Alderman Solis can't explain missing chunk of 25th Ward money

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Nick Marzullo, co-owner of the artists collective Pawn Works, wonders when its going to get paid for work on murals in Pilsen.
  • Chloe Riley
  • Nick Marzullo, co-owner of the artists' collective Pawn Works, wonders when it's going to get paid for work on murals in Pilsen.
No one seems to know exactly where $140,000 in public funds has gone in the 25th Ward.

Every year, each alderman receives $1.3 million from the city to use on ward infrastructure. The so-called menu money typically goes toward things like sidewalk repair and streetlight replacement, but it also gets used for other kinds of neighborhood needs like park maintenance or—in the 25th Ward's case—art projects.

In 2012, 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis started an Arts in Public Places Initiative, an antivandalism project designed to update and preserve older neighborhood murals.

A Pilsen art gallery, the Chicago Urban Art Society, managed the local muralists. And Humboldt Park artists' collective Pawn Works was promised $30,000 from the ward to bring in national and international graffiti artists such as Belgium-based ROA and Colombian street artist Stinkfish. The funds acted as a bargaining chip for the higher-profile artists—while Pawn Works couldn't pay them for their work, they could at least cover travel and accommodation, according to Pawn Works co-owner Nick Marzullo.

Solis apparently believed in the initiative enough to sink his own money into it—$20,000 in campaign funds, to be exact. But those funds were just supposed to get the ball rolling, according to the alderman's spokeswoman Lauren Pacheco, who said back then that the alderman planned to use menu money and potentially tax increment financing (TIF) dollars to keep the new murals coming.

In 2013, the alderman budgeted $140,000 in menu money for "arts and culture" in the ward. Of that sum, $16,000 was to go to Pawn Works, with another $25,000 dedicated to a project at Benito Juarez Community Academy, leaving about $100,000 for future art proposals within the ward, according to Solis spokeswoman Stacy Raker.

Unfortunately, it's now close to 2015 and none of that money has been spent, putting art and culture projects on hold. According to Raker, the $140,000 is tied up in the "bureaucratic process of the city." A spokesman for the city's budget department declined to comment.

Marzullo said the situation has become even worse over the past few months, with the ward office failing to return his calls and declining to give him a concrete time line for repayment.

"We were told the funds would be coming, and they weren't," said Marzullo, 32. "We sort of felt held hostage in a way because we are a small business, you know? We came out of pocket, so we're in the red now."

Until his company is paid, Marzullo said Pawn Works won't put up any additional murals along 16th Street.

But others have been working there. Last month, Logan Square's Galerie F completed a new mural on 16th just east of Damen—a collaboration between Chicago artists JC Rivera (Joel Rivera) and SentRock (Joseph Perez).

Marzullo said he views the new mural as a slight. But Galerie F owner Billy Craven said he was unaware of the payment issue between Pawn Works and Solis's office when he helped coordinate the new mural, which the artists did for free. He said he wouldn't work with the 25th Ward again unless the payment dispute was cleared up.

Marzullo is still waiting for a clear explanation of what's going on. "A lot people don't want to burn bridges," he said. "My whole thing is like, I don't want to burn bridges either. But I'll burn a bad bridge. I've got no problem with that."

A spokesperson for the Chicago Urban Art Society says the organization had nothing to do with the 25th Ward's Art in Public Places initiative, despite a 2012 ward press release to the contrary—CUAS did not manage artists for this project, nor has it received public funds from the ward for art-related projects.

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