Arts and Culture Community Celebrates Chicago’s Cultural Treasures as Initiative Embarks on Its Next Phase January 19, 2023

“Here’s to you. The culture keepers. The dream weavers. The history protectors. The destructors. Co-conspirators, colleagues, friends, families, heroes, revolutionaries. You, the warriors that create sacred spaces to create, to show up, to show out, to show how,” began a toast by poet, activist, author, and CEO of Urban Gateways, Leslé Honoré at a Chicago’s Cultural Treasures celebration on November 10, 2022. Gathered around Honoré were members and lovers of Chicago’s arts and culture landscape celebrating the 40 BIPOC led- and -focused arts and culture organizations named Chicago’s Cultural Treasures, almost two years after the initiative’s launch.

Chicago’s Cultural Treasures is a four-year 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. The initiative was launched in 2020 following the Ford Foundation’s announcement of America’s Cultural Treasures, with the support of Chicago-based funders John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Terra Foundation for American Art, The Builders Initiative, and Walder Foundation, as well as philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. As of June 2021, these funders committed a total of $24.75 million to support BIPOC-led cultural organizations through Chicago’s Cultural Treasures.

As the program facilitator, IFF co-created the initiative with arts and culture organizations and committed to multi-year support through a combination of general operating grants, capacity building, and technical assistance opportunities. To ensure the initiative meets the needs of arts and culture organizations, IFF designed a process that prioritized community input and participation.

“What was very important to us was asking how do we put more decision-making power into the hands of Black and Brown folks so they can decide where money goes in their communities?” explains IFF’s director of programs and initiatives, Crystal Coats. The initiative adopted a participatory grantmaking model and established a community-based Grant Committee comprised of a diverse group of community members, civic leaders, and artists that were selected through an open nomination process. The Grant Committee was responsible for creating criteria for who would be funded, and by what amounts, and then deliberating those decisions together.

In July 2021, Chicago’s Cultural Treasures announced $14.4 million in general operating grant funding to 40 organizations that contribute to the history, culture, vibrancy, and identity of communities of color in greater Chicago. From a theatre company to a dance troupe, a history museum to a cultural center, a visual arts community to a drill team, and more, the grantees represent a diverse group of artforms, neighborhoods, and racial and ethnic backgrounds and traditions. “These Chicago Cultural Treasures are treasures to their community. Treasures to Chicago,” says Terra Foundation for American Art’s executive vice president, Amy Zinck.

With awards ranging from $140,000 to $575,000, being named a Chicago’s Cultural Treasure not only made a significant impact on organizations, but also brought recognition to types of cultural treasures that have historically been passed over for traditional forms of grant support. “To be recognized as a Chicago Cultural Treasure is transformative,” shares Diasporal Rhythms Executive Director D.E. Simmons, one of the grantees. “It’s more than just the grant that has saved our lives by giving us three years of stability. The most important thing is to be recognized as a nonprofit in the City of Chicago with the distinction of a cultural treasure. That just means the world.”  

At the time that the grant funding was announced, arts organizations in Chicago and across the country were experiencing financial challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Many organizations like ours were wondering if we would survive these trying times,” explains Juan Dies, executive director of Sones de Mexico. “And when we saw this type of investment in what we do, we began to dream bigger about what else can we do.”

In addition to grant funding, Chicago’s Cultural Treasures will provide capacity building and technical assistance opportunities to the 40 grantees. “We really want to be intentional about supporting their sustainability, not just getting them through the pandemic, but thinking about the long term,” says Coats. As the initiative enters its next phase, much of what it looks like is informed by the initial process that was co-created with the arts community.

When we saw this type of investment in what we do, we began to dream bigger about what else can we do.

When Chicago’s Cultural Treasures launched, IFF invited BIPOC arts and culture organizations to submit a letter of inquiry (LOI) describing their strengths, assets, and current challenges. Over 140 submissions reflected the vast diversity and extensiveness of BIPOC arts and culture organizations across Chicago. As part of this process, organizations provided input that helped design the rest of the program and ensure that the capacity building and technical assistance opportunities respond to the needs voiced by the BIPOC arts community. Starting in January 2023, the initiative will provide resources and assistance in fundraising, board development, marketing communications, financial management, and facilities planning and support over the next two years.

As the Chicago’s Cultural Treasures grantees, funders, Grant Committee, and supporters gathered to celebrate the legacy of the 40 arts and culture organizations in November, the vividness that the 40 BIPOC arts organizations bring to the city was palpable. “Chicago’s Cultural Treasures is about elevating and supporting the people, places, and things that may have previously been unseen to now be seen in a way that is respectful, a way that is dignified, and a way that honors their contributions,” said IFF Executive Director for the Chicago Metro Region Vickie Lakes-Battle. “Without these organizations, Chicago would have no color, no life, no vibrancy. That’s why we want to celebrate these organizations,” said Coats.

To learn more about Chicago’s Cultural Treasures, visit

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