The Intersection of Art & Justice—and Policy

By October 6, 2020Field News

Q&A with Art Program Officer Tempestt Hazel and Arts Alliance Illinois Executive Director Claire Rice

Arts Alliance Illinois Executive Director Claire Rice


I’ve said the words “intersection of art and justice” more times than I can count during the past few years at Field. It’s a phrase that can be interpreted many ways and Chicago is the perfect place to gain clarity and understanding around the possibilities that phrase holds. Chicago is home to many groundbreaking, community-based organizations doing defining work that has helped me understand the phrase in three distinct ways, though these definitions often overlap, intersect, and change as the work of artists changes.

First, and perhaps most visible within arts and culture is justice as content. This is when issues such as labor rights, housing access, environmental justice, prison abolition, police violence, displacement, and other issues facing Chicago’s historically oppressed communities, serve as inspiration for artwork, performance, or project, and artistic expression itself becomes a tool to communicate these stories to a wider audience.

Second, and perhaps less clear within the arts sector, is art as a tool for justice, where artists are leading justice and community organizing efforts, working along with organizers and activists, and fighting for justice. This is an anchor point of the Field’s grantmaking in art and culture. This creative, cultural work is in some ways less legible because it’s often infused within community organizing campaigns and justice organizations, and misses the purview of some arenas of culture. But as author Toni Cade Bambara brilliantly said, “the role of the (artist/cultural worker) is to make revolution irresistible.”

Third, and perhaps most timely given the political season we are in, is justice for and within the arts sector itself, meaning policy pushes and advocacy efforts reminding civic sectors and the public that it is often underfunded, cut from budgets, exploited, and left out of conversations it is deeply connected to, such as public and community health, education, housing, economic development, and environment.

To gain a deeper understanding of the cultural policy and advocacy efforts that are most urgent and active for the sector itself, I spoke with Claire Rice, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois.

Tempestt Hazel: What are the biggest policy and advocacy issues of the arts sector right now, and how does that align with what Arts Alliance Illinois is currently doing?

Claire Rice: The devastation facing the sector is still vast, even six months into the pandemic. People are still thinking about survival, but one of the biggest challenges is making sure we’re looking at that survival through the lens of racial equity and justice. In some cases, I’ve seen where the survival instinct, particularly for white organizations, is [taking priority] over their commitment to equity and justice. In moments of crisis, we lean into our true core values, and we’re seeing that there’s still a lot of work to do to instill racial equity as a core value across the arts and culture landscape.

Pre-election, that means a couple of things, including remembering that public funding for the arts is a huge vehicle for systemic change and helping to rebalance the scales of the funding landscape, which has traditionally bent towards white-led and white-serving institutions. Public funding through the arts is one way that we can help to adjust that systemic imbalance, so we explicitly advocate for that public funding to have a racial equity lens.

We’re also working on equitable tax structures. In the arts sector, if we are asking government to put dollars into relief, recovery, and ongoing support for the sector, which is critical to our communities rebuilding, and for revitalization and healing, we also need to support the tax structures that support more equitable distribution of funds for arts and culture, through issues like the Fair Tax.

In Chicago, we will also be doing a campaign around the (city of Chicago) budget, which we know is in crisis. Due to the pandemic, there are huge issues with revenue for the city, and we understand that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t invest in the arts sector, the sector that can help lead us to an equitable recovery. We’re making the case that art and culture can be one of the tools in the health landscape and public safety landscape, etc. The city could be thinking more broadly about how the arts can be used to address these different issues.

TH: From AAI’s point of view, what are some of the things within the arts sector that are at risk of not being included in the city budget and given the budget shortfall, what are some ways to creatively address that challenge?

CR: A budget is a tool for equity and we need to rethink the ways that art shows up in the city budget. Specifically, one of the largest line items within the budget that supports art and culture goes to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), although its grantmaking budget is still one of the smallest per capita for major cities across the US. At the Alliance, we would like to maintain funding for DCASE but increase the share of that department’s budget that goes toward direct support and grantmaking for individual artists, businesses, and organizations, particularly in communities of color.

We’d like to see the Department of Health and other departments direct parts of their budgets toward arts and culture organizations, artists, and creative businesses.

TH: How has the Alliance’s work changed over the past several months?

CR: Given the funding challenges for state and local governments due to COVID-19, we’ve had to focus a lot of our energy on the federal level. For example, we’ve been asking for fixes of the Payroll Protection Program that will ensure more equitable distribution and access to those funds by arts organizations, especially BIPOC organizations, in a way that the first round didn’t because it was so quick, which leads to [disproportionate distribution], White supremacy values of urgency showing up again! So, even when we ask that programs like these consider the arts more, we’re also reminding people and calling upon civic leaders to be careful not to put structures into place that are underscoring broken systems that we are working to replace.

We’ve basically done a full pivot to [addressing] COVID-19 and helping arts organizations, businesses, and artists understand these [relief] programs. For a lot of gig workers and artists, this is the first time they’ve been eligible for unemployment. For a lot of cultural nonprofits, this is their first time applying for a government loan or a loan program. This is all new to our sector in a lot of ways. We’ve been doing a lot of coaching and helping people navigate these programs–and doing it in partnership with organizations like Enrich Chicago, Chicago Cultural Alliance, and partners like Field in order to get the word out and broaden our reach.

TH: For those reading this who are fans of the arts but aren’t deeply involved in the sector, what would you like them to know or understand about arts and culture in Chicago?

CR: I think it goes back to the budget conversation. I want those outside the sector to understand and think about the ways in which they can engage the cultural sector to address the challenges they are facing in their own organizations and also their spheres of influence. We all have problems and challenges that we’re trying to solve within our civic and social justice work, and I think the arts, artists, and creatives are underutilized tools that should be in their toolkit. Find out what artists are already engaged in the type of work that you do, because there are artists across the city and state who are engaged in the same issues. How can you hire them to help advance those conversations? For us, at the Alliance, bridging those connections and creating workforce development opportunities is the next phase of the work.

Tempestt Hazel
Art Program Officer

Handy Lindsey
Field Foundation President
“The Field Foundation became known for being willing to be the ‘first in.’ While our grants were small, they were important because they were first. Being willing to look beyond where the rest of the philanthropic community was looking and to be willing to take some risks on some new and dynamic players out there, who, if given the chance to build capacity, could really move the needle on some things.”
Field Foundation

Author Field Foundation

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