CHICAGO — The ties between our cultural institutions and austerity politics surfaced once again during a protest that culminated outside the Art Institute of Chicago on Monday evening. In the thick of the city’s rush hour, a row of protesters donning caps, gowns, and chains blockaded the stretch of Michigan Avenue to call out a museum trustee for his complicity in cuts to higher education in Illinois.
The action, “Shut it Down for Higher Education,” was organized by Chicago Student Action, a branch of the People’s Lobby, and Fair Economy Illinois, a state-wide alliance of social justice groups that advocates for policies that aim to diminish corporate power. The protest was the first student-led edition of Moral Mondays Illinois, a larger protest series organized by the alliance which — in the face of the state’s budget impasse — calls on elected officials to tax corporations and reject the massive cuts to public services that have occurred under Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.
In the realm of the state’s public colleges and universities, these cuts have already resulted in crippling staff layoffs, administrative cutbacks, and the gross reduction of vital financial aid resources like the Monetary Award Program (MAP), which principally services low-income students, students of color, and first generation students. According to the Responsible Budget Coalition, the state has stopped funding MAP tuition grants for 130,000 college students, forcing many to drop out or turn to private loans.
But in the case of Monday’s protest, the more specific matter at hand was the close connection between Governor Rauner’s austerity agenda and a significant member of the Art Institute community: Kenneth Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel Investment Group, whose name can be found across the museum’s walls. Griffin is a member of the board of trustees of both the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago, and is one of the museum’s central donors (the “Griffin Court,” designed by architect Renzo Piano, connects the old and new wings). But he’s also Rauner’s biggest financier, having — alongside a small group of wealthy supporters from across the country — helped bring the governor to power in 2015.
The action’s news release calls on Griffin, as a trustee of the Art Institute, which is linked to one of the city’s higher education institutions, to “push for free, fully funded public higher education, funded by taxes on corporations and the rich.”
“He [Griffin] has the governor’s ear,” said Kenzo, a media liaison for Chicago Student Action who prefers to go by his first name only. “Education should be a basic human right, regardless of background,” he continued, pointing to another stark reality highlighted by the action: the enormous barriers undocumented students face when applying to receive financial aid.
The protest brought together students from across Chicago, with organizers from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, among others, present. As Chicago’s rush hour progressed, protestors made their way from Congress Parkway to the stretch of street outside the Art Institute. A sizable crowd held signs condemning corporate tax dodging (two-thirds of Illinois corporations pay no state income tax) and calling for the passage of bills like the LaSalle Street Tax, which would levy a small tax on the trading of financial assets on what is considered the Wall Street of the Midwest.
The decision to culminate the protest at the Art Institute bespoke a particular political motivation but also a keen desire for visibility: at 5pm, it’s one of the Loop’s most chaotic points of intersection. One of the protesters, Claudio Gonzales, described the scene as full of energy: “The cacophony of honking gave the demonstrators fortitude — our chants only got louder in response — and I had a lot of positive interactions with people happening by.” Eight protesters were eventually arrested on the scene.
Significantly, the Art Institute of Chicago is associated with a private art school, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And while organizers stated that the action was not in protest of the Art Institute itself, the two institutions — whose shared assets number over a billion — necessarily speak to the power of private investment to both nurture and, in another sense, undermine access to education.
After the last of the protesters finally dispersed, leaving a few police in their wake, all that remained was the glaring “W” of the Cubs Win Flag that currently hangs alongside the Art Institute’s central banners. When I talked to a man who goes by Ishmael, who spends his days on the curb outside the museum with his cat, and who had watched the protesters come and go, he mourned what he sees as the great irony of this, and of the day: “the sale of one painting in this place could fund and feed hundreds, thousands, of the city’s homeless.”