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Isaiah Collier and the Chosen Few
Photograph: Victoria Sanders

A new grant program aims to keep Chicago musicians working

Sustain Chicago Music is raising funds to give $1,000 grants to artists throughout the city.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

While bars, restaurants and even museums have been able to reopen with new safety measures under city-mandated guidelines, most music venues in Chicago remain closed to the public due to restrictions on large gatherings of people. Independent venues across the nation are still fighting for survival and lobbying for desperately needed financial assistance from the federal government, but the economic hardship befalling the music industry isn't limited to the owners and staff of concert halls—it's also affecting the musicians who play on their stages.

Recognizing that music venues can't exist without talented artists, Sustain Chicago Music was created to provide grants to local musicians that allow them to create new work and make a living during a time when there are few opportunities for live performances. The staff of venues The Whistler and Sleeping Village, as well as nonprofit arts and culture organization I Am Logan Square, are running the program, which was initially devised as a way to give back to the community after the annual Logan Square Arts Festival was canceled over the summer.

"I think most of the narrative had been focused on 'Save our Stages,' so we really wanted to shift some of that focus back on the musicians and artists themselves," says Sustain Chicago Music selection committee member Billy Helmkamp, who co-owns Sleeping Village and The Whistler.

Sustain Chicago Music is currently collecting donations from individuals, corporations and philanthropic organizations that will fund the grants given to musicians. Anyone who chips in at least $40 is able to nominate a Chicago artist to be considered for a grant. After reaching a goal of $5,000, the Sustain Chicago Music selection committee (comprised of folks like Helmkamp, Harold Washington Cultural Center executive director Jimalita Tillman and The Silver Room owner Eric Williams) will award $1,000 grants to five nominated artists. After each grant cycle is completed, Sustain Chicago Music will announce its next fundraising goal and repeat the process.

Allowing donors to guide the selection of artists that will be considered for a grant separates Sustain Chicago Music from more conventional creative grant programs, which typically require interested parties to apply for a chance to receive funding. Helmkamp says he's not worried about the selection committee's choices being limited. "Just seeing how donations have been coming in thus far, there’s going to be a very large pool of nominees to choose from," he explains. "Significantly more than I had anticipated."

Once a musician accepts a grant from Sustain Chicago Music, the only requirement is that they use the funds to complete a new, original work within four months. After the work is completed, artists retain all the rights to it, giving them the ability to release it online or shop it around to record labels. "We don’t want to get into micromanaging or forcing anyone’s hand in their own creative process, it really is about putting people back to work," Helmkamp says.

Local organizations like 3Arts and Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events have long provided grants to musicians and other types of artists, but the formation of a grant program by businesses that rely on Chicago musicians is an acknowledgement of just how much the extended shutdown has impacted the city's creative community at large. "The current shutdown doesn’t just affect the brick and mortar venues," Helmkamp noted. "There’s a huge creative ecosystem in Chicago and [Sustain Chicago Music] is really trying to address different parts of that ecosystem."

You can donate and nominate an artist for a grant through the Sustain Chicago Music website.

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