Artists learn a new craft: how to drum up funds in recession

Christine Chimitris joined Chicago's Hellenic Choral Society because she liked to sing. But she has missed the group's last two major performances. As the treasurer of the fledgling, year-old choral group, she's been much too busy studying the art of fund raising to join in the singing. On one recent evening her choral group held a dress rehearsal in one room of the Chicago Public Library while Ms. Chimitris was busily taking notes in another room at a briefing on how to apply for city arts grants.

In many ways those in the arts world have been hit harder by government budget cuts and shifting priorities of corporate and foundation donors than funding seekers in other fields.

''They have to be weaned away from relying so much on government funds,'' insists Barbara Phelan of the Chicago Council on Fine Arts. ''We have to make it clear that raising funds from private sources is as much a part of their job now as selling tickets.''

Many arts group leaders have had to become self-trained experts in beating the bushes for dollars. They see it as a necessary short-term investment for survival.

Take Rita Simo, director of the People's Music School, which offers free music lessons on anything from flute to piano in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. Ms. Simo grew up in the Dominican Republic, where such music lessons were traditionally free. She had long dreamed of starting her own school. Friends and businesses finally donated enough instruments and lesson books to get it started.

''We went for two years before anyone on the teaching staff got paid at all - everyone was a volunteer,'' she recalls. When money had to be raised to cover rent or repairs, bake sales and other neighborhood fund-raisers were quickly launched. People's Music School got its first official grant in 1978 from the Illinois Arts Council.

''When I first started, I didn't know a thing about raising money, but I'm very good at asking people for help,'' Ms. Simo says. ''I just went to the arts council and told them I didn't know how to apply. They showed me.''

Since then the school, which now has 150 students, has had some financial help through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and the Chicago Council on Fine Arts. Ms. Simo serves on the board of the Wiebolt Foundation and reviews a vast number of other kinds of grant applications. (Her school receives no money from the foundation.)

''This whole thing has been a learning experience for me - a sort of trial by fire,'' she says. ''I've learned that in fund raising, it's not just how you write a proposal but who you know that makes a difference.''

Many new, smaller arts groups say it's almost impossible to get out-of-town money if they cannot first persuade local donors to recognize their worth. Such local givers often view helping new groups as too risky.

''To try to get any money from outside the city is like shooting in the dark, '' says Ms. Simo, who recently pursuaded the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation to make a grant to her school out of the group's discretionary funds. ''They say, 'Who are you?' ''

That reluctance is one reason Washington's National Endowment for the Arts, eager to nurture experimental hometown arts groups, is pushing the idea of local support especially hard. Under its Cityarts program, launched five years ago, the endowment has given $3.5 million in matching funds to 29 cities to encourage more local arts support.

Under the newest phase of that local help program, larger arts groups must garner one-third of the amount of their grant from other sources through their own fund-raising efforts. And to reassure local foundations and businesses in Chicago with qualms about the future of a small new arts group, the Council on Fine Arts and a local foundation will choose all grant recipients.

''This way the first-time or smaller giver can have more confidence that a good bet is being selected,'' explains Frank Hodsell, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. ''Business tends to give to more established arts organizations. This system offers a little added security.''

Chicago, long considered a national model for local arts encouragement, has been selected for the first grant under the new endowment program. The Chicago Council on Fine Arts and several local foundations will put up almost six times the $50,000 gift from the endowment.

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