Nonprofit pushes Chicago to build anti-racist arts community

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CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago nonprofit formed to highlight the lack of leaders of color within the city’s arts and cultural systems is asking artists of color to imagine what the nation’s third-largest city could look like without stubborn inequities in art, theater and other institutions.

The first phase of Enrich Chicago’s new program, called Imagine Just, begins this month. The series of brainstorming sessions will ask artists, performers and other Chicagoans to imagine what an equitable arts and cultural scene could look like.

Nina Sánchez, co-director of Enrich Chicago, sees the project as an expansion of the organization’s focus on anti-racism training and education within Chicago’s arts and cultural community.

The organization was founded in 2014 by former leaders of the influential Joyce Foundation and the Auditorium Theatre. It now counts more than 50 arts and cultural organizations as partners.

But the coronavirus pandemic and widespread activism during the past year in response to George Floyd’s death highlighted stubborn inequities in all aspects of life, prompting conversations about what else the organization could do to force change in Chicago’s arts and culture community, Sánchez said.

Imagine Just is the result, attempting to amplify the voices of artists of color and reach leaders of local institutions that can feel out of reach, she said.

About a third of Chicago’s residents are white, but a 2017 survey conducted by Enrich Chicago found more than 70% of board members and other leaders at arts and cultural organizations are white. Numbers at foundations that support the arts were similarly imbalanced.

Amina Dickerson, chair of the Chicago Cultural Advisory Council and a leader of Imagine Just, said calls for change after Floyd’s death also deepened an ongoing “reckoning” within the arts. Artists and other creatives of color will no longer accept a historic lack of resources or access to the organizations and people who control them, she said.

“It’s more than just the financial resources; it’s also an attitudinal shift that we’re looking for,” she said. “It’s in the way that we critique arts, the way that we include diversity and create new opportunities for more people. We’re changing the system of having gatekeepers who are telling you what to see and not see.”

The MacArthur Foundation provided seed funding.

Cate Fox, senior program officer of the foundation’s Chicago Commitment program, hopes the strategy becomes a model for others calling for dramatic change in institutions that are often slow to embrace it.

“With the twin pandemics really laying bare the inequities in our society, we have an opportunity for change — to not just fix and tinker at the edges of systems,” Fox said.

Once community sessions end in August, organizers will decide how to pursue participants’ common goals.

Four artists will observe each session and create a work of art based on the participants’ ideas — in the form of a song, a dance, a painting and photography. Enrich Chicago also plans to award seed funding for some projects.

Sánchez said she hopes city and cultural leaders are more open to this conversation than when Enrich Chicago was founded six years ago. Using the words anti-racism and equity at cultural leaders’ gatherings “was like a snake bite,” she said.

“People visually recoiled,” she said. “Fast forward six years, (those terms) are part of our public discourse and dialogue. That’s a radical change.”

For Sánchez, a successful sea change in Chicago’s arts and culture will give Chicagoans in every neighborhood affordable access to art that reflects their lives, particularly residents of color.

“All those books about anti-racism that were best sellers, I hope people read them and are ready to live them,” Sánchez said. “And that can be the hardest part.”

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This story has been corrected to list Cate Fox’s title as senior program officer of the MacArthur Foundation’s Chicago Commitment program.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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