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Artists are all-in for Brandon Johnson

In the 2019 mayoral election, Lori Lightfoot stood out with her platform for supporting the arts in Chicago. Out of a crowded field of 14 candidates, she was the only one to hone in on the arts with a detailed plan. Not so this time around. Instead, candidate Brandon Johnson, who has recently surged in the polls, takes pride of place for his support of arts and culture, as detailed in a forthcoming platform. And his endorsement by a growing contingent of arts workers reflects that.

On February 22, over 100 artists and arts workers released a statement endorsing Johnson for mayor. “Our intention with this statement was a call to unite artists across the city around a true commitment to care for all of us that make this city run on what it’s known for—its art and culture scene,” artist Monica Trinidad, who helped draft the statement, told me over email. “Lightfoot has increased arts grants for 501(c)3 groups or for public projects that make our city look great, but we need more than that. Brandon Johnson is rooted in community organizing and [is] someone I personally believe we can truly hold accountable.”

While the arts might not be the most pressing issue facing the city, it is also something worth paying attention to. According to a 2014 report from the University of Chicago, the city employs 63,000 artists, representing 4.5 percent of total employment, a number that is likely an underestimate given the number of arts workers employed on a gig or contract basis. A diversity of mediums and industries is represented on the growing list of signatories in support of Johnson, including photographers, playwrights, illustrators, poets, professors, and museum workers, among many others. As of Friday morning, more than 100 people added their names to the growing list, with representation from over 45 neighborhoods.

Johnson’s platform explicitly calls for financial support and stability for the city’s art workers—including safe working conditions, pay transparency, and more accessible funding opportunities. It also details prioritizing arts education and afterschool programs for Chicago Public Schools, fully funding the Burge Torture Survivors Memorial, expanding the guaranteed basic income program, and supporting arts worker unionization efforts, among other ideas.

The benefits of arts participation are numerous; data show it can result in ​​increased civic engagement and greater social tolerance. And strengthening rights and increasing wages for arts workers—whose job precarity was made plain during the pandemic when 63 percent of artists experienced unemployment—is crucial for maintaining Chicago’s reputation as a world-class city for the arts.

Most of the other serious contenders for mayor are scant on details when it comes to the arts. U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García’s website notes the importance of investing in communities and youth, primarily by promoting economic opportunity. It does note arts and culture specifically, pledging to “pair transportation upgrades with a beautification plan,” such as partnering with artists to create murals. Paul Vallas’s campaign also focuses largely on economic development and mentions a vague plan to open more magnet schools and expand charters and recreational activities in schools.

Willie Wilson’s campaign website is light on most details and doesn’t mention the arts. Neither does Ja’Mal Green’s—his platform on economic development is pro-small business, suggesting the creation of a youth apprenticeship program and a streamlining of business permitting and licensing. Alderperson Sophia King notes her record of supporting companies with a diverse workforce and her work on landmarking the Ebony/Jet building. Her ward, the fourth, holds some of the city’s richest cultural sites (including parts of Bronzeville, the Museum Campus, Hyde Park, and the South Loop). However, she came under fire in 2021 for her proposed rezoning ordinance, which would have limited cultural exhibitions in residential districts. (After a strong backlash, King withdrew the ordinance.)

While Mayor Lightfoot does not have a specific arts platform for this campaign, her administration has made notable investments in the arts. Last year, her administration increased direct support for the arts, via DCASE, from $2.7 million to $12.7 million. DCASE increased the number of grants awarded, and grants went to a greater share of BIPOC artists or BIPOC-led organizations than in previous years. Another meaningful change was the 2020 appointment of Chicagoans from across art sectors to the DCASE Cultural Advisory Council.

But her administration also had plenty of missed opportunities, including her failure to fully fund the Burge Torture Survivors Memorial, against the recommendation of her arts and culture transition team; the underfunding of Chicago Public Schools by 30 percent, which means staffing shortages, from librarians to art teachers, and a curriculum that fails to reflect “the rich history of Black Americans, Latinx families, and the important role of immigrants from across the world,” among other issues; and her painfully slow process to decide the fate of the Christopher Columbus statues. (For those not up to date, two years after the statues were removed, a committee formed to study the issue recommended they not be replaced; Lightfoot responded by saying she wanted to further study the issue.)

The arts workers in support of Johnson say, “An investment in arts and cultural programming that solely bolsters the city’s public image is not enough. We can’t create and continue to build the innovative and vibrant Chicago arts field if many of our creatives don’t have their basic needs met.” Artists and arts workers have a unique ability to use their mediums to connect with communities and imagine radically different futures. But to do that sustainably, the signatories write, they need affordable housing and health care, and they need a government that invests in youth and mental health resources (instead of criminalizing people). That’s why they’re voting for Johnson; at this point, no other mayoral candidate can claim that sort of support from the arts community.

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