Lightfoot urges successor to continue corporate fund support for the arts

City funding for the arts shouldn’t “be subject to the vagaries of a hotel tax,” Lightfoot told a crowd Tuesday at the Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens to applause Monday during her farewell address at BUILD, 5100 W. Harrison St., in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

The arts feed Chicago’s soul, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday, urging her successor to continue the funding protections she built into the city budget to support the arts “in perpetuity.”

With just six days to go until leaving office, it’s been a melancholy week full of lasts for Chicago’s 56th mayor.

On Monday, Lightfoot delivered an emotional farewell to a friendly crowd of supporters while attempting to define her own legacy.

On Tuesday, the mayor who loves the arts awarded her last set of “Chicago Arts Recovery” grants — totaling $10 million to 77 recipients — to help local arts organizations across the city continue their recovery from the pandemic.

Thanks to an avalanche of federal stimulus funds that paved the way for an unprecedented 30% increase in city spending, Lightfoot’s $16.7 billion 2021 budget created a $20 million Artist Relief and Works Fund to help arts organizations devastated by the pandemic.

That included $10 million in relief funds and a matching $10 million “dedicated revenue stream” from the corporate budget that will “no longer be subject to the vagaries of a hotel tax” that tanked during the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot urged Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson — without mentioning his name — to continue that same level of support for the arts.

“I don’t have to tell this crowd that arts are essential. Arts and culture are part of our DNA. They transport us. They challenge us. They are absolutely a critical part of our civic discourse,” Lightfoot told the crowd of artists and aficionados at the Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater.

“And we have to continue to do everything that we can to support them and the work that’s happening at the ground level, at the block level. Not just the big institutions, but the next great artists are working right now at studios across our city. Who are performing in theaters. Who are playing music that makes our hearts sing and challenges us. All across the artistic and cultural landscape, we have to make sure that we continue to make Chicago home for that work,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot argued that arts and culture “bring light and color and beauty” to Chicago neighborhoods and make Chicago the “vibrant city that it is.”

When theaters were shut down during the pandemic and arts organizations were fighting for survival, Lightfoot said, “We came to you. We asked what you needed.”

The city then worked hand in glove with Arts Alliance Illinois to create an Arts for Illinois Relief Fund with a $1 million contribution from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

The city set aside $60 million to create Arts 77, a citywide arts recovery and reopening plan.

Over the last four years, the department known around City Hall as DCASE has received $10 million in corporate funding and $15 million from Lightfoot’s $3.7 billion capital plan to create public art across Chicago.

That created an opening for Lightfoot to talk about the hotel tax and why she believes it simply cannot be used in and of itself to support the arts.

“Historically, DCASE’s primary source of funding was the hotel tax. But when COVID hit, our hotels were empty, and the revenue that we depended upon disappeared,” she said.

“So, one of the things that we learned from that experience is we can’t tie the fates of this important community to the vagaries of a hotel tax,” she said. “We never know what the future is gonna bring. So my commitment in that next year’s budget — and hopefully it will continue in perpetuity — is that we will fund the arts primarily from our corporate dollars and not rely on the up-and-down of the tax.”

Johnson has other plans for the hotel tax. He wants to raise it, in part, to help bankroll an array of social programs that form the cornerstone of his anti-violence strategy.

As a candidate for mayor, Lightfoot promised to raise the hotel tax to boost the $1.7 million then devoted annually to grants supporting Chicago artists. She called it “pocket change.” She never followed through.

“There should be no reason why artists are leaving Chicago to go to New York or LA or some other place that’s more friendly and more livable for them. We need to make sure that we create the environment here where they can thrive and feel like this can be home,” she said then.

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