For Chicago Artists, a New Data Platform Changes the Game

Interactive data platform from @SustainArts maps Chicago-area #arts orgs, funders + audiences Tweet This

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How do you celebrate the arrival of a game-changing data platform that connects artists, nonprofits and funders more intimately and equitably than ever before? If you’re in Chicago, you throw a “data party.”

On January 26, artists and members of local cultural organizations gathered at the Chicago Cultural Center for the launch of Sustain Arts Chicagoland and a sneak peek at its capabilities. is a free, easy-to-use online platform that collects a broad universe of data on arts funding and participation. The data is designed to be searched and displayed in ways that inform artists, arts administrators, funders and cultural policy makers.

Users can:

  • Track funding connections between more than 700 funders and hundreds of grant recipients. This enables grant seekers to identify potential funders, and illustrates the Chicagoland grant landscape in the arts sector.
  • Understand the arts audiences who support seven arts disciplines. View demographics and trends across seven counties, or zoom in by ZIP code.
  • Search an index of more than 4,000 nonprofits and 10,000 cultural businesses, and filter results by geography, art form and budget size.

The site aggregates data from 15 different data sources, including the U.S. Census, the Cultural Data Project, Foundation Center, GuideStar and the National Center for Charitable Statistics. It also incorporates local data sources which meet the project’s standards of accuracy and consistency.

At the launch event, Claire Rice—a leading force in creating the project, now serving as the executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois—shared a look into the website’s roots at the Hauser Institute for Civil Society at Harvard University, as an idea to help communities answer some critical questions about their relationship to the arts. Who creates culture? Who participates? And how is it all funded?

The Chicago Community Trust was pleased to be one of three lead funders, alongside the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, helping bring to life the Chicago platform, which will reside at the Illinois Humanities Council.

Screen shot of a chart from the Sustain Arts Chicagoland data portalAggregating data about arts organizations, funders and audiences across the region, holds the potential to revolutionize the way artists and cultural organizations plan, fundraise, and collaborate.

As Trust program officer Sandra Aponte explains, “Sustain Arts was designed to make data research accessible and intuitive for users within 7 counties in the region.”

“With the launch of Sustain Arts, now there is a way to provide information in direct respond to the field’s most pressing questions. Equally critical will be the engagement and participation of individual artists, nonprofits and for-profit businesses to make this resource valuable.”

Following a guided tour of the site’s functions, four local artists and arts administrators shared a panel discussion about the potential impact on the local ecosystem.

Heather Hartley, executive director of Audience Architects, said, “What I’m very drawn to in the SustainArts platform is the way you can drill down into specific neighborhoods and ZIP codes. Understanding what’s nearby to you might offer new options and new possibilities.”

“Knowledge is power—and I see this as being an incredibly powerful tool,” Hartley said.

Executive director Emily Reusswig of the Chicago Cultural Alliance described the experience of arts organizations searching for funding by “going to the theater, and reading the donor list” in the program—a “patchwork” approach to prospecting and fundraising.

“When we’re at smaller organizations, we tend to feel small,” Reusswig said. “And maybe to feel a little less expert than the big guys around us. That has a lot to do with the information that they have access to, and we don’t.”

Now, the arrival of a free, easy-to-use tool for funder research “opens up a lot of opportunities.”

“At smaller organizations, we tend to feel small, and maybe a little less expert than the big guys around us. That has a lot to do with the information that they have access to, and we don’t. This tool opens up a lot of opportunities.”

In contrast, panelist Kamilah Rashied shared the experience of a major cultural institution from her vantage point as assistant director of community programs and engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“One of the most powerful potentials of SustainArts, and one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for it, is that it provides a lot of macro information,” Rashied explained. “We get a chance to look at the big picture. To see on a map things like disproportion of resources, disproportion of attendance…that can teach us a lot about how we could do better reaching a broad audience across our city.”

Choreographer Erica Mott’s work integrates multiple art forms, including dance, music and theater. Like other artists, she sees the benefits of connecting with artists creating exciting, inspiring work in each of those art forms, and creating new relationships. But “we don’t always have the tools, nor the time.”

“One of my greatest hopes for the tool is that we will begin to connect more deeply, and to understand the richness of the ecosystem,” Mott said.

After the panel wrapped up, guests were encouraged to use laptops stationed around the room, generously loaned by Microsoft, to get their hands on the tool and explore it firsthand.

As Claire Rice encouraged, “Let’s see what’s possible with data. Let’s go beyond what we think about when we think about arts and culture.”