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The Prairie State Is Not Hostile

to the Arts, Just Indifferent

Illinois Issues 

December 1998 

In which I try, without much success, to not sound like a yahoo. The problem with public aid for the arts, however, is that, to the extent it is genuinely public it will be hostile to art and artists, and to the extent it is genuinely artistic it is likely to be unpopular with the people who paid for it.  

I have here clarified some muddled phrasing in the  published version.


Arts lovers have smote the Philistines at last. In June, Gov. Jim Edgar signed the $3.4 million increase in grants funds that a munificent Illinois General Assembly approved for the Illinois Arts Council (IAC)—a 45 percent boost. In Washington, the National Endowment for the Arts, after first having its budget sliced to 1977 levels and then watching the House vote last year to give it no money at all, was voted $98 million by strong majorities in both houses of Congress.

Illinoisans—those without IAC performance grants for the purpose, anyway—did not dance in the streets at the news. The Prairie State is not hostile to the arts, just indifferent. In one of its five "belief statements," the IAC asserts, "The arts are an integral part of education." Not in Illinois, where the arts are among the very first things to go when public school budgets must be cut. (Any principal who wants to get a laugh need only propose that next year's senior trip be to the Art Institute rather than Water Tower Place.) Likewise, the IAC's assertion that the state's artists "are the cornerstone of our culture" will surprise many people, not least Illinois artists, most of whom can't support a family, much less the culture. 

The status of the arts in the commonwealth can be measured by the budget for the IAC. Illinois is a rich state, yet the state-funded portion of the IAC's fiscal year '99 base budget of $11.3 million comes to less than a buck a year for each Illinoisan. For every one dollar the state of Illinois spends on the IAC, it spends 3,377 on other things. The recent raise had to await a state revenue surplus, and even then the boost merely restored the agency's budget to about its 1990 level.

Of course, the IAC budget is not all that governments in Illinois spend on the arts. The local property tax exemption given museums is an expenditure in the form of foregone revenue, some arts teaching still goes on in schools and universities, and the General Assembly makes available some money directly to local arts organizations (mostly for tourism development). As the IAC has been encouraging "plain folks" (as the Chicago Tribune put it) to express their values and honor their heroes in bold colors in public places in our cities, I suppose one should also count the CTA's graffiti removal costs as an arts subsidy.

Small change, even then. Such niggardliness is a judgment on the arts, not the IAC. The arts have seldom been less important as a medium of culture. They persist as middlebrow entertainment or decor—things one consumes rather than learns from. If popular art is innocuous, artistic art is inane. New painting and sculpture in particular are all about agitation and advocacy, usually of causes not nearly as heterodox as artists would think they are if they read something besides ARTNews. Harvard artist Nancy Seidler's piece, "The Decision," was shown recently at a partly IAC-financed exhibition of women's works at Woodstock's Old Courthouse Arts Center. It consisted of the torso of a mannequin with a clock for a heart emblazoned with the word "Baby," which the Chicago Tribune reporter called "a stunning representation of a woman's agony over her biological clock." Stunning, indeed, in its banality. Such didactic works remind us that art whose purpose is to celebrate, to inculcate, or to educate usually is as empty as Soviet-style socialist realism, whose extra-aesthetic ambitions are reflected in so much of contemporary art. 

Still, it is as unwise to hold artists' foolishness against the IAC as it is to allow politicians' antics to discredit the essential institutions of government. As the trivialization of the fine arts has probably expanded their potential audience, the IAC is kept busy enough.


The council's many grant programs, technical assistance, workshops, and "special initiatives" bolster not-for-profit arts organizations of diverse kinds. It sends artists into schools, underwrites exhibits, and maintains a kind of high-minded vaudeville circuit of local community centers and school gyms that brings Chinese acrobats and kindred acts to trading posts such as Schaumburg. Because funded projects must pass muster with the IAC's advisory panels, the council's imprimatur legitimizes them and makes it easier to attract other money.

Funding is the least of the problems faced by a public arts agency in a state whose public doesn't much care about the arts. For example, it can't comfortably admit to what is probably the most persuasive rationale for its existence, which is that the arts are Good For You. In this way the late 1990s resemble the 1890s. That's when the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society was founded at Hull-House, out of the conviction that there is a relationship between aesthetics and social reform. When latchkey and single-parent kids from the mean streets of Naperville meet for Junior Jazz, an IAC-supported eight-week program of dance lessons at the Hinsdale Center for the Arts, the steps may be different from a century ago but the dance is the same.

Lacking a mandate from the larger public, the IAC has had to invent a rationale for its existence. Actually, being creative people, they have invented several. The arts, we are told, are a tonic for the economy, a spur to child development, an opportunity for family fun. For both artist and audience the arts are a means to self-realization and social respect, and thus agents of the democratic process. 

Lacking a sizable natural constituency, the IAC has had to invent one of those too. The agency's new strategic plan stresses arts programming in "underserved" communities, expanding arts education within and outside schools, and increasing funding for small and community-based organizations. This may be better politics than policy. Apart from the considerable exception of crafts, small towns produce artists, but it is the big city that produces art. Edgar Lee Masters turned Petersburg into literature, but he did it in Chicago; Vachel Lindsay stayed in Springfield, and produced nothing so good. It may improve Highland Park's quality of life to have its own opera studio and to stage exhibitions of "cutting-edge art" (both paid for in part by the IAC), but it is unlikely to improve the quality of Illinois art.

Which, of course, is only a small part of IAC's goal. That is (quoting the agency) "expanding the accessibility of [Illinois's] artistic wealth to children and adults in every corner of the state." Thus does the IAC hope to do for the arts what Andrew Carnegie did for books. The century's new public libraries, along with its public child welfare agencies and universities, were founded largely to reach under-served populations ignored by private institutions. The IAC, founded during a later progressive era (the 1960s), seeks to do the same. 

Are Illinoisans in even its remoter precincts really starved for the experience of art? More of them from wider backgrounds go to concerts and museums than ever before. The arts—via the Web, magazines and books, CD-ROMs, recordings of all kinds, cable TV, public radio—have never been more accessible. (Supplying seniors centers alone with clay for crafts classes must keep a fleet of dump trucks on the road full-time.) What Illinoisans most lack is not access to the arts but curiosity.

Creating a society whose members are literate in the arts, so to speak, certainly gives the IAC scope for action. No population is more underserved than public school kids. As museums have done, the IAC has found new sources of support, political and fiscal, through its attempts to make up for public education's scanting of the arts.


Of course, mixing artistic and curricular agendas is likely to produce some odd offspring. A grant from the IAC's Art in Education program allowed fourth-grade classes in Wheaton to make four fiber art panels under the supervision of a visiting artist. One of the panels illustrates the modernization and industrialization of Chicago, using sheep wool. I've not seen the work, but if the kids pulled it off, they made Michelangelo's transformation of marble into a grieving Mary look as easy as finger-painting.

So what if the IAC wastes some of what they spend on kids? Schools spend thousands of times more destroying children's capacity to perceive beauty in any of its forms. Taste, broadly speaking, is a mutable concept anyway. When all cultures are deemed worthy, after all, comparisons are invidious. So all art is equal before the bar of taste, as all citizens are equal before the law.


In another of its belief statements, the council asserts that funding of projects "should be based on the pursuit of excellence, which recognizes that established institutions, emerging groups and under-served populations are at different stages in this pursuit."

This is a frank admission that in aesthetic matters the IAC grades on the curve. (An artist paid for by the IAC recently helped 22 eighth-graders at a Chicago West Side Catholic school paint a mural that the school's curriculum director noted would be "a way to establish history for the neighborhood, for everybody." Among the subjects was Sitting Bull, which may be drawing the boundaries of the West Side a little expansively.) 

The IAC has tried harder than most to reconcile the general taxpayer to the subsidy of what is, by any objective measure, a coterie interest. But the ability to appreciate art, if not to produce it, remains stubbornly a function of education, which in turn is a function of class. 

After more than 30 years of proselytizing, the arts as conceived by the IAC remain a pastime of the cosmopolitan middle class—the same constituency for public broadcasting, classical music performances, and historic preservation. Which art you bring to the people matters less to the aesthetic experience than what people bring to art. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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