What should be the arts policy of the new administration headed by the incoming Democratic governor of the State of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker?
You cannot answer that question without also asking what level of resources, and how much political capital, he should be investing therein in his first months of office. But before we get to all that, let’s start with this truth. Pretty much any arts policy for the State of Illinois would be an improvement on the one now in place, which, in all practical terms, represents no policy at all.
When it comes to the arts, culture and creativity, the official vehicle of the State of Illinois long has been skidding down the road to irrelevance. And over the years of the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner, it arrived at its destination.
In the summer of 2017, the Belleville News-Democrat pointed out that the Illinois Arts Council had, the previous year, spent $1 million on staff and overhead to hand out $834,900 in grants, leading the downstate newspaper to editorialize that the agency should be cut. And while you might be surprised to read this in an arts section of a newspaper, the editorial board of the Belleville News-Democrat made an excellent case.
Our journalistic colleagues in Belleville had been reading a story in Forbes penned by Adam Andrzejewski, an advocate for governmental transparency, in which he reported that the Arts Council did not have a single in-person meeting during 2016. In fact, Andrzejewski wrote, the Illinois Arts Council had no official, in-person meetings from August 2014 until August 2016. Moreover, Andrzejewski argued that most of that $834,900 had gone to relatively wealthy cultural organizations in Chicago and that many of them represented the particular interests of, and in some cases were employers of, members of the council. "Our OpenTheBooks.com findings," Andrzejewski wrote in Forbes, "reveal 37 cents on every $1 in grants flowed to just 20 well-heeled, asset-rich organizations. In total, these 20 rich organizations received $12.1 million despite controlling financial assets of at least $3.1 billion."
This is a conservative critique and you can dispute the veracity of a phrase like "controlling financial assets." Here’s what is fascinating. Given Shirley Madigan’s longstanding leadership of the Arts Council, you’d have thought that Gov. Rauner would have made a campaign issue of a part of State government long controlled by the spouse of a nemesis, House Speaker Mike Madigan, whom he had no hesitation to demonize elsewhere. Why not here? Probably because of the involvement of a laughably tiny amount of money. It was too small for Rauner to care. He’d already choked it off.
As a point of comparison, New York magazine reported Tuesday that the State of New York — the State, not the city — had offered Amazon $1.7 billion in incentive money to build a new operation in Long Island City, or over $100,000 per promised job. Many New Yorkers in recent days have been questioning whether that public subsidy actually will do any social good at all, given that it likely will increase LIC rents and help Amazon dominate over small, locally based competitors who get no subsidies at all. Or take the State of Wisconsin, which reportedly offered some $3 billion in incentives to FoxConn, which has agreed to build a new factory in the state. This was an incentive for one private employer.
Granted, the State of Illinois has contributed to the arts outside of the Arts Council (the funding package for the Uptown Theatre renovation, for example, includes $10 million in Build Illinois bond funding). But, truly, $1.8 million is 0.06 percent of $3 billion. This is too small a commitment for anyone — beyond the most tenacious watchdog — to care.
This all has to change. Why? The economic-development arguments for the arts are as well-worn as they are indisputably accurate, but it is high time arts advocates in Chicago admit that they have not made an effective statewide case (hence that editorial in Belleville). It also is high time for arts advocates in Chicago to admit that so much state arts funding should not be swallowed up by relatively rich institutions in downtown Chicago. It should be for everyone.
I heard Andrew Yang, the founder of Venture for America (a kind of private equity version of Teach for America) and a long-shot Democratic Presidential candidate for 2020, speak this week in Rhode Island. Yang argued that everyone in Silicon Valley well knows that the manufacturing jobs wiped out in Midwestern states were just the beginning. Within just a few years — almost certainly within your lifetime — most human jobs in retail, food service and trucking are also about to disappear, with humans supplanted by either robotics or some version of artificial intelligence. These are the job categories that employ the majority of Americans, a majority of whom still do not graduate from college. This change — coming very soon — will, Yang argued, provoke a crisis of social unrest in the traditional manufacturing states of such a unprecedented scale that it needs to be anticipated now. And it’s not as simple as retraining workers: retraining for what jobs?
Take trucking — once the trucks no longer need to stop, the truckstops along the interstates will disappear. Those jobs will vanish. Entire communities, Yang argued, will also vanish. Soon. People will have to completely reorient their lives. And before that, he said, there will be anger and alienation. The only solution will be that we will all have to learn to feel more empathy for our fellow Illinoisans, and we will have to learn to do so very fast.
Empathy is about to be everything. If the Land of Lincoln is to survive.
As apocalyptic as it may seem, this stuff is what Pritzker, a smart guy, needs to anticipate and fast. This is why you need the state to be involved in the arts.
Enough with the anemic arts council and the petty controversies and the late checks and the non-conversations and the pathetic budgets. It’s time for the state to train its citizens in how to change their own narratives. It’s time for the state to take charge of the narrative, and help its people understand the meaning of that term. The human story is changing far faster than most people realize, and the arts will need to be at the center of what soon will be 12.8 million very different lives, as lived in the State of Illinois. People will have to re-create themselves, write very different stories for themselves, and we’ll all need help.
Where will he find the money for that? The smarter people in the business of technological change know that their profitable utopia will be scuppered if they don’t also fund the human change that’s needed. There’s plenty of money out there, all looking for the right artistic and creative idea. Some of it lives very close to home.