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Gertie Goes Op-Ed

Chicago needs to learn the difference between criticism and a call to action

From left to right: Abby Pucker, Monica Trinidad, and Leslé Honore

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Gertie goes to Bambi's Black Box presented by Steppenwolf Theater! Use this link or promo code "Gertie" to purchase your ticket, and along with admission, you will also receive a special Gertie x Barbie x Bambi-inspired beverage!

In response to the articles that have recently come out from both the Crain’s and the Chicago Sun Times over the last two weeks, I decided that this newsletter could serve as a bit of a one-two punch. I reached out to my amazing Arts & Culture Subcommittee co-chairs, Leslé Honoré (CEO of Urban Gateways and Co-Chair of Elevated Chicago) and Monica Trinidad (artist, organizer and Communications officer at Third Wave Fund), to come up with a response that felt representative of what we feel is sort of an Op-Ed in the making.

TLDR the articles used the layoffs at Lookingglass Theater as a sort of rallying cry for the mayor to “sit down with the city’s high-powered movers and shakers, major cultural players, theater companies, and funders to figure this thing out” as the CST article suggests.

While the focus of the articles was on the theater industry in Chicago, we believe that this moment must be viewed as a call for inclusive organizing around strategies for economic development through the creative industries writ large.

Sidenote: We could talk about the use of crime as a red herring in these articles, but that would be taking away valuable airtime and space to discuss what we’re here to discuss – solutions.

Don’t get us wrong, we love the theater, but if all that comes from this moment is an influx in temporary support for theaters, we are missing an amazing opportunity.

These articles lack context – something I’ve discussed the importance of at length in a past newsletter. This is not a Chicago problem alone – mid-sized theaters being forced to close their doors due to a lethal mix of lack of national arts funding and the need for business models in the space to innovate is a national problem. So why not frame this challenge as an opportunity to lead the country?

Let’s not try to fix the issues with solutions of the past or solutions rooted in or motivated by fear. Let’s employ abundance thinking. We’ve been through a pandemic, we’ve been through the beginnings (hopefully) of a racial reckoning, and we are now at the beginning of a new mayoral administration in this city. Let’s use this moment to galvanize around arts and culture as an economic driver – how do we make Chicago a city where creative small businesses don't just survive, but one where they thrive?

While Morton’s and Gibson’s are important mainstays in the city that provide consistency and serve a certain audience, it is the Kasamas and Virtues, the Avecs and Publicans that are winning James Beard awards. That is what is putting Chicago on the map, in a different way. That is who The Bear talks about in their show – that is the national portrayal. We need to rethink the way that we support these smaller organizations with diverse leadership (and audiences) and think about how we measure success and return on investment in 2023.

The faltering of larger establishments is NOT the failure of the city, but it is an issue from an optics and national narrative standpoint. In the funding space, if we’re talking for-profit or non-profit, there is value in building trust and brand equity around large institutions both in terms of branding/narrative creation and economies of scale. So let’s not call those institutions out but instead empower them to do stronger, more impactful, more collaborative work with smaller institutions in communities by calling them in and having them as part of these strategic planning conversations.

This is not an easy problem to solve, and it will take realistically assessing the situation and thinking about priorities; some organizations will cease to exist, and others might emerge. But, let’s use real, tangible examples of the good and the bad. This is a start. We can’t do that if we’re all pointing fingers at each other, and we can't do that if we are coming from a place of scarcity and fear.

Recently, I was in a meeting with an LA-based organization looking to expand here. It is in the youth and workforce development space in Film and TV. One of the models that was mentioned as a successful example of a large funder that also supports smaller grassroots organizations was After School Matters. If we look at the work that Steppenwolf is doing, they are truly a strong example of an organization that is looking to branch out and exist in new, different ways – take their 1700 space for example – platforming younger, diverse talent and finding ways to then help that talent build in the community. Both are examples of large organizations using their brand equity to help develop new talent.

When looking to other large organizations, like World Business Chicago, they have a newly created Creative Industries position that is essentially providing concierge services from small creative businesses to help them navigate real estate, permitting and relationship-based barriers.

BACP and the Mag Mile Association helped Colores Mexicano expand their footprint coming out of the pandemic – an example of how investing in small local BIPOC businesses can lead to Mag Mile anchors that bolster an economic bottom line, while amplifying local Mexican artists both locally and internationally.  

We should also learn from our setbacks or challenges.

Monday Coffee Co. is an amazing burgeoning coffee business that raised $125k to open its first brick-and-mortar space using the innovative debt crowdfunding platform Honeycomb Credit. For context, they had to start looking for alternate spaces when their deal with the would-be landlord fell through because he could not get the current seller to sell the building at a price that would allow him to keep the rent low enough for a nascent business to thrive because the seller gets more money sitting on the property and writing it off. This is not just a singular issue but an issue that happens all over the city and is a barrier for countless small businesses – especially BIPOC-owned businesses in “opportunity zones” or areas that have been disinvested in. It’s a problem that, if solved, could unlock millions of dollars more in revenue to BIPOC-owned businesses and make this city easier for creative small businesses – but the answer lies in coordination between both policy and budget allocation/investment-driven solutions.

Silver Room decided to discontinue the festival after 20 years due to a lack of funding and infrastructural support. This is an example of how failing to support local, independent culture producers, ones who bring in 2.5 million dollars of tourism revenue in 10 hours, does not only hurt the community where it’s physically happening but the entire city. This is not just an arts festival, it is an economic driver.

So when we look at individual case studies, yes there are issues but there are also INCREDIBLE solutions already being piloted. And even the challenges are ones that are solvable if we come together and negotiate to find solutions.

When we negotiate, we make concessions, but those concessions are much more bearable when we understand why we’re making them and for whom. Not just for anonymized groups of people – “the business community” or “artists and the creative community” – we need to sit down and strategize together. We need to understand how policies or initiatives that we, as individuals from these different communities, put forth might affect a person in their day to day, their livelihood. Again, not a binary or homogeneous problem to the solution will not be binary. It will be complicated, and it will take trust and understanding on behalf of the folks at the table and on behalf of the administration.

Crain’s and the Sun Times called on the mayor to galvanize these communities – to convene. We believe that these articles were a call to action and not a direct criticism. We all know the mayor cares about Arts & Culture regardless of the tenor or tone of those articles in Crain’s and Sun Times. It was part of the platform he campaigned on, and it can be seen through the appointment of Kenya Merritt to Deputy Mayor of Economic & Neighborhood Development and through the writing and influence of Senior Advisor Jason Lee, both of whom we’ve shared meals and space with, and both of whom understand the importance of arts and of the creative economy as an equitable driver of economic development. Anyone who thinks otherwise either a) isn't informed and shouldn't speak on this subject and/or b) wants to point out problems without being part of the solution. We don’t have time for those people.

The administration took the first step in this galvanization when convening our Arts & Culture Subcommittee. Now OUR ask is that the administration trusts the groups that they’ve galvanized to continue that work and re-engage us formally by supporting the work that we are doing in convening these rooms and tables. We’re extending a hand and asking the administration to trust us and utilize the work we’re doing to advance the city’s formal strategy going into policy setting and budgeting processes this fall.

Xx Abby, Leslé, and Monica

P.S. - Gertie is a cultural agency working to uplift, connect and advocate for the city – to change the narrative around Chicago, focusing on the corporate community and civic leaders in the city.

We've launched a series of dinners to address exactly these conversations and to create the space for them to happen. If you have ideas for convening these types of spaces and/or want to get involved with Gertie and attend a dinner, please respond to this email! We'd love to hear from you.


From left to right: Angeliìca Grace (@missangelicagrace), Bambi Banks Coulee@bambibankscoulee, and Gender neutral Gena (@genderneutral_gena) at a previous Bambi’s Black Box performance.Missed our programming with Lyric Opera this Spring? Couldn’t make it to (inter)mezzo this past Sunday? We are back with a new collaboration with Chicago's own Steppenwolf Theater! On Thursday, July 27th, Gertie is heading to Steppenwolf at 7pm to attend the July installment of Bambi Coulee Bank's: BAMBI'S BLACK BOX!Use this link to purchase tickets or type code "Gertie" in the promo box on the top right when purchasing tickets through Steppenwolf's Website.When using the code to purchase a ticket, you will see only Will-Call as a delivery option; there will be a list at the box office so when you pick up your ticket(s), you will also receive a drink ticket for either a specialty cocktail or mocktail.