Three dancers perform outdoors in front of a crowd. They are standing in a shallow fountain. Two dancers wearing blue coveralls are supporting a third dancer doing a flip with blue straps.

Getting to Know… Chicago Artistic Vitality

Discover more about our Chicago Artistic Vitality program and how we support neighborhood small arts organizations that are the spark for Chicago’s artistic innovation.

Photo: Chicago Dance Crash is one of the premier hip hop/contemporary dance companies in the Midwest. Photo courtesy of Mark Hackman.

Our 5 Questions Getting to Know Series asks our program officers to provide an introduction to our work and insights about what is interesting and unique about each of our program areas.

By Ellen Placey Wadey and Abigail Madden

Why the focus on small arts organizations? 

Small arts organizations are the building blocks of Chicago’s cultural vibrancy. Chicago is a hub for creative incubation, and neighborhood-based small arts organizations are the spark for the city’s artistic innovation, daring, and breadth of arts.  

People pursuing a vocation in the arts—actors, dancers, set designers, musicians, writers, visual artists—move to Chicago to hone their practice. Emerging talent can earn their chops not only through their work with individual theaters, galleries, and music venues but through the networks created by small organizations. Hand-in-hand with supporting emerging talent, Chicago’s small arts organizations are labs for developing new works. 

Small arts organizations also offer ongoing support—paying gigs and continuing creative development—to professional artists who base their lifelong practice in Chicago. Even as artists gain national and international recognition, they choose to return to and perform on Chicago’s storefront stages and in small clubs because of the intimacy and accessibility to audiences cultivated by Chicago’s small arts organizations and venues. 

Why do you see so many shows? 

Who wouldn’t want to? Last year, we attended 90 performances, exhibitions, and shows. It’s a thrill and honor to see all the amazing work being produced in Chicago. There are dozens of great shows of all types being put on across the city every week. We also regularly attend performances to stay informed about the creative work in the field and to show our commitment to the galleries, theaters, dance companies, musical groups, and teams that make our city so vibrant. We work to build ongoing relationships with arts leaders. We want to know you and we want you to know us.

What are the ways the Foundation supports small arts in Chicago?

We support small arts organizations through general operating grants, technical assistance, a cash reserve challenge program, hosting group conversations for arts leaders, and through personalized support and one-on-one conversations.

First and foremost, we fund small arts organizations in Cook County with budgets under $1 million through multi-year general operating grants. 

-> Learn more about our grant guidelines

We also offer workshops and trainings on subjects ranging from accounting to accessibility. (More on that below!) 

Our cash reserve challenge program gives groups the opportunity to build a solid financial safety net for their operations.  

We work in partnership and value the ongoing conversations that we have with arts leaders. We’re always ready to have a call or meeting to touch base. On top of those ongoing individual conversations, we host group conversations throughout the year that provide a space for arts leaders of all disciplines to share ideas and talk through the issues that keep them up at night. They also serve as a way for us to keep up with the current needs of the field.  

And last but not least, we maintain open lines of communication with our grantees through individual calls and meetings. 

How do your trainings address some of the current issues arts organizations in Chicago are facing 

For many small arts organizations, growth is not focused only on adding more seats in the audience, but equally invested in growing deeper and stronger.  

We are committed to helping small arts organizations strengthen their infrastructure, so we offer more than financial support. We also provide workshops and trainings that build skills in financial management, equity, leadership, and organizational development.  

Current trainings include: Accounting training, DEI, and accessibility workshops

What’s something surprising or interesting I might not know about arts in Chicago?  

Chicago’s storefront theaters and galleries are woven into the fabric of the city’s many neighborhoods. They are the creative enterprises that symbiotically support other local businesses such as restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Many offer in-school and after-school programs. Where larger institutions attract their audiences from tourism as much or more than local patrons, small arts organizations are committed to making connections with the people that live and work in Chicago’s neighborhoods.  

Bonus Question: Are there any resources you recommend to learn more about small arts in Chicago? 

So often when we talk about the work we see, we hear, “Oh wow, I didn’t know about that group!” Our recommendation is to make sure you are keeping an eye out in your neighborhoods and beyond for where performances, exhibitions, etc. are happening. Otherwise, you will miss out on some of the most magical, innovative experiences Chicago has to offer. 

There are some great arts service organizations and websites in Chicago that offer resources and calendar listings for upcoming shows and performances.


The League of Chicago Theatres has a website specifically dedicated to all the ways you can see a play in Chicago:

Theatre in Chicago is also a great website for all things related to Chicago Theatre:

See Chicago Dance has a website that provides opportunities to see a dance performance, take a class, etc.:

Cultural Access Collaborative offers an ongoing calendar of accessible performance options: 


Chicago Artistic Vitality Program At-a-Glance

Annual grant budget: $1.7 million   

# of organizations supported: 175

                     Average grant length: 3 years

Program Officers: Ellen Placey Wadey and Abigail Madden


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