county government that supports the growth and development of all of the arts in the identified area of service. Local Arts Agencies have boards which reflect the needs of the organization and the community it serves; they conduct ongoing community and cultural assessment and planning that involves the diverse population of the community; and they are involved in general promotion and encouragement of the public to understand excellence in the diverse art forms represented in the region.

Local Arts Agencies also provide some of the following programs and services in a variety of arts disciplines depending on each particular community’s needs:

  • Regranting funds to artists and organizations
  • Producing or presenting programs not otherwise offered within the region (e.g., festivals, public art, exhibitions, concerts, workshops)
  • Providing technical assistance to artists and arts groups 
  • Coordinating arts-in-education programs for schools and the community
  • Functioning as a cultural advocate in the community 
  • Fundraising for the benefit of artists and arts groups that provide programming in the service area
  • Providing or managing facilities for the creation or presentation of the arts.

The 80+ Local Arts Agencies that serve Illinois communities are strong partners with the IAC in the development of arts and cultural programming, especially in underserved communities. Located in rural, suburban, exurban and urban areas, these agencies range from small volunteer organizations with operating budgets of less than $10,000 to agencies in the state’s larger cities and suburban areas with budgets over a million dollars. Many are located in areas where access to the arts is limited. It is greatly due to their presence and dedication that the arts are alive in their communities.

As center points of cultural activity, resources and information, Local Arts Agencies are uniquely positioned to strengthen their communities and help arts and cultural organizations throughout Illinois survive these challenging times. But because their organizations are called upon to do so much for so many, leaders of Local Arts Agencies often sacrifice their own resources—financial and otherwise—in service of others. The Illinois Arts Council and the Arts Alliance Illinois work with a small group of Local Arts Agency directors to lead the Local Arts Network. The LAN is a collaboration between the two statewide agencies to build capacity and excellence among local arts agencies so they can better serve their communities.

Describe some of the creative ways that Local Arts Agencies throughout the state are handling these difficult economic times.
Three things come to mind: sharing staff, space and purchasing; developing new revenue streams; and collaborating to promote the collective arts community. In the Quad Cities, the Convention & Visitors Bureau brought the arts community together to promote the area to residents and visitors alike as a cultural destination. They launched a new website, Experience Quad Cities, a collaboration of tourism, arts, culture and heritage.

In Chicago, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project is developing five-year financial models for a shared space to create a Collaborative Space for Sustainable Development that will serve administrative, rehearsal and educational purposes. Carbondale Community Arts is working with a community theatre group, the City of Carbondale and Carbondale Main Street to rehab the historic Varsity Movie Theater into the Varsity Center for the Arts in order to meet an identified need for functional performance, exhibit and meeting space, and to create a highly visible and aesthetically pleasing anchor for a revitalized downtown that attracts Carbondale residents, Southern Illinois University students and regional visitors alike.

Some communities are using hotel/motel tax funds to support arts and culture events and programs. After recent cuts to arts funding by the City of Park Ridge, City Manager Jim Hock suggested a tie-in to the city vehicle sticker application. Residents fill out a form and add $10 to their checks, and in return, receive the "I Support Cultural Arts in Park Ridge" sticker that they can attach to a car window or window in their home.

How do you recommend our local arts community weather the storm?
Artists and arts organizations alike need to continue to engage more with their community—to be relevant and present. The Decatur Area Arts Council reports a growing core of members that have not only continued to contribute, but in many cases have contributed at an even higher level in the last two years. It is important to communicate the value of the arts to the lives of everyone in a community, and to build relationships with legislators and other decision makers. Now is the time for the arts community to come together for networking, cooperation, alliance building and partnership development.

Besides economic and funding issues, what trends are you seeing in the arts community in Illinois?
We are seeing more and more collaboration and partnership development versus operating in silos. However, there are still pockets where you see reluctance for a variety of reasons. There is a building desire to gather for collective thought and voice and an increase in advocacy. In communities like Evanston and Bloomington-Normal, there are regularly scheduled meetings of area arts leaders to promote collaboration and unity. It has even led to new programs and services. Arts leaders are testing innovative approaches and experimenting with social media tools more than ever. New local arts agencies and regional initiatives are sprouting up all over the state, driven by community leaders who want to see the arts thrive. The arts community is working with city/town leaders on community goals and plans instead of just their own narrow scope.

Anything else you would like to add?
While we have experienced difficult and even painful cuts, we are still here. The arts matter. We have a choice in how we respond to these challenging times, and being the creative industry, we should choose innovation rather than fear, isolation or stagnation. Now is the time for cultural vanguards to unite in creative force to break through old ways of thinking and doing, as well as real and perceived limitations. We have the power and resources to break through by summoning the force within ourselves, our communities, our sector and the creative collective.

In closing, here is an excerpt from the Illinois Arts Council’s Planning for the arts: "... magic to stir men's blood": proceedings of the Third Annual Winter Conference on Planning, from January 1978: “Art is beneficial to society, as is welfare, fire protection or street cleaning. Government can do a great deal to integrate the arts into society…When approaching government for assistance, expand your concepts and definition of ‘art.’ Arts organizations can rely on existing planning agencies by associating the arts with ‘the quality of life.’…It should be the job of arts organizations and governments to make art available. In spite of money problems in most communities, public support for the arts is increasing. The 1974 Conference of Mayors resolved that the arts are an essential service, and that each city should have a public agency concerned with the arts. Although public support is in its infancy and the role of public agencies in the arts is debated, recognition of the value of the arts is growing and the future is promising.” a&s

To learn more about the work of the Illinois Arts Council, visit arts.illinois.gov.