Chicago organizations expand art’s impact in film, dance, and free theater.
To Chicago filmmaker Eugene Sun Park, defining racial equity is “the most fundamental question” in the arts. The answer, he said, evolves and is elusive.
But Park knows what it is not: reducing people to census boxes and striving only to place onscreen individuals perceived as diverse in a conventional definition of the word.
Rather, understanding racial equity starts with exploring the vast diversity in people’s identities and experiences, then confronting and changing the racism and steep disparity in resources, he said.
The Chicago film company Full Spectrum Features, where Park is Co-Executive Director, pursues that mission through producing, exhibiting, and supporting scripted narrative films by women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ filmmakers. Its work includes an award-winning Chicago “lesbian rom-com” featuring American-Pakistani and Mexican-American lead characters and an animation about a 1970s South London housewife exploring second-wave feminism.
Full Spectrum has been working toward a broader realization of equity since its founding in 2015 and is among several groups that epitomize MacArthur’s vision of equity—one that has evolved over more than four decades of support for Chicago-based arts and cultural organizations.
In 2019, after acknowledging that support for arts and culture could be distributed more equitably across neighborhoods and populations, MacArthur established Culture, Equity, and the Arts (CEA), through which the Foundation supports Chicago-area organizations focused on arts and culture and those that use art to execute their missions but are not primarily focused on the arts.
CEA differs from MacArthur’s previous approach by encouraging collaborations between a cross-section of arts organizations that reflect Chicago’s diversity and by utilizing a participatory grantmakers panel of diverse Chicagoans who rate and recommend grant applicants.
Full Spectrum embodies inclusivity, Park said, and appreciates that community and identity are complicated, sometimes confounding, and nuanced.
“We want to capture and celebrate the messiness of community and identity in all its richness, rather than oversimplifying it,” he said. “The idea is, through the power of emotive, engaging, narrative storytelling, we help audiences walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
Full Spectrum's award-winning film, "Signature Move," is a lesbian rom-com set in part in the Lucha-style wrestling world featuring main characters who are American Pakistani and Mexican American. Video by: Full Spectrum Features.
Another Full Spectrum goal is to help funders, policymakers, stakeholders, and the broader public understand and address barriers preventing more diverse participation in the film industry. The organization advocates for guaranteed basic income, education, income equality, improved public safety, and access to public transportation. Prioritizing people’s lived experiences is vital to performing that work effectively.
“This applies in every corner of the nonprofit industrial complex,” Park said. “When people in positions of power, myself included, become further distanced from where the rubber hits the road, sometimes our racial justice conversations become whitepapers and data. That’s why we’re committed to filmmaking. It’s crucially important to stay grounded and humanized.”
Kia S. Smith dreamed of running a dance company since she was a five-year-old growing up on Chicago’s South Side. She overcame years without formal dance training and in 2017 founded South Chicago Dance Theatre, another organization that strives for equity in the arts.
“I really like to use dance to make friends, to be in community with people, to find ways to bridge gaps between different kinds of people,” she said.
South Chicago Dance Theatre has achieved that goal by collaborating with diverse organizations of all sizes, including Chicago Opera Theater and Giordano Dance Chicago. Smith also is developing “Choreographic Diplomacy™,” working with companies in different countries and bringing multi-national styles to U.S. audiences.
Dancers Elijah Richardson and Kim Davis perform with South Chicago Dance Theatre. Photo by: Michelle Reid/South Chicago Dance Theatre.
While it grows, the dance group is stacking successes, from selling out the Harris Theater to being listed on The Chicago Tribune’s Best Dance of 2022 and Dance Magazine’s national “25 to Watch.”
And as a 2022 lab artist for Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Smith is creating her first full-scale work of original choreography, music, and design: “Memoirs of Jazz in the Alley,” set to debut in June at the Auditorium Theatre.
For Smith racial equity means, in part, pay equity. She is launching salaried, 40-week contracts for dancers instead of paying them by the performance and rehearsal.
“Racial equity also is the ability for all people, no matter what they look like or where they come from, to hold the reins of their own story,” she said, “rather than imposing an experience, attitude, or expectation on a person, allowing them the privilege and freedom to navigate the world in a way that is authentic for them.”
That perspective resonates with Melissa Lorraine, Artistic Director of Theatre Y, a free theater that is “committed to a continuous re-thinking of the practice of theater with people from all walks of life.”
Promoting change and justice can mean focusing on the positive and on aspirations, not merely wrongs and inequities, Lorraine said. That belief led Theatre Y to explore an important question.
“How could our very organization be manifesting a new world instead of suffering under its problems?” she said. “Why couldn’t we push our expectations of ourselves to a higher level?”
Founded in 2006, Theatre Y defines itself as an “international incubator creating intersections between diverse artists seeking mutual growth through collaboration” via a range of global productions. It also has offered arts education and movement therapy for trauma rehabilitation.
And it is moving from Lincoln Square, a vibrant neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, to a storage building in underinvested North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side, where, Lorraine said, the theater could provide more powerful impact and better serve the community. Theatre Y is transforming the structure into a theater, café, garden, and studios for teaching artists in residence. Throughout that time, Theatre Y has worked with neighborhood residents to expand the ensemble and find ways the theatre can work toward larger goals such as affordable housing and youth programming.
“It felt great to understand exactly what we could do to make people feel like we are an asset,” Lorraine said. “We felt very strongly that in combination with our arts, we also had to come to the table with some wild, wacky proactive new ideas to help keep the existing community in place.”
Theatre Y’s first mobile performance, The Camino Project, was a six-hour participatory travel guide in 2019 that combined a walk through Chicago's Bucktown and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, a meal, and performances. Photo credit: Melissa Lorraine/Theatre Y.
Theatre Y also has joined forces with Marvin Tate, a prominent poet, musician, and visual artist who grew up in North Lawndale and is Theatre Y’s artist-in-residence with a focus on curating multimedia work and performing.
One belief that Lorraine said is important for all organizations to embrace: do not underestimate their capacity to participate in solutions and racial justice and equity.
“No matter who they are or how small they are,” she said, “there are ways to fight for reparations and invest yourself as an act of reparations and take the risk of failing or doing it badly.”
MacArthur’s CEA program includes a new funding partnership with Field Foundation of Illinois, launching in spring 2023. For the last two decades, MacArthur has partnered with the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and Prince Charitable Trusts.
Driehaus Senior Program Director Suellen Burns called the arts groups “the heartbeat of our city,” inspiring others across artistic disciplines.
“Whether they are starting to push the envelope on racial equity in the last several years or it’s been at the heart of what they have always done,” Burns said, “every group that we have the privilege of supporting has a beautiful story to tell about culture and important work to do to bring more equity to Chicago’s cultural community.”
Since 2003, through the MacArthur Fund at the Prince Charitable Trusts and the MacArthur Fund at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, MacArthur has awarded a total of $65.6 million to 565 small and mid-sized arts organizations in Chicagoland with budgets under $2 million.
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