2016 MacArthur Grants Spotlight Chicago Arts Institutions

“The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation recently doled out more than $6 million…”

By Tamar Honig

The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation recently doled out more than $6 million to arts and cultural organizations as part of its Awards for Creative & Effective Institutions. Since 2006, these awards have helped support institutions around the globe covering a wide range of disciplines.

This year, for the first time, the grants were directed entirely at Chicago art groups—14 in total, specializing in jazz, theater, film, dance, opera, visual art, and more.

“This is the first year we drew Awardees from one city,” Cate Fox, program officer for arts and culture at the MacArthur Foundation, wrote in a statement. “MacArthur picked Chicago because it is where our Foundation is headquartered. Each year we invest more than $10 million in Chicago’s arts and culture community so this was an opportunity to strengthen the city’s vibrant cultural life in a different way and affirm our commitment to our hometown.”

According to Fox, MacArthur has a long tradition of nurturing emerging organizations and celebrating creativity. Early recipients of the foundation’s support include what became Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization; Creative Commons, a nonprofit that has revolutionized the concept of copyright; and World Resources Institute, a global environmental think tank.

Fox noted that the intended immediate impact of a MacArthur Award is to affirm the work of the recipient as well as Chicago’s arts and culture sector in general. The long-term effect, however, is more difficult to predict.

“We live in a city that is second to none in terms of cultural life…. Our hope is that these organizations continue to produce high-quality artistic experiences. Previous Award recipients have told us that the Award has allowed them to take more risk, seed projects that they knew they would not receive an immediate return on investment but would be critical to the organization’s mission,” Fox said.

Among the winners of this year’s awards was Eighth Blackbird (styled as eighth blackbird), a music ensemble that performs new classical works in Chicago and beyond.

Peter McDowell, managing director of eighth blackbird, explained why his organization is worthy of its MacArthur Award.

“Eighth Blackbird is a model for small to mid-size arts organizations. [It] has grown significantly over the past few years while maintaining a strong, fiscally responsible budget,” he said.

McDowell highlighted eighth blackbird’s major recent accomplishments: hiring a full-time staff of four people; touring nationally and internationally; winning four Grammy awards; recording and releasing eight albums; and achieving ensemble-in-residence status at the University of Chicago, the University of Richmond, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

“In addition to providing extraordinary financial stability, the MacArthur Award funds effectively eliminate the need for further capital fundraising campaigns—potentially for years into the future—freeing up staff and artists to cultivate program support at a pivotal moment in the company’s history,” McDowell said.

The other organizations that received a MacArthur Award this year include Albany Park Theater Project, A Red Orchid Theatre, Chicago Film Archives, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, Chicago Opera Theater, Chicago Sinfonietta, Hyde Park Art Center, Links Hall, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Lucky Plush Productions, The Hypocrites, TimeLine Theatre Company, and Young Chicago Authors.

“Our focus on small and mid-sized organizations is purposeful—these organizations have an outsized impact supported by a meager infrastructure,” Fox said. “We hope that the Award calls attention to their creativity and effectiveness, while providing resources to build-out the internal supports the organization needs to be creative and effective in the future.”