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Shallow Wells of Support

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When your survival depends on the favor of much larger forces, the impact of slipping through the cracks is devastating. We applied for the second round of the Illinois Business Interruption Grant and have been informed we did not receive funds.

Our initial reaction: “damn.” A disappointment, certainly. We realize many are desperate for assistance during this crisis. It’s understandable that systems would become overwhelmed and funds would disappear. It was only upon glancing at the list of businesses who received funds, provided in our rejection email, that our disappointment grew into frustration.

Applications for the BIG grant were accepted between September 15th and December 15th, 2020. Before applying for assistance, we attended a webinar organized by Arts Alliance IL to hear from the organizers at DCEO directly. The webinar was thorough, well organized, and brought a number of specific arts-related questions to the DCEO. As a small arts organization, we were especially impressed by the work that went into representing our community, and grateful to witness others advocating on our behalf. There were, however, claims made during this conference that didn’t match the reality of our experience.

We were told by DCEO reps that it was best to prioritize the quality of our application rather than scramble to get it in quickly. They noted that there was money left over from the first round and that “everyone should apply,” even if they were not in the “highly impacted” industries or regions. They assured us the distribution of funds would prioritize women and minority-owned businesses in especially hard-hit industries and geographic locations.

We at Escape Artistry, a woman and disabled-owned business forced to uproot our model in live entertainment to meet public health obligations, prepared our documents attentively. We first attempted to apply for this grant on September 15th but were met with an overwhelmed website. Forms automatically cleared, documents couldn’t be uploaded. After multiple attempts, we successfully submitted our application on September 17th, two days into the application window.

So if we didn’t get funds, who did?

A few neighboring businesses in Wicker Park, male and non-minority owned, received funds. There were several companies listed that received funds in both the first and second round of distribution. Several franchises that have never been asked to shutter themselves completely, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway, received $40K. A restaurant in Sugar Grove known to have repeatedly broken COVID-19 guidelines received over $100K. One of the biggest kickers: our attorney’s office, whom we know to be working remotely, received $60K. And, somehow, our application was “unable to be funded.” I’m hesitant to list names of businesses, as I don’t know the inner workings of fund distribution, but am happy to provide detailed examples should anyone request them directly.

The text I received on Dec. 30th from DCEO reads as follows:

“ this time, all funds under the program have been awarded, and we will not be able to fund your application. Applications were reviewed based on the date they were submitted and in accordance with eligibility and priority criteria required under the program...”

I will likely never know why I didn’t meet the criteria. As a person who, quite by accident, became an entrepreneur almost 10 years ago, this crisis has forced me to reflect on issues facing our community.  As we continue to navigate this pandemic, I see an opportunity to highlight the irresponsibility in assuring artists, individuals, and businesses that, if they simply work hard enough, if they demonstrate innovation, creativity, and follow the rules, they’ll earn the assistance necessary for survival. This is a dangerous myth. This statement was especially irresponsible to perpetuate with respect to the BIG grant, as only 20% of the proposed applicants received payment.

As interviewed by the Belleville News-Democrat, business owner Pat Doerr stated: “The ship went down, and only one in five businesses got a lifeboat.”

I’m mad, and I’m tired. But I’m also thankful to those who have supported us. It’s been eye-opening to witness the communities that have helped keep us afloat. It hasn’t been the corporate market, the companies with means. Those who boast on their bylines supporting local businesses through team building events. Our pillars of support have been artists. We are grateful to every musician, first-time filmmaker, and photographer who has spent time and money utilizing our set designs. We are deeply aware that our survival has been dependent on their dedication to self-expression, and to producing art.

As a company blending the lines between immersive theater, gaming, and community activism, we are consistently asked to play various roles. We’re told to earn our critical assistance by demonstrating innovation and creativity. When the pandemic hit, we recalibrated. In addition to doing business, we have reached out to our community. We have hosted a blood drive and partnered with Uprising Theater and Artists’ Resource Mobilization to help provide work for artists, as well as hold and distribute PPE. (Despite applying, we have received no grant support for these projects.)

We now offer virtual escape rooms, immersive mystery theatre, and space rentals for small photo and video productions. I myself, the owner of Escape Artistry, was rushing to memorize lines for a last-minute murder mystery role when I saw the notification that our BIG application was denied.

It isn’t that our business model has failed; our services are still in high demand. We receive in-person escape room requests and large private event rental offers on a weekly basis. Because of the risk our industry poses, we are incapable of accepting them.

The myth of the hardworking, scrappy hero runs much deeper in Chicago’s artistic community and is all the more dangerous on this grander scale. Our city glorifies counterculture. We praise creatives who risk stability for the sake of passion and echo success stories of those who disregard the status quo. The product of these forsaken stabilities can be beautiful: intimate theater performances in church basements, pop-up art shows, and community organizations utilizing art to inspire activism. We talk at length about the success stories, only describing obstacles they face as proof of their perseverance. We glorify their struggle, without acknowledging the support they received, nor privileges they had, inherent to their success.

What are we doing to encourage and uplift those whose creativity we boast?

We offer great enthusiasm to the artists who bring vibrancy to our streets. Murals become tourist destinations and photoshoot backgrounds, emblems of pride whose presence we defend. When a global pandemic hits and ravages your livelihood, this enthusiasm does little to keep you going. Rent moratoriums, small business incentives, and direct financial assistance do.

The day after learning our Business Interruption Grant application was denied, a particularly enthusiastic rental request came through that would break COVID-19 protocols. The rental party offered $20K in cash to host over 50 people in our space for a private New Years’ Eve party. With grit teeth, we turned down the offer. Our community obligation will always hold priority over finances, but it would be disingenuous to say we didn’t feel tempted. This money would have been a critical liferaft. It’s disheartening to know that businesses like ours are continually forced to weigh individual survival over long-term public health consequences. Turning down this contract should have been a much easier decision to make.

The quick draining of BIG funds is merely one example of our widespread scarcity of support. There’s only so much honey in the pot, and we’re all clamoring to ensure survival. It’s up to those in power to demonstrate both transparency and conscientious consideration in their distribution of resources. As one example of Chicago’s many struggling small businesses, we would like to implore those with power to wield it thoughtfully. If we are going to continue to perpetuate the myth of the American Dream, we should at least consider the narrative. We glorify the scrappy heroes of the story only after they have demonstrated enough privilege to reach the top.

This pandemic is not a test of resiliency, but an opportunity to prove our dedication to the ultimate myth. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted minority-owned small businesses. What support are we offering the protagonists of this story to ensure they make it through the fateful montage? And when we do open opportunities for support, how closely are those distributions scrutinized?

Small businesses, especially those in hard-hit sectors, shouldn’t be forced to pit against national chains for crisis funding.

It isn’t a fair fight, and it isn’t a necessary one. By establishing policies to incentivize businesses who follow the rules, and encourage those with the means to support those without, would help form a bridge of support between businesses concerned over profit margins and those focused on paying the rent.

This year has created a gaping hole where there was once a divot. As the businesses scaling this descent, we need to maintain perspective on where we fall and ensure we’re doing what we can to catch our fellow scrappy heroes before they slip through the cracks. What’s most important, however, is imploring those above us to do the same.

We’re not asking for a deus ex machina, a random twist of fate, but rather a collective effort. The heroes who survive COVID-19 will not be those who clawed their way into the honey pot. Our heroes are the communities working to share resources to keep others afloat. To those above us, please remember: rising tides lift all ships.

Escape Artistry

The Time Gallery: 1342 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
The Railcar: Flatiron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Ste 350, Chicago

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At Escape Artistry, our escape rooms are "Chicago Original." All 6 of our games are handcrafted by local Chicago artists with custom puzzle games you won't find anywhere else! 

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