Innovation Excellence: Arts Alliance Illinois created new ways to support the arts during the pandemic

Oct 14, 2020

The Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence recognizes nonprofit leaders who use technology and forward thinking to make a difference in their organization and their community. The annual award is named after Evelyn Wright Moore, who attended every single Wipfli National Training Conference until her passing, and was a lifelong champion of innovation, learning, and community service.

This year the award was given to Claire Rice, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, an advocacy group for the creative community. Arts Alliance Illinois received a $5,000 donation to honor Evelyn’s memory and carry on her spirit of innovation.

Here’s why:

A tough act to follow

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the arts community especially hard. It was one of the first industries to close, even before stay-at-home orders and shutdowns were issued. And it will be one of the last industries to re-open.

“We’re in the business of bringing people together,” explained Claire Rice, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois.

Until communities can safely gather again, folks who are well-trained and highly skilled can’t return to their jobs. “Livelihoods have been decimated by the crisis,” she said.

Rice leads Arts Alliance Illinois, an organization that champions the arts and fights for art-supportive public policies and funding for the creative community. The Alliance is an advocacy group, not a grant-making or re-granting organization. But the pandemic presented a dire situation for artists – and an opportunity to help.

Over 24,000 events or performances have been canceled in Illinois, affecting nearly 17,000 jobs and millions of dollars of economic impact.

Rice feared that traditional granting organizations wouldn’t be able to get relief out fast enough. “As an organization we wanted to get cash into the field and into the hands of people who needed it,” Rice said. 

Leading change

Rice knew the Alliance couldn’t solve the problem alone. She started to build a state-wide network of support for the arts community – and fast. By April 1, just two weeks after the pandemic started to affect the U.S., the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund was established.

Rice helped unite the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and private philanthropists to provide immediate financial relief to individual artists and arts organizations. Rice also partnered with two grant-making agencies who could distribute the financial support, while the Alliance served as the central fundraiser and project manager.

“We needed a neutral place to support the arts community, versus every organization standing up its own relief program. It was an innovative way for the funding community to work together,” Rice said. “We had multiple partners who helped fundraise, provide support and get the money out.”

Issuing relief

And they got a lot of money out. So far, $6.9 million has been distributed through the relief fund to artists and cultural organizations across the state. Seventy percent of individual grants and 48 percent of organizational grants went to people of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community and women.

“This really reinforced our commitment to practices of equity,” Rice said. “COVID has disproportionately impacted communities of color and relief efforts need to explicitly address that at all levels of public and private support.”

The application process is minimalist by design, so grantees can receive help in a matter of weeks, not months. The fund had one application for individual artists and another for organizations that are seeking support. The grants are unrestricted, so they can be applied toward whatever the grantee needs: rent, food, healthcare or general operating support.

That was hard for some folks to adjust to, Rice said. “We were breaking the old rules and establishing new norms. We insisted that we could be rigorous stewards of the money, but not let process get in the way of success.”

Pushing through challenges

Through this initiative, Rice learned that “collaboration can be really hard, but worthwhile, especially in the constructs of a crisis. 

“When you have a group of people who want to make something work, you figure it out. When the stakes are this high for the community, you push through the challenges.”

Rice said she’s been surprised by how much the money means to individual artists. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s maybe one month’s rent; it’s not a huge amount of money. It’s meant to say ‘We see you’re struggling and want to support you.’ That’s meant a great deal to those who’ve received it," she said.

What’s next? “We hope to continue as long as the crisis lasts,” Rice said. “As long as we can raise funds.”


Meet the Innovator:

Claire Rice, Executive Director, Arts Alliance Illinois

Claire Rice is executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, an advocacy group that supports the cultural and creative industries in Illinois. Rice came into arts management after working as a management consultant for Accenture.

She holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy from William & Mary.

How did you end up in nonprofit?

Growing up, I was always a singer. It’s what I did for fun in college and even afterward.

I started my career in management consulting in Washington, D.C., and participated in a choral group in my free time. I didn’t fully realize arts management was a career path, or that there was a whole infrastructure that existed to support the creative arts I was engaged in. It was a revelation to me.

I took a leave of absence from my consulting career to volunteer full-time with a non-profit in Ann Arbor, Michigan (where I grew up) that was known for extraordinary artistic presenting. I realized that arts administration and management was how I wanted to spend my career. I left the consulting world 20 years ago and haven’t looked back.

Why is innovation important to nonprofits?

Nonprofits are the ultimate innovators: We’re solving problems in our communities. It’s in our bloodstream to innovate.

The funding landscape is changing, the world is changing. We’re forced to innovate every day given the limited resources, time and funding we have, and compared to the scale and scope of our work. Innovation is a requisite part of the job. The nonprofit sector is constantly reinventing itself.

Technology is part of the creative sector, too. Some of the great artists of our day are game developers, software programmers – people that are creating and innovating with technology. But we need to remember that technology is a tool; it’s a delivery mechanism for programmatic innovation. Technology is here to serve our programmatic goals. 

How do you find inspiration?

I think inspiration is baked right into our work. I get to support people who create solutions every day. I’m lucky to work in an inspiration economy. I get to support people who are critical to bringing laughter and joy and challenge and tears and health and healing. Artists and creatives do all those things. I’m inspired by our artists and the creative community.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you faced in your project?

Frankly, the hardest part was getting folks on board about working in new ways. We were breaking the old rules and establishing new norms. For example, we had to be rigorous stewards of the money we raised, but we also couldn’t let processes get in the way.

What’s the best part of your job?

It’s a tie between the team I get to work with every day and the content of the work. We have an incredible team at the Alliance, and I love the community we get to support.

Think of the role art plays in our lives, particularly in this crisis. Try imagining pandemic life without Netflix or music or all of the aspects of creative life we take for granted every day. We exist to serve the creative community, our artists. If they don’t exist, we don’t exist.

What’s next?

Unfortunately, the crisis is lasting a lot longer than we thought it would. We’ll continue to support relief and recovery efforts. And we’ll advocate hard in D.C., at the state capitol and at the local levels for creatives and cultural organizations. The arts are going to need government support to recover, so we’ll keep reimagining ourselves and keep fighting on behalf of the creative sector.

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