A Chat in the Park: Why This Foundation is Paying for Statues to Tell Their Stories

How often do you pass by statues around your city without a second glance? Although statutes in art museums capture our attention pretty well, ones scattered in parks and on street corners are appreciated about as much as bus stop signs and flag poles.

Now, one organization, Sing London, has made a mission of bringing Chicago’s statutes to life, and it’s captured the attention of a locally focused funder in the city. That would be the Driehaus Foundation, which focuses the bulk of grantmaking on the built environment, architecture, parks, and walkability in the city. Its recent $300,000 grant to Sing London brought all those funding areas together.

We'd never heard about talking statues before, although we have reported on related themeslike how funders are backing efforts to make viewing art more interactive and also supporting new ways to bring alive public spaces.

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To learn more about this unusual philanthropic foray, I spoke recently with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation’s executive director, Kim Coventry, and Sing London’s Colette Hiller. 

The statue partnership began when Colette approached the foundation to pitch the idea of identifying 30 existing pieces of public sculpture in Chicago and telling their stories through smartphone technology. A talking statue program launched in London last year, and Chicago is its American debut.

Colette described how anyone with a smartphone can approach a sculpture and hold the phone next to a plaque to get a “call back” and listen to a recorded message. Users can also access the monologues by entering a URL or NFC. The arts engagement initiative is called Statue Stories Chicago, and each monologue is about two minutes long.

The monologues are an interesting piece of this. Chicago-based actors and writers have loaned their voices to tell these statues’ stories. Sing London partnered with the Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Second City to produce the short speeches. For example, John C. Reilly is the voice of Abraham Lincoln, David Schwimmer is the voice of Cloud Gate, and Shona Rhimes speaks for Miro’s Chicago. Spanning from downtown to Humboldt Park, these talking statutes will collectively tell the story of Chicago, and it all began on August 6.

Sing London’s Colette explained how Chicago was the ideal place for such an art installation because there are so many public gardens and monuments here, along with so many theaters and museums willing to take part in an effort to bring them alive. Other American cities, like New York City for example, aren’t really known for their public statues the way that Chicago is.

“Chicago is home to an extraordinary collection of public art. In fact, the parks are a sort of outdoor museum,” Kim Coventry said in a press release.

Kim elaborated to tell me how this was an extremely wonderful opportunity to work with many cultural organizations that have been long-term partners with the foundation to get people out into the parks. She also believes that the talking statutes will instill a tremendous amount of city and civic pride because they’re all about connecting the environment to the people. Giving inanimate objects, like statues, a voice, forces passersby to take notice of them and creates a sense of magic and imagination.  

The Driehaus Foundation was the sole funder of Statute Stories Chicago, and this is a single-year opportunity that rus through summer 2016. This grant is a perfect example of a funder acting locally to provide free and positive activities for all ages in the built environment. It’s giving “street theater” a whole new meaning and reaching audiences that don’t make a habit of studying sculpture, learning about local history, or frequenting museums.  

To keep the statute momentum going, there’s even a public competition for aspiring writers—both adults and kids under 16. Local libraries are getting in on this action, too, by helping to deliver workshops on how to put words in the mouths of statutes. Monologues have a 350-word-count limit and submissions are due in November.

Although Kim described this funding as unprecedented for the foundation, Richard Driehaus has always been fond of the parks and loves sculpture. He was immediately attracted to Sing London's pitch. “Activation” of certain areas has been on the forefront of everyone’s minds at the Driehaus Foundation lately—that is, activating underutilized features and refurbishing “dead zones” around the city.

Kim and her team at the Driehaus Foundation have been busy elsewhere in the realm of arts and culture, too. Driehaus continues to collaborate with the MacArthur Foundation to award grants supporting small theater, dance, museum, and arts groups. This funding covers about 250 grantees each year that have budgets of $500,000 or less and provides general operating support.

On its own, Driehaus funds local arts advocacy and stewardship organizations, such as lawyers for the creative arts that provide pro bono services and performance spaces used for grantees. But for now, the built environment is the foundation’s top focus, with arts and culture pretty high on that list, too. Grants that benefit economic opportunity for the working poor and investigative journalism are awarded too, but at a much more modest level.

Related: Chicago Nonprofits: Pay Attention to These Two Driehaus Foundation Programs