IFF’s Executive Director of Chicago Metro Region, O. Victoria Lakes–Battle Shares the Impact of Chicago’s Cultural Treasures

In a world where the voices and contributions of BIPOC communities have often been overlooked or undervalued, Chicago’s Cultural Treasures has emerged as a beacon of hope. Born out of the Ford Foundation’s commitment to social justice and equality, Chicago’s Cultural Treasures is a groundbreaking equity initiative with a clear mission: to support and preserve the rich art, traditions, leadership, and culture stemming from BIPOC communities in Chicago.

The Chicago’s Cultural Treasures initiative stands at the forefront of empowering and uplifting marginalized communities. With an unwavering dedication to fostering inclusivity and celebrating diversity through artistic expression and cultural preservation.

Please enjoy my interview with IFF’s Executive Director of Chicago Metro Region, O. Victoria Lakes–Battle.

What impact have you seen Chicago’s Cultural Treasures have on the arts and culture sector in Chicago since its inception?

O. Victoria Lakes–Battle: Chicago’s Cultural Treasures provided a long overdue investment in Chicago’s BIPOC cultural infrastructure by infusing a huge amount of capital — a total of $14.4 million — into a sector that has been neglected. The initiative revealed — by the fact that over 140 letters of intent were received — that there are no hidden treasures; they had been buried by years of un-investment.

With awards ranging from $140,000 to $575,000 and access to technical assistance workshops, being named a Chicago’s Cultural Treasure not only made a significant impact on organizations’ sustainability, but it also gave broad recognition to types of cultural treasures that have historically been passed over for traditional forms of grant support. It also opened up

opportunities for Chicago’s arts and culture organizations — especially those deep in communities and rooted in BIPOC culture — to receive additional support.

Can you share any success stories or examples of how Chicago’s Cultural Treasures has supported and preserved the art, traditions, leadership, and culture within the community?

O. Victoria Lakes–Battle:  In general, BIPOC art forms contribute to the cultural richness of Chicago by showcasing diverse traditions and fostering community identity, while also educating the broader population about the cultural significance. They play a vital role in preserving heritage, promoting unity, and enhancing the city’s artistic and economic vitality. Chicago’s Cultural Treasures bolsters the long-term financial resilience and sustainability of BIPOC arts organizations through a combination of critical general operating support and capacity building and technical assistance, which is co-created with the arts community to ensure it meets their needs, so the organizations have the chance to thrive.

Two specific examples of how the offerings have supported the grantees include Red Clay Dance Company and Asian Improv Arts. Red Clay Dance Company has participated in two technical assistance programs — one that has helped grow their board and another that will provide them with five short video clips to help tell the organization’s story as they celebrate their 15th anniversary. Whereas Asian Improv Arts immediately jumped on the opportunity to work with IFF’s Real Estate Solutions team on a facility feasibility study to support their purchasing a space of their own. They celebrated the grand opening earlier this year.

Considering the changing landscape of philanthropy, how do you envision Chicago’s Cultural Treasures continuing to evolve and adapt in order to support artists and cultural organizations effectively?

O. Victoria Lakes–Battle:  ChiTreasures was not a standard grantmaking initiative. This was a race equity initiative for the arts and culture sector. This was new for IFF, new for the funding collective, and new for Chicago. Beyond the impact that the initiative has already had — since this unprecedented infusion of grant dollars, Chicago’s arts and culture organizations, especially those deep in communities and rooted in BIPOC culture, have received additional support — the collective impact of this initiative will be the ongoing disruption of historical trends in funding for BIPOC-led and -focused cultural organizations, as anchors in equitable community development.

How has Chicago’s Cultural Treasures successfully navigate collaborating with other philanthropic organizations to maximize the impact of Chicago’s Cultural Treasures’ initiatives?

O. Victoria Lakes–Battle:  In 2020, when the Ford Foundation challenged cities across the country to match their America’s Cultural Treasures initiative, six Chicago foundations — an anonymous foundation, The Joyce Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Terra Foundation for American Art, and Walder Foundation — stepped up to meet the challenge by pooling funds to make substantial investments in BIPOC-led and -serving cultural institutions that have long enriched our city.

In order for this to be successful, a community partner with relevant expertise and credibility in BIPOC communities was needed to administer the funds. IFF accepted the role and for one of the first times we had a pot of money and intentional desire to get that money into the hands of legacy BIPOC-led and -focused cultural organizations. We were given the task of designing grant criteria, choosing the community panel that reviewed proposals, and recommending recipients for this long overdue investment in Chicago’s BIPOC cultural infrastructure.

Now, nearly two years since the grants were made, the funders continue to meet with one another, with IFF, and with other Chicago funders to work towards more equitable cultural funding practices and to identify ways to support more Chicago treasures. There are also ongoing conversations with the nationwide America’s Cultural Treasures work about funding equitably at national, regional, and local levels.

Can you elaborate on the specific resources and support that grantees gain access to when they become part of the Chicago’s Cultural Treasures program?

O. Victoria Lakes–Battle:  As an initiative focused on strengthening, growing, and preserving organizations whose mission is to enable the creation, preservation, and dissemination of art stemming from BIPOC traditions, leadership, and culture, Chicago’s Cultural Treasures focuses on a combination of critical general operating support and technical assistance. The goal is to bolster the long-term financial resilience and sustainability of these organizations.

40 extraordinary Black, Latine, Asian, and Indigenous arts organizations received a total of $14.4 million in multi-year unrestricted grants along with capacity building and technical assistance support. Grantees received awards ranging from $140,000 to $575,000 along with access to workshops and resources in fundraising, board development, marketing and communications, financial management, and facilities planning and support, which are identified as key needs to help strengthen organizations and manage grant funds for sustained longevity.

Chicago has always had a booking art scene worth traveling to. As we celebrate Black Fine Art Month as well as National Arts & Humanities Month this October, are there any specific organizations you would like to highlight and share how they are contributing to the Chicago art scene?

O. Victoria Lakes–Battle:  Chicago does indeed have a thriving BIPOC arts and culture scene, and we can’t emphasize enough for people to go out and experience the art. A few specific organizations to highlight include:

Diasporal Rhythms, a collective of Black art collectors, just opened a showcase at Navy Pier celebrating their 20th anniversary.

The Chicago Jazz Institute works to keep jazz music thriving. They will be hosting a visual love letter to jazz music at their Dear Jazz event in November.

Three Treasures — Cuerdas Clasicas, Sones de Mexico Ensemble, and Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago — will be performing together in early November to pay respects to their cultural ancestry through music and dance.

Natya Dance Theatre preserves and perpetuates bharata natyam in all its classical rigor while moving the art form in innovative directions to foster cultural exchange through dance. They will be presenting “Strength Within” in late October.

How do you see Chicago’s Cultural Treasures evolving in the future to continue supporting BIPOC-led and -focused organizations?

O. Victoria Lakes–Battle:  ChiTreasures was always intended to support as many organizations as possible and while we stand in awe of the organizations funded in the first round, IFF, along with the funders, are committed to supporting more Chicago treasures. We are currently exploring what that looks like whether through additional grant funding, technical assistance, or a combination both, and encourage folks to follow ChicagosCulturalTreasures.org for more updates.

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