Chicago arts organizations nab $2.9 million in grants

  • By WINTER JOHNSON
  • Medill News Service
  • October 23, 2006 @ 3:13 AM
Nine prominent Chicago arts organizations have won a $2.9 million lottery -- but they didn't pick a series of lucky numbers.

The New York-based Wallace Foundation chose the grantees from a pool of 35 candidates to recognize the groups' dedication to community building and the arts. And the winners are: The Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago Sinfonietta, Black Ensemble Theater, Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, Hyde Park Art Center, Merit School of Music, Victory Gardens, Beverly Art Center and Music of the Baroque. They'll receive Excellence Award Project grants ranging from $200,000 to $500,000.

The foundation created the Excellence Awards to support arts organizations in its quest to bring more people to the craft. Its mission? To enable institutions to extend learning and enrichment opportunities. The arts communities in Chicago and Boston have been singled out to receive the Foundation's 2006 Excellence Awards.

The selection was competitive, according to Rory MacPherson, Wallace Foundation senior program officer. Not only did each organization need an annual operating budget of $1 million and be at least five years old, prospective winners had to have a solid track record of success and a specific plan for how they plan to expand the reach of their programming and growth.

"We made sure that they could carry out what they proposed to do effectively," MacPherson said of the grantees. "We also made sure that the lessons that might be learned would be relevant and not be unique to a single organization, but would be applicable to others."

Grant winners were ecstatic about the possibilities for their new funds.

"When we learned who else was a part of the process and their great history, we were just thrilled to be a part of that process," said Judith Blackburn, past president of the Beverly Arts Center on Chicago's far South Side. "Then when we found out we were a recipient, we were on cloud nine."

"We don't want to just be the white people's flower house," said Sandra Wilcoxon, director of development for the Garfield Park Conservatory, which is located in a primarily African-American neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. "The grant will help us reach audiences and bring them into the conservatory. We want community members to feel welcome."

The grantees' plans for the future include scholarships, teen development, "art in the park" exhibits, family programming and expanded marketing plans. There is even buzz about possible collaborative projects between the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Garfield Park Conservatory -- an effort to expose more people to classical music.

The Wallace Foundation is not stopping with grants. To further support arts building in Chicago, the foundation is collaborating with The Chicago Community Trust and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to create a consortium of local arts organizations that will be known as the Learning Network.

"We all know that music inspires and stirs the soul," said Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. "This is about audience development and continuing to work on the things that we believe will help make us relevant for the broadest range of consumers possible."

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