Pritzker bill dangles millions for Illinois arts spending — here are some of the winners

A million dollars for the new TimeLine Theatre in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood; $2 million for the South Side Community Arts Center; $850,000 for the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance; $927,500 for the planned Northlight Theatre in Evanston; $725,000 for the Paramount Theatre in Aurora. And $300,000 to help restore the building belonging to the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood.

Those are just some of the cultural goodies buried in the State of Illinois’ new capital spending bill. As the Tribune’s Jamie Munks and Rick Pearson reported on June 3, this is part of the first major public works program in Illinois in a decade and “a $45 billion multiyear package of transportation and building improvements with the opportunity for rank-and-file lawmakers to engage in ribbon-cuttings to show their constituents a substantive return for their tax dollars.”


New arts centers are always good for that.

All in all, the bill has in excess of $60 million in funding for arts-related capital expenditures. That’s a small fraction of the whole. But still.


Claire Rice, the executive director of the Arts Alliance Illinois, called these components of the bill “a lasting investment in Illinois communities through arts and culture” and a “big win.”

The investment is incontrovertibly substantial and its appropriation, as with other sectors, is quite fascinating. In essence, there are two components to the new capital-project funding for the arts.

One is the so-called line-item grants that appear in the bill and that already designate both an amount and a recipient. Precisely what constitutes arts funding is always open to debate, especially given the overlap with social programs, but some $10 million worth of line items in the bill is set to go to arts-related projects. These items usually are the work of sympathetic legislators and intense lobbying on the part of the beneficiary.

“We talked about the economic benefits of our new theater in Evanston to all of our legislators,” said Tim Evans, the executive director of a big winner, the Northlight Theatre, currently based in Skokie but plotting a move to the east. Now with new state funding in its sails.

Other arts-related line items include $31,251, which the Lyric Opera of Chicago plans to spend on its seats. Arts groups related to Puerto Rico did especially well. If you add up the new capital funding for the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center of Chicago and the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture of Chicago, you arrive at more than $1.5 million.

But line items are not the whole story. The bill also contains more than $50 million in funding for other capital projects related to the arts. Those recipients have yet to be determined. As far as I can tell, there is not even yet a process in place.

The decision maker is set to be the Illinois Arts Council — a budget that likely will propel the agency, with a board of directors chaired by Shirley Madigan, to a whole new level of power-brokering. The regular Arts Council budget is to remain flat at about $12.9 million (following a substantial increase during the previous year, under the administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner). But the big news is the new $50 million or so.

So where will that go? Well, the Arts Alliance, which lobbied for as much as $100 million for arts-related spending, put together a coalition of interested parties. In its materials, you’ll find such projects as the Steppenwolf Theatre expansion, an addition at the Catlow Theater in Barrington and major improvements to the venerable Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb.


Are you better with a line-item or as part of this coalition? I asked David Schmitz, the executive director of Steppenwolf that question and he said his insitution had decided to concentrate on this bucket of communal money, even if there were no guarantees as to who will get what. “Am I hopeful some of it will go to Steppenwolf?,” Schmitz asked, rhetorically. “I am.”

Will the Goodman get to upgrade the rooftop units that provide heat and air-conditioning? That might not sound like capital spending to the uninitiated, but it relates to the physical plant and it counts. Also on the list of Chicagoland hopefuls: Black Ensemble Theater (which has yet to finish its long-anticipated studio theater); the ETA Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing (new programing space); and Giordano Dance Chicago, which wants to convert a Lincoln Park church into a “world-class center for dance.”

On the last day of the Emanuel administration, Lookingglass Theatre Company finalized a 20-year extension to its lease in the Water Tower Pumping Station. The theater gets the Michigan Avenue space rent-free — as was the case before — although it has to pay utilities. And it wants to expand its footprint. On the Arts Alliance list is an project from Lookingglass for the expansion of artistic and production space, “in partnership with a public library.”

Of course, $50 million only goes so far. But this is four times the amount listed in the last spending bill in Illinois, way back in 2009.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.