Several Illinois arts leaders came to the Quad Cities Friday, from the government, and they were here to help.

A wide-ranging discussion took place Friday morning at Mercado on Fifth in downtown Moline among local arts leaders and representatives from the Illinois Arts Council Agency (IACA), which provides grants to individual artists, arts agencies, park districts and schools throughout the state, from its $15-million annual budget. Illinois First Lady MK Pritzker, wife of Gov. JB Pritzker, also attended as part of a statewide IACA listening tour.

MK Pritzker, wife of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, spoke at the listening tour event at Moline’s Mercado on Fifth, Friday, March 10, 2023 (photos by Jonathan Turner).

“I so appreciate your honesty and it’s so important to voice how you really feel,” she told the group. “It really makes a difference in our communities. We’re all trying to do better; that’s why we’re here. We hope we don’t let you down.”

The council wants to redistribute funds in a more equitable way and focus state grants on more specific communities. The day’s activities — from 9 a.m. until past 2 p.m. — were coordinated by Rock Island-based Quad City Arts, which gets funding support from IACA and serves a six-county region in lllinois and Iowa.

“Part of the listening tour’s purpose is to help us redefine how we distribute funds throughout the state,” said council deputy director Encarnacion Teruel. “Who are we not funding? Why are we not funding them? Let’s reach out and find out what we’re not doing right, so we can correct that.”

“These funds are taxpayer funds,” he said. “In essence, you guys are our bosses.”

“We’re very much aware that coming out of the pandemic, the arts sector, the way things operate, has drastically shifted,” IACA executive director Josh Davis-Ruperto said. “We have to adapt to the new norm and we as the Arts Council, our granting programs really haven’t changed that much in the past three decades.

Josh Davis-Ruperto, MK Pritzker and IACA board chair Nora Daley at Friday’s event.

“We want to look at this as a wonderful opportunity for us – we have new leadership under Nora Daley, which is incredible,” he said of the chair who came on last fall. “We want to adapt our programming to better serve the needs of our constituents coming out of this collective trauma we’ve all experienced.”

Part of a listening tour, which has been to 20 communities in Illinois over the past month and have another five planned – they’re learning about local struggles and opportunities, and how artists and organizations are coping with the changing landscape over the past three years.

“A lot of innovation happened during that time, and figuring out if there’s other ways we can support that financially, other than the programs we’re currently running, or adapt the programs we do have,” Davis-Ruperto said.

The council is working with a national arts group (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies) to do an in-depth assessment of their grant programs, from an equity lens – racially and geographically. “Who are the communities we’ve left behind?” the director asked. “We’re hoping to make some serious change for the future.”

Improving diversity, equity and inclusion

The theme of boosting diversity statewide was raised by some QC participants Friday.

Nate Lawrence, director of the Polyrhythms nonprofit, which presents a monthly jazz concert and workshop at Rivermont in Bettendorf, said accomplishments and the rich history of QC African-Americans haven’t been adequately recognized.

Nate Lawrence, right, makes a point Friday. Also pictured in foreground are Aubrey Barnes, left, Carolyn Martin and Gaye Shannon Burnett.

Gaye Shannon Burnett, head of the Azubuike African American Council for the Arts, said there’s a challenge of local access to arts and better inclusion of the Black community.

“We should have more access,” she said. “Collaboration is nice, but for Black entities, we’d like a seat at the table. That’s always been a bone I have to pick. We want seats at the table – we don’t want our contributions to be diminished. We need to be the voice of our contributions.”

Minority artists need to be represented more in schools and the arts and culture scene overall, Burnett said.

“Children need to see the people they know, the place they live is rich; it’s productive and we have contributed,” she said. “The artistic scene doesn’t really reflect that.”

Burnett said the Black community has earned and deserved better representation.

Greg Aguilar, community navigator for Mercado on Fifth, said that state grant money should go to empower people or organizations that have been marginalized or ignored in the past.

“I’m a musician and I want to play seven nights a week in the Quad Cities, and I could earn a living, because I’m covering country and rock,” he said “If I was spoken word or hip-hop, I could not make the same amount of money. So there’s a gap in funding to empower and lift certain communities of color.”

Nora Daley, right, became council board chair last fall.

“That’s why we’re embarking on this equity gap project,” new IACA board chair Nora Daley said. “It is challenging to work with us. We don’t want to do the ‘top down.’ That’s why we’re doing this analysis and listening tour, to see how we can better serve. These are public dollars; we want to be sure we’re better stewards of these public dollars.”

Aguilar as Mercado community navigator (funded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) serves as “the eyes and ears of the streets,” communicating concerns of business owners and organizations to the state. Mercado lets businesses know of grant opportunities.

Mercado on Fifth board president Maria Ontiveros spoke at Friday’s event about Mercado’s mission and history (submitted photo).

Aubrey Barnes of Rock Island is a spoken-word artist, writer and teacher, who has received QC Arts “Arts Dollars” and has led poetry for QC Arts’ summer Metro Arts.

The arts are crucial to offer struggling students (or anyone with mental health issues) to “get their emotions out,” he said. “Using poetry and art to get stuff from inside their minds out. I have been privileged to mentor students.”

Aubrey Barnes, a Rock Island spoken-word artist, poet, and teacher, spoke at Friday’s event.

“I’ve been able to see this emotional progress,” Barnes said. “Having art there, as their means to find a place to process their grief; find a place to process this thing that happened. It helps them emotionally.”

Barnes said he’s encouraged that the QC has embraced spoken word as an art form.

Priority in telling the arts story

Davis-Ruperto said that the Illinois arts sector is “terrible” at telling its story.

“We need to be better at reaching out to our legislators, advocating for the work that we’re doing,” he said.

Daley said the council needs to do a better job letting artists know they can apply for funding (they just hired their first communications staff person in 15 years). Davis-Ruperto said the arts council has grants for individual live concerts, which can be used for partnerships, up to $30,000.

“Our audience is recovering; we’re still not quite back where we were pre-pandemic, but this year has gotten a lot better,” Brian Baxter, executive director of the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (which gets Illinois Arts Council operating support), said in response to her seeking feedback on how groups are doing.

Brian Baxter, executive director of the Quad City Symphony, speaks Friday as Nate Lawrence and Kai Swanson look on (submitted photo).

“We’re actually doing best with new audience members, which is great,” he said. “There’s still a lot of hesitation to come back in certain areas.”

Baxter said that compared to Chicago (where he worked 10 years), that there’s more support for arts in the schools in the QC.

“One thing we’re really proud of is sending musicians into elementary, middle and high schools,” he said. “One of our big efforts is making sure we’re connected with the teachers and that we’re really trying to center on what their needs are.”

The QCSO has a group lesson program, offering free lessons for violin and cello students in 2nd through 4th grades, before they have ensemble opportunities in schools. They partner with the Boys & Girls Club in Moline, Spring Forward and Second Baptist Church in Rock Island.

“It’s actually giving students a head start, rather than a catch up,” Baxter said.

Chris Ontiveros, the father of Mercado board president Maria Ontiveros, said Mercado is very much an arts organization.

“The food truck people are artists; the musicians are clearly artists. They’re all trying to make a living out of this,” he said.

Mercado on Fifth in Moline hosts popular summer markets on Friday nights, and is a year-round resource and catalyst for minority entrepreneurs, inspiring Hispanic cultural pride and providing access to bilingual enrichment and educational opportunities.

“We’re a place for them to make a living. We actually track the economic impact we have every single week,” he said, noting vendors report their sales (about 2,000-5,000 people a week attend the Friday night markets in the area west of 12th Street and 5th Avenue)

“That money circulates throughout the community,” Ontiveros said. “That adds up; I know we do more than our local mall on a Friday night. The economic impact an organization like Mercado on Fifth has on the community, its long-term sustainability, viability, how it affects the prosperity – all you have to do is drive down the street.

“The neighborhood has transformed over the last 10 years,” he said. “I believe that this model can be replicated in every city in the state of Illinois.”

“A good day”

The listening tour went until early afternoon, including meeting at The Rust Belt with East Moline leaders.

Kevin Maynard, executive director of Quad City Arts, said they wanted to express to the agency the impressive things happening locally and show the impact of their funding support. With $12,500 in annual IACA funds, the QC Arts “Arts Dollars” grant program has given money to artists and nonprofits in the region since 1979, thanks to other generous funding partners, who believe in the power of the arts to enrich communities.

Kevin Maynard spoke to IACA leaders at Quad City Arts, Rock Island, on Friday morning, March 10, 2023 (submitted photo).

Earlier Friday, QC Arts staff spoke with the council about their programs and funding needs, including the local agency’s new Artist Index.

“An artist is a small business. We at Quad City Arts are working on a ‘work of art’ program to focus on the business skills and teach those, and hopefully build up that community,” Maynard said. “It’s been a good day — not a bad day when you can spend an entire day talking about arts and culture in the Quad Cities.”

“It’s really great,” he said of the state seeking feedback. “What’s been really interesting is, their organization and our organization are going through the same things right now. Having this opportunity of how we can better reach individual artists, communities and what needs to change on the back end.

IACA executive director Josh Davis-Ruperto spoke to Kevin Maynard at Quad City Arts Friday morning (submitted photo).

“The grants are available to everybody, but there are hurdles to overcome,” Maynard said, noting QC Arts grants need to better go deeper into the community to people who really need them.

A $200-million state impact

Daley estimated the state annual funding for the arts is around $200 million, including many departments like transportation, commerce, natural resources, corrections, and capital projects.

The IACA will improve inter-agency dialogue among these departments, she said.

The Arts Council statewide listening tour this week included a visit to the Freeport Art Museum. Pictured (L-R) are IACA board chair Nora Daley, Illinois First Lady Mary Kathryn ‘MK’ Pritzker and Jessica Modica, the museum’s executive director.

In many big capital projects, 1 percent of the budget goes for public art, Davis-Ruperto said, but most artists don’t know about the opportunity, so projects go to “the same 12 artists,” he said. The council is working on expanding where to spread the word better, like through QC Arts.

A current one is a $230-million renovation for the Quincy Veterans Home. The Capital Development Board’s Art-in-Architecture Program has an opportunity for Illinois artists.

The CDB is accepting Request for Qualifications to Illinois artists to create five permanent original public art pieces for the Long-Term Care Facility (LTC) at Quincy Veterans Home in Quincy. This project is open to all artists, artisans, or artist-led teams that live and work in Illinois. The deadline to apply is Friday, April 26, 2023; for more information, click HERE.

The IACA also provides scholarships for people to attend the One State Conference in Springfield, April 24-25. For more information on that arts event, visit its website HERE.