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Illinois Arts Council aims to expand access across the state

The Illinois agency responsible for public funding for the arts is reorganizing to better reach underserved areas after gathering feedback from artists, arts organizations and public officials across the state.

“We heard that our application was too cumbersome,” said Nora Daley, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council, who was appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2022. “Most of our small and medium-sized organizations don’t have development teams. And so we made it really easy in our application to where to ask for information that would influence our decisions.”

Going forward, the IAC plans to focus on reducing barriers to receiving financial support and serving a broader segment of the arts community to “better align public resources with communities across Illinois,” the agency said.

While the IAC supports many small and medium-sized organizations, artists in rural areas often do not receive the same support, according to Kelly Barsdate, program and planning officer for the National Council of State Arts Agencies. According to NASAA’s latest recommendations for the IAC, more than half of the counties in Illinois, most of which are in the southern half of the state, do not receive funding.

In an effort to distribute funds more equitably, the state will be divided by geographic region rather than artistic discipline, and the IAC funding formula will be updated to prioritize historically under-resourced communities. The Chicago metropolitan area will be divided into its own subdistricts.

“Part of this is about making sure the types of awards are flexible enough to accommodate how the arts are supported in rural communities,” Barsdate said. “Not every rural community may have an art school or arts centre. But many rural communities have libraries; and in many rural communities there are other organizations and institutions that play a very important role in civic and community life.”

Many of the changes are planned to be implemented in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The IAC said the reorganization was informed by a “listening tour” of 34 town hall meetings attended by organizations, artists and government officials from across the state. Much of the feedback focused on barriers to applying for funding, including the need to provide a cash match for funding received and the perception that grants are more competitive than they actually are.

IAC eliminated the cash matching requirement and created a communications department to improve access to artists. They also plan to launch a grant program called the Creative Accelerator Fund, which aims to provide general support to individual artists rather than limiting resources to the production of specific projects.

Following the listening tour, the National Council of State Arts Agencies conducted a data-driven analysis of IAC’s practices.

IAC received approximately $15.5 million in general operating funds for the fiscal year ending June 30. According to the IAC, the arts and culture sector generates almost $30 billion in the state economy and supports 216,700 jobs.

Collaboration with additional state and federal agencies is being undertaken to help the IAC implement the outlined changes and expand its work into the future. However, most funding is decided by the general assembly, and Barsdate said Illinois ranks 23rd in per capita funding for the arts, despite being the sixth most populous state in the country.

“Beyond its economic impact, art also contributes to social integration. They improve health and well-being. They help children succeed academically in school,” added Barsdate. “I hope this study is an opportunity to bring some truly fascinating effects to the surface.”

ostevens@chicagotribune.com

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