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Randolph Street Gallery's Grant Gripes

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Ben Joravsky's article of November 29 ("Other People's Money") is rife with innuendo and assumptions, which lamentably serve to justify his limited view of nonprofit arts organizations. Randolph Street Gallery, which was the subject of this attack for not paying artist Lisa Alvarado a portion of a grant for her art project on time, is presented as an organization that leverages support for artists, but then uses those funds for its own purposes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To attack the very integrity of an organization, its staff, and its supporters because of a missed deadline is unconscionable. And to reduce everything that this organization has struggled to achieve to the level of a catfight is outrageous. If the author had actually looked to the real issues that this incident is symptomatic of, or spent some time investigating how and why nonprofit agencies exist, his article could have been informative--maybe even useful. At a time when nonprofit agencies across the country are in real danger of disappearing from the cultural fabric, to write such a tabloid-style article that reduces critical issues to personal conflicts is simply irresponsible.

In fact, Randolph Street Gallery (RSG) has consistently advocated for artists' rights, with commitments such as payments to artists, technical support, and professional marketing and promotion. Artists who are presented or produced at RSG are paid honoraria, and RSG has maintained the highest fee scale for artists among any peer organization in the region. This stands in unfortunate contrast to most of the far too rare opportunities that are available to artists; for example, Joravsky's article points out that Lisa Alvarado needs money to rent space from another gallery in order to present her project publicly.

The Regional Artists' Projects (RAP) grant program, which Randolph Street Gallery ran from 1990 through 1996, provided grants to over 100 artists and was remarkable in several ways. First and foremost, this was a program that delivered grants to artists whose work was not being recognized by existing funding agencies or funding categories. Secondly, and very importantly, this program was designed and run by artists working at artist-run organizations, like RSG. Thirdly, RSG chose to leverage this power toward shared gain by establishing a network for RAP of 14 cosponsoring organizations across our five-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio--and establishing an administrative partnership for RAP with the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio.

Contrary to Joravsky's assertion that Randolph Street Gallery was simply a conduit through which money flowed to artists, this program was shaped, developed, funded, and maintained by RSG. RSG became eligible to do so when national funding agencies--such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts--had the foresight to realize that they lacked the capacity to recognize and directly reach the developing artists across our country. The RAP grant program was exemplary in that it did reach artists, providing many opportunities for experimentation and growth to both rural and urban artists, many of whom were, as grant recipient Lisa Alvarado identified herself, "not tied to the established artist community."

This RAP grant program was one of the first artists funding programs to be eliminated in late 1995 by the NEA, as political pressures were exerted by conservative forces against diversity of cultural expression and against empowerment of artists. Since that time, Randolph Street Gallery has made broad and repeated efforts to seek additional funding for artist grants, working in alliance with national peer organizations as well as local agencies such as the Center for Communication Resources, which had run its own regional fellowships program for film and video artists. RSG has also worked to make good on all its grant commitments to the final round of RAP grant recipients, including Lisa Alvarado.

Alvarado's claim that Randolph Street Gallery and its "people aren't in the real world. Maybe it's a country-club thing" is so far off the map that it's painful. That RSG holds a mortgage on one floor of the building where it has been located since 1982 does not make us rich, nor does it remove our activities from our West Town neighborhood.

As for her dismissal of Randolph Street Gallery's cash-flow problems ("Can you imagine me telling my landlord, 'I'm having a cash-flow problem this month'?"), this is in fact a real-world condition for all nonprofit agencies. That world is defined by financial adversity, and requires constant balancing to remain afloat. When Randolph Street Gallery gets a grant from the NEA for programs that begin April 1, we receive the funds in August. When RSG receives a grant from the Illinois Arts Council for programs that start September 1, we receive the funds in December. For programs beginning January 1 that are funded by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, we receive the funds in late May. As of this date, Alvarado has received RSG's final payment on her project grant of $3,000. Although we strongly wish we could have paid her on the intended date of October 1, we wish even more strongly that this incident would have been resolved amicably and in recognition of our shared values.

RSG is run by an artist staff who are also highly trained arts administrators, along with a board of directors comprised in large part of working artists and arts professionals. The organization is fueled by our commitment to supporting other artists in meaningful and creative ways. Whatever the communication breakdown might have been between Alvarado and RSG staff, the most unfortunate thing is the apparent oppositional stance that is propagated by this article. As people working to empower artists, we refute the presumption that RSG is suspect and remote because it has made an institutional commitment to raise funds to support artists and their expressions.

Board of Directors

Randolph Street Gallery

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