A Funders Collaborative that Helps Chicago Arts Groups Take Care of Business

Artists don’t always consider themselves to be business people—heck, some make a point of shunning anything that even smells of commerce. But no artist will reach the masses and make sales without some kind of marketing plan in place. And no theater or artists’ guild will stay around long unless it pays attention to day-to-day operations and organizational growth. And this is where the Arts Works Fund for Organizational Development aims to help. This Chicago funders collaborative offers local arts organizations grants for audience engagement, website development, and other technical nitty-gritty so artists can keep the lights on. It's backed by a host of local foundations, including such well-known funders as the Chicago Community Trust and Crown Family Philanthropies. (See all the current funders here.)

The fund is a strictly Chicago operation—it only gives to grant seekers in Chicago or in nearby Cook County. It’s also got a policy of funding only small- and medium-sized grantees. A grant seeker’s operating expenses must be between $50,000 and $800,000 a year.

The fund doesn’t have many deal breakers other than these two, though. Grantseekers who meet these criteria can be practically any kind of creative endeavor known to humankind. Museums, theatres, musical ensembles, writers’ guilds, public art projects, you name it. The fund gives funds to each and every one of these.

And quite a few recipients get funds more than once. The Arts & Business Council of Chicago, for instance, got a $10,000 grant one year to pay for enhancements to its data-management system. Then it got a $5,000 grant the next year to revamp its website and two more grants of $8,000 and $1,000 a few years later for, respectively, further web development and some internal organizational changes.

Intuit, a museum that celebrates folk and “outsider” art, is another frequent fund grantee. Over the years, it’s received a $9,500 grant to redesign its membership marketing; two more grants in later years of $10,000 each for its annual giving program and general marketing; and a $6,750 grant to reform its executive board.

The Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Silk Road Theatre Project, and Woman Made Gallery have each won serial awards, too. Giordano used its awards for audience-development research, upgrading its data-management system, and leadership-succession planning. The Silk Road put its awards toward a new audience-engagement strategy and revving up its existing fundraising activities. The Woman Made Gallery, meanwhile, spent its monies on website upgrades, documenting internal operations, and creating some new administrative processes to enhance office operations.

There are plenty of funders out there who shell out money on art. Walk through any museum or public art project, and you’ll find plenty of displays funded by philathropists. But it’s one process to make art, and a whole other one for bringing the finished artworks out of the studios and into the galleries and public spaces. That latter one may not be as exciting, but it’s clearly no less important. The Arts Work Fund seems to think so, at least, and as such, it’s ensuring that Chicago’s artists have that process covered.