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CAC and Micro Grants

by Tristan Hummel

If you are unsure of who or what the Chicago Artist Coalition is you’re not alone.  In the mix of various Chicago artists groups who enjoy 3 letter acronyms are; C.A.C. (Chicago Artists Coalition), C.A.M. (Chicago Artists Month), C.A.R. (Chicago Artists Resource), C.A.A (Chicago Art Association), C.A.N. (Chicago Artists Network), C.A.D., C.A.G., C.A.S., C.A.P. another C.A.N., another C.A.M., and more.  Looking at the mission statement of these organizations they become largely tautological.  This is where The C.A.C. has decided to step up by bringing in a new developer of programming and development, Carolina Jayaram.  With her lead the C.A.C. may just find itself a leader in the contemporary art scene.

First a brief mention of the history of the C.A.C.  Founded in 1974 as an advocacy group, the C.A.C. played a role in establishing the Chicago Office of Fine Arts (Department of Cultural Affairs).  Today their objectives include; networking opportunities for artists, exhibition opportunities, and providing career information for artists.  The problem they face is the same one challenging all of the Chicago art world, what are the needs of the contemporary artists and how do we meet them?  This problem is addressed specifically towards artists who are emerging or new to the art scene.

Taking the initiative, C.A.C. board member Lynn Basa invited a wide selection of Chicago’s young art gentry to sit down with C.A.C. staff to discuss the needs of the community.  Invitees included such artists as: Ed Mar (Lumpen, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Versionfest), Lisa Boumstein-Smalley (Chicago Art Source), Cody Hudson (Struggle Inc), the Author of this article (Art on Track), Chad Kouri (The Post Family), Sara Schnadt (webmaster of Chicago Artist Resource), Allison Stites (independent curator), Easton Miller (Thrones Gallery), and Scott Jarrett (sculptor).

The meeting took place on a late January evening in Wicker Park.  An appropriate setting for an organization steeped in Chicago’s formative art years.  The meeting opened with a tell tale question form the C.A.C. to the artists gathered, how many of us had C.A.C. memberships.  After a few glances around the crowd it was clear to all, none of us had memberships.  In fact this meeting was the first time many of us had heard about the organization.  What followed was a discourse on the various reasons why we had not signed up with their organization and what could be done to make the C.A.C. more competitive as a mostly membership funded organization.

Over the course of the meeting several interesting proclamations about Chicago art production arose.  According to those assembled Chicago was; the third art city behind L.A. and New York (possibly soon to be fourth behind Berlin), Chicago is the wild west of the national art scene, Chicago is the holder of the largest emerging art scene, and Chicago has huge untapped potential.

Well with all that put out in front of the assembly some innovative C.A.C. ideas came to light.  The most exciting of these is the possibility of the C.A.C. giving out ‘Micro-grants”.  Here is where the C.A.C. can gain the initiative.  Micro-grants would be small loans. They would be enough money, for example, for an artist to complete an individual work or get materials ready for a show.  This fills a huge gap in the art funding practice here in Chicago.

Traditional grants can take years to receive.  Grants also typically fund larger projects or bodies of work.  They are great for the artist who wants to show at the MCA, or live abroad for a while but what about those of us who just need to buy a canvas or frames?  The granting world is fierce and rarely if ever do you get a chance to sit face to face with the person or organization handing out the grant to explain your idea.  Micro-grants stand to benefit artists and the banks as well.

The practice of micro-lending is becoming increasingly common and success stories can be seen in emerging economies such as in India and parts of Africa.  Small loans can often spur entrepreneurship and generate enough momentum for an individual to get their project underway.  How it benefits banks is in the relative ease of repayment.  Compare a $500 debt to a car payment or home loan, which is more likely to receive a default?

If an artist has an opportunity to receive the initial funding needed to get their work out to the public, rent a gallery space, or pay for a booth in an art fair, the return can be huge.  If we are truly the ‘wild west of the art world’ then it means our art economy is ‘developing’.  If we are truly full of potential then we are a great investment.  This could be the seed money the Chicago art scene needs.  If the C.A.C. follows up on their plans to provide micro-grants then they could be a huge terraforming force on the art scene.