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Arts Organizations Face Challenges in Wake of Pandemic, but Commitment to Providing Students Arts Education Remains Strong for CIS and Its Partners

A report commissioned by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) released last month confirmed what our Community Partnership Team has been reporting for some time: Chicago’s arts and cultural sector is facing major challenges.

Since the pandemic darkened theaters and performance venues, people’s patronage of in-person arts experiences has changed dramatically. According to the report, produced by the consultancy SMU DataArts, attendance at a broad range of Chicago’s cultural venues was off 60% in 2022 compared to 2019. Performing arts and other arts and cultural organizations were particularly hard-hit, the report noted, while museums have seen more gradual declines.

Sagging attendance and flat philanthropic giving during a period of vicious inflation has impacted the financial viability of many arts organizations in the city. According to SMU DataArts, the average arts organization in the city cut its budgets by 8% between 2019 and 2022; however, factoring in inflation, budgets in 2022 were 20 percent lower than they were in 2019. This has led many arts organizations to scale back or even eliminate their programming.

In September, for example, Steppenwolf Theater, a long-time CIS partner that offers engaging, culturally relevant young adult productions that many of our school partners take advantage of, laid off 12% of its staff. Earlier this year, weakened finances forced Lookingglass Theatre Company to pause new productions and lay off half its staff.

Ignition Community Glass, a small community-based organization that had been a great collaborator with CIS of Chicago in developing an interactive field trip that taught students social-emotional learning skills through glass-making, made the difficult decision to end the program this year due to lack of staff capacity. Even major, well-supported institutions like the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art have reduced the days they host field trips, resulting in fewer opportunities for students to visit their world-class collections.

“It’s been a very challenging time for our arts partners,” said Katia Marzolf Borione, CIS of Chicago’s Arts and Culture Partnership Specialist.

Katia, who joined our team at the height of the pandemic in May 2021, has seen modest recovery in audiences for some arts and cultural partners during the last year — a fact noted in the SMU DataArts study. But there’s still a long way to go, she says, for most of these organizations to return to the state of health they enjoyed prior to the pandemic. She noted that in addition to the recent revenue and audience declines that have dogged arts organizations, some have also struggled to find qualified teaching artists when there is funding to offer programs. “Many members of the arts community left the city when things went remote,” Katia said. “Some have returned; others are gone for good. It’s been a process for our theaters and performing arts groups to rebuild that community.”

Katia is undaunted, despite the challenges. She works closely with Ingenuity, an organization that leverages data to ensure that all CPS students receive rich arts education experiences as part of a well-rounded school experience. She’s also a proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools who was involved throughout K-12 in school-sponsored arts programs. Katia knows first-hand the power these experiences can have on motivating young people to stay in school and off the streets.

As part of her work with the CIS Community Partnership Team, which has full-time specialists like her cultivating relationships with organizations in six major program areas, she is working to develop a new generation of arts partners to fill in the gaps that have emerged since 2020. This year she has worked with a number of small community-based museums that offer cultural programs for youth but have limited experience working with CPS schools. Another strategy she has been pursuing this year is helping arts partners to create supplemental learning materials that schools and students can take advantage of after they’ve participated in an arts or cultural program.

Closest to Katia’s heart is replenishing the supply of arts residencies that CIS offers schools through its community partner network. According to Katia, arts partners have had a particularly challenging time in the current environment committing to multi-week or even months-long programs. But these long-term programs, she says, have some of the greatest impact because they provide ample opportunities for students to explore an art form, bond with their instructor and classmates, and develop new talents and interests.

“It’s going to take time to build back up to where we were,” says Katia. “But Chicago is still one of the world’s — not just America’s — major cities, and it’s a hub of arts and culture. We’ll get through this period and come out of it stronger, but it will take commitment and hard work, and those are two things we do well at CIS.”

Students attend performance at Steppenwolf Theatre

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