Let’s stop undervaluing the arts

Too often, we treat access to art as a privilege, something that is “nice to have,” not a baked-in necessity of human life, writes Leslé Honoré, the CEO of Urban Gateways. But arts generate social capital and economic growth, and are essential to Chicago’s future.

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Englewood Arts Collective artist Jerrold “Just Flo” Anderson puts finishing touches on his mural before its unveiling outside Planned Parenthood’s Englewood Health Center at 6059 S. Ashland Ave. in the Englewood neighborhood, Tuesday morning, November 2, 2021.

Englewood Arts Collective artist Jerrold “Just Flo” Anderson puts finishing touches on his mural before its unveiling outside Planned Parenthood’s Englewood Health Center at 6059 S. Ashland Ave. in 2021.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

We have always told our stories through the arts. Before there was written language, there were paintings on walls of people who recorded their lives. Every one of us uses art to make meaning of our lives and communicate with each other.

How many times this week have you read a poster, tuned into a television show, listened to a song, clicked on an icon or shared a photo?

There is no pamphlet, whether you agree with its content or not, that does not likely use graphic arts. There is no piece of communication, whether you agree with it or not, that was not written or edited by someone or a team. There is no show that did not have a team of writers — currently on strike — who did not work long hours to make you laugh, cry and feel represented. Art touches everything and we rely on it every day to function.

And yet, our public discourse around art, and especially art education, treats art as something that is “nice to have,” not a baked-in necessity of human life. We rely on the arts to do the heavy lifting of public life — to explain, to welcome, to grieve, to celebrate, to create community — but artists are rarely asked to sit alongside policymakers.

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Educators fight for the arts in school curriculums. Too often, access to art is treated as a privilege to earn.

As a co-chair of the Arts and Culture subcommittee of Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson’s transition team and the CEO of Urban Gateways, the city’s oldest arts education nonprofit, I believe that it is essential that we prioritize arts education, support the arts as an economic engine, and expand access to it.

A benefit for youth and our city’s economy

First, when young people in Chicago — regardless of their ZIP code — can have access to art in their own neighborhoods and across the city, it means they have access to new perspectives — and more options to learn and grow. Right now, young people are grappling with the effects of the pandemic on their lives, including their mental health. They need the opportunity and knowledge to express and explore their emotions and experiences.

It is also critical that we support professional artists as the small business owners and entrepreneurs they are. Chicago’s legendary arts scene makes our city a place where people want to live and is the backbone of our local economy. Pre-pandemic, Chicago’s nonprofit arts organizations alone generated $3.2 billion in economic activity and $336.5 million in public revenue, according to Americans for the Arts’ Chicago report.

The Chicago Loop Alliance found in their 2019 study that the cultural assets in the Loop, including venues, galleries, museums and public art attractions, were responsible for $2.25 billion in economic impact to the city. The arts are key to rebuilding our economy and making Chicago a welcoming, vibrant community.

As the arts generate so much in social capital and financial growth for this city, treat and pay arts educators, artists and culture workers like the professionals they are. Do not expect them to do free or underpaid labor. Gig workers are no less talented, educated or driven than those who are traditionally employed. They should be a part of early stages of planning and implementation when their work is being used.

More money for Black, Brown arts organizations

Finally, we need to prioritize equitable access to arts and arts funding. The art of Black and Brown communities defines the city’s identity and puts Chicago on the map, but Black and Brown-led arts organizations consistently receive less support: 50 cents for every dollar compared with majority-white organizations, according to the Heartland Alliance in 2022.

Multiyear, general operating grants are needed just as much as ones tied to specific programs. Do not make small organizations compete for funding with large orgs who have a team of grant writers and endowments. Fund communities (and the organizations that serve them) that have been harmed by systemic racism and disinvestment first. Offer amplification, financial support, networking access, assistance in place-keeping — not rewriting, white-washing or redirection.

Art in public life is not new. It has made a difference and will continue to make a difference in how we think, feel, communicate and act. We cannot continue to undervalue art.

Leslé Honoré is a Blaxican poet, activist, published author and the CEO of Urban Gateways.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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