When the economic recession began hitting Illinois in 2007, state funding for artists and arts organizations through the Illinois Arts Council Agency was cut as legislators tried to trim the budget.
While that disappointed organizations who depended on that money to balance their own budgets and provide arts opportunities in their communities, the funding at least continued.
But alarm bells went off in the arts community last week when the chairwoman of the Illinois Arts Council Agency, Shirley Madigan, sent a letter on Feb. 24 indicating that its ability to issue grants had been suspended, apparently indefinitely.
“Due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to make any funding decisions regarding applications (current, pending and future) at this time,” wrote Madigan, who is the wife of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
During the first half of the 2014-15 fiscal year, the agency awarded almost $5 million in grants to nearly 700 artists and organizations ranging in size from the Art Institute of Chicago — which received $60,000 from the IACA this year to fund its general operations — to the Riverside Arts Center, which received $6,000 in December.
That money, according to RAC board President Kim Piotrowski, represents about 3 to 5 percent of the center’s total budget.
“It’s unsettling because there is no clarity to what they’re doing and why,” said Piotrowski. “So we just have to wait and see.”
True enough, Madigan’s letter gives no indication as to why the grants funding has been suspended. Apart from announcing that the agency would not be able to make decisions on grant pending applications, Madigan provided precious little information.
“We will share updates with you as they become available,” Madigan wrote.
The IACA was created by the Illinois General Assembly in 1965 and is governed by a volunteer board that oversees a paid staff of about 15 people. Its revenue comes directly through appropriations from the General Assembly and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The General Assembly appropriated about $10 million for the IACA for fiscal year 2014-15. To give a sense of how much that funding has decreased in the last several years, in 2007 the state appropriated almost $22 million for the IACA.
While Madigan’s letter didn’t directly state it, the freeze appears to be part of the general freeze on all state discretionary spending that Gov. Bruce Rauner decreed by executive order in January.
The freeze stopped funding for everything from open space development to social services to arts funding. The executive order affected any grants awarded after Nov. 1, 2014 and mandated all grant funding suspended until July 1, which is the first day of the new fiscal year in Illinois.
The Landmark sought comments from Madigan via email on Monday but was told she wasn’t immediate available to answer questions.
The Riverside Arts Center is not the only local arts group that depends on annual funding from the IACA.
Lucky Plush Productions, a contemporary dance ensemble run by Riverside resident Julia Rhoads, was awarded $8,300 by the IACA during the first round of the agency’s grant funding in the 2014-15 fiscal year to help fund general operations.
In 2014, the IACA awarded Lucky Plush a total of $14,175, which included $9,900 to collaborate and perform with the band The Claudettes. According to Rhoads, who was reached by email on Tuesday, Lucky Plush Productions has three grant applications pending a decision by the IACA. Two are aimed at the dance company hiring a musician and a live-mix video artist for touring programs.
The third application is for a grant to fund the ensembles general operations for the upcoming season. That IACA grant is essential, said Rhoads, because most arts grants are for projects or to fund hiring consultants. But the IACA grant can help fund general expenses not tied to a specific project.
“Cuts to general operating support, even at the limited level that IACA provides, will be devastating to arts organizations,” Rhoads said. “So the loss of another general operating grant has huge consequences.”
The IACA awarded a $1,000 grant in fiscal year 2013-14 to the Blythe Park School PTA to help fund a one-week, multidisciplinary residency with the performance group Striding Lion, as part of the school’s artist-in-residence program.
A $300 grant also helped fund a performance by singer Peter Oprisko at the North Riverside Public Library last November.
According to Library Director Ted Bodewes, Oprisko’s appearance was one of the library’s most successful programs last year, bringing out more than 100 people.
“Based on the success we had, we’d try that again,” Bodewes said. “Without that grant, we would not have been able to bring him here.”
The IACA also provides grants to individual artists. Piotrowski was one of the artists given a $3,000 project grant in 2013-14.
“The Illinois Arts Council has supported so many artists over the years,” Piotrowski said. “It’s such a boost for your creative life, how you are seen by your peers, and for the ability to do something beyond your own means.”