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Why Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events matters to local artists

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Last week, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office officially announced a leadership transition at Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, or DCASE, with Clinée Hedspeth replacing Erin Harkey as commissioner.

As leaders of the city’s creative community, we offer gratitude to Harkey for her service. Under her leadership, DCASE prioritized equitable, direct investments in our citywide arts and culture community. It pioneered the largest city-run individual artist grants program in the nation and distributed grants in all 50 wards.

DCASE harnesses both public and private funds into the hands of creatives across Chicago. Its mandate encompasses far more than just organizing events and issuing permits. In this moment of transition, we ask our city to remember how DCASE nurtures our city’s creative soul, strengthens our economy and fosters a more inclusive Chicago.

So, why should you care about DCASE? The department produces big citywide events you love like the Blues, Gospel and House Music festivals, as well as Taste of Chicago, and it supports your neighborhood cultural treasures, whether they’re a local dance organization or your favorite down-the-block singer-songwriter.

It also wields the arts as a powerful tool in addressing our city’s larger community challenges, like housing inequities, public health issues and placemaking opportunities. Programs like Together We Heal advance the arts in promoting health, healing and safety for communities. They support home repair, beautification and other creative placemaking efforts in neighborhoods across the city. An arts and health workforce pilot trains artists as creative community health workers. We Will Chicago integrated artists, creative practice and community engagement strategies into our city’s planning process. And these examples only scratch the surface.

Art and culture are not luxuries but necessities that greatly enhance the livability of our city. They’re also quite the money machine. According to data gathered by Arts Alliance Illinois, the arts and culture scene in Chicago generates $3.2 billion in economic activity, contributes $336.5 million in government revenue and creates 85,000 jobs. That’s a lot of financial output for a sector with a minimal presence in the city’s annual budget. In fact, the DCASE budget currently represents one-half of 1% of the total budget for the city.

We support the department’s ongoing work strengthening Chicago’s citywide arts and culture scene. We look forward to working alongside Hedspeth to achieve our shared goals, including:

  • Expanding cultural grants: In 2023, DCASE committed over $23.5 million in grant support, with a significant portion benefiting artists and organizations from diverse backgrounds. We hope to see this number expand.
  • Continuing to address civic challenges: DCASE leverages the arts for social good with initiatives like the Chicago Arts & Health Pilot Program, launched in partnership with City Colleges and the Department of Public Health. We hope to see these problem-solving initiatives expand.
  • Continuing TV & film industry support: Chicago’s film industry saw record-breaking expenditures of nearly $700 million in 2023, with DCASE supporting that growth through permits and marketing campaigns. Maintaining Chicago’s position as a TV and film powerhouse is critical.
  • Attractions, events, festivals and exhibitions: DCASE manages flagship events that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. The agency also helps bring new large-scale events like Sueños and NASCAR to the city. While these events are important, the priority for the arts community is to continue rightsizing direct investments in our cultural assets (artists, nonprofit organizations and creative small businesses) through the DCASE grant program. 

At last year’s Lollapalooza, Mayor Johnson referred to our city’s arts and culture scene as the “soul of Chicago.” We look forward to working with Hedspeth to continue shaping the department into the home our soul needs.

Tonika Johnson is a social justice artist who created the Folded Map Project. Coya Paz is strategic director at Free Street Theater. Rich Regan is CEO of Auditorium Theater. Charlique C. Rolle is president of Black Arts & Culture Alliance of Chicago. Sam Thousand is an artist, curator and founder of ChiBrations.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.



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