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COVID-19 highlighted the value of the arts. A new report says it also creates an opportunity to re-examine their role and how we fund them

Grants were pivotal for helping many humanities organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic. But a new report says the pandemic also shined a light on the well-being and social cohesion the arts and humanities offered in a time of isolation.

Gabrielle Lyon is executive director of Illinois Humanities. She talks more about the report with WCBU's Tim Shelley.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Illinois Humanities has a new report looking at really the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the the arts and the humanities. What made you take on this report?

We are issuing a report called History is Happening. And it's a collection of the information we gathered over the last three years, because we're a grant maker, we were part of the relief and recovery. And what most of all made us want to dig in and do this work is because what the humanities contribute what the arts and culture contribute to our well being is really invisible.

And collectively, the organizations we partnered with that we funded, almost 400 of them, they're in places that people don't think of as being resilient that maybe don't think of as having culture, when in fact, these organizations didn't just pivot during the pandemic, they sometimes served as community anchors. So I think the first thing was, let's bring some visibility to the work. And also, let's start to understand our state, let's try to understand this constellation of organizations and what they're really doing for us that maybe has been under the radar.

Would you say the pandemic highlighted, some of these organizations, brought a level of awareness to them that they hadn't previously had?

I would say that the the pandemic threw a bright light, on need, and disparity, and that's across all sectors, not just arts and culture. But it definitely brought to light, the expansiveness of the ways in which arts and culture and humanities organizations in our state stepped up to help communities.

And one of our big questions was, you know, what happens when we start to look at these organizations all together? What do we know about who they're serving? Where they are? No one had done a landscape study before. It's certainly not comprehensive. But it's our first look at what is our state's ecosystem. And we found a couple of surprising things that we think are important for people to know and understand and for us to work on together.

Let's describe that ecosystem a little bit. When we're talking about what that looks like, just describe it a little bit, what would you find?

For Illinois Humanities, we gave about $2.4 million away to 359 organizations. When you put those organizations on a map, we see a couple of things. Number one, a lot of those organizations are small, they have budgets of less than $100,000. Those might be the county's Historical Society, preserving history and heritage for decades, sometimes a century. We learned that many organizations that they've been founded in the last 20 years. But we have organizations in Illinois that have been around for more than 100 years, just imagine what they've captured and what they preserve.

We also learned a couple of other things. We learned that humanities organizations amongst our grantees, which are not every single organization in the in the state, but we focused on organizations that have budgets of a million dollars or less. They're serving communities that were under economic duress before the pandemic. And so you can imagine when the pandemic unfolded, there was even extra pressure. And that's where we saw these humanities organizations shine.

And I think one of the things that we learned is they really put their missions to work in ways that we we needed during the pandemic and we kind of need all the time. They brought people together, they helped mitigate social isolation. So they met they helped people feel connected. They help people who speak different languages get information in their language and feel that there was a trusted source they could go to. They also addressed some of the healing needed. People lost family members, people were struggling with a racial reckoning that was very personal and continues to be a matter of discussion. So these are like pieces that are really serving a public good, even though we might think of them as a nice to have. They're the ones kind of stitching our civic fabric together.

In the report, you were mentioning the economic impact of a lot of these organizations, and the fact that humanities organizations really need a seat at the table when you're having discussions about economic development in a lot of these communities. Tell me a little bit more about why.

I think one of the things that's been really striking to us is the ways in which once you leave Chicago, once you leave Cook County, that's an incredible opportunity in terms of bringing tourism dollars, economic development dollars and arts, humanities culture together.

First of all, when people move someplace or live someplace they want something to do, they want their kids to have experiences that expand their horizons, that introduce them to different ideas to to have ways to be creative, right? We all want that for our kids. I think one of the things that is really striking is during the vast majority of relief efforts, it was very hard for these community anchor organizations to be even eligible for the kinds of funding that were available because of their size, because of the geographic location, right, a lot of priorities on urban centers. And the flip side is they're doing a lot of the social good work that we need for like a really just livable society.

So I think that's one of the reasons why really getting a seat at the table, making a seat at the table, reminding ourselves, hey, the humanities, arts, culture, they are an engine. I think the other thing, though, is it's not just transactional. It's not just about money. It's about our morality. It's about our ways of being together. It's about having empathy. And so when we don't have folks at the table who can help us ask questions about what it means to be together or what it means to bridge histories, we're missing the opportunity. Policy's only going to take us so far, dollars are going to take us so far, but hearts, minds, that's where the humanities really come in and do their job.

A lot of these organizations we're talking about are nonprofits, and predictability of funding is a constant thing nonprofits are struggling with in terms of are they getting funding and grants? Keeping that stream steady and ongoing so that you can employ people and have the services to continue to keep your operations going, that's a perpetual challenge. How do we help some of these organizations with that?

I really appreciate you asking that question. You know, for smaller organizations, volunteers are a big part of what enables them to keep their doors open, and welcome people. So again, you can imagine the ripple effects of the pandemic, right?

But moving forward, it is clear, when we talk about infrastructure dollars, and we think about money for roads, when we think about money for our built environment, that some of those softer aspects like cultural centers and communities, they absolutely can and should be part of it.

So I think one is we have the dollars, and we need to really think in a systems way about what a livable state is like. So I think one thing is there, there is the money. It's about understanding how do we invest for the long haul for the society we want?

I think the second thing is with regards to, like, where does the money come from? The vast majority of dollars available are still through the state budget in Illinois, and especially for communities outside of Chicago, that's just the practical reality. So I think part of our ask is we understand this landscape and you know, we're we're we have a lot to learn is really encouraging private foundations, larger foundations, to think about our rural neighbors to think about our, you know, our our folks that are maybe outside the Chicago metropolitan area as being critical for like what it's going to take to make our state really healthy.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.