Local Arts Agency Roundtable: A Conversation with Erick Deshaun Dorris

Posted by Mr. Erick D. Dorris, Apr 13, 2020 0 comments

Last year in Joliet, Illinois—inspired by a rising tide of creativity and arts stewardship—the city council recognized the need for a central, organizing body for the local creative sector and voted unanimously to establish the Joliet Arts Commission. As the Local Arts Agency for the city, the Commission supports local artists, makes the community attractive to new artists and creative businesses, and strengthens the economic development of Joliet through promotion, advocacy, funding, and identity. Erick Deshaun Dorris, the Commission’s first chair, shared some of the local success stories that led to the creation of the Joliet Arts Commission.

“In 2017, the historic Rialto Square Theatre left behind an era of uncertainty and came under new management through VenueWorks,” explained Dorris. “Joliet also entered into an agreement with the state of Illinois for use and possession of the Old Joliet Prison. The next year, Joliet was considering a significant development plan for its downtown, which would connect cultural institutions including the Joliet Public Library, Rialto Square Theatre, multiple college and university extension campuses, and creative businesses through streetscapes, plazas, and greenspaces. By 2019, local visual artists were receiving acclaim from their work at the Old Joliet Prison. Organized through new initiatives like the Burnt District Artists and The Art Movement Inc., these artists began sharing compelling glimpses of Joliet's identity and history, eventually leading to a visit from Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton that summer.”

The conversation with Dorris continues below.

What was the process of creating a new arts organization like?

Most of the credit is due to our Vice Chair, Quinn Adamowski. He and I had several conversations about the arts and Joliet while serving on the school board for Joliet Public Schools District #86. One day he emailed me a draft of an ordinance and said he had all the city institutions on board. We lobbied, attended events, talked to the community, and recruited potential commissioners. I advocated with Illinois’ Local Arts Network, Arts Alliance Illinois, and the Local Arts team at Americans for the Arts. Through the work of local artists, community members, and civic leaders an ordinance was drafted, reviewed, and approved in the summer of 2019.

By the time the ordinance went to the city council for a vote, not only was the Joliet community on board but we also had support from our state and national local arts networks. With all our large institutions and government bodies on board, we are currently planning our community engagement and listening campaigns. We will rely on community input and collected data before making any sweeping moves or decisions.

How would you describe your current status?

Our first meeting was in July 2019, so the commission is about nine months old. So far, we have established our bylaws; elected officers; agreed on our Mission, Vision, and Goals; and created sub-committees and appointed committee chairpersons.

I was elected the commissions inaugural chairperson in December 2019, and am focused primarily on formation (policies, systems, and structure) and advocacy (visibility, connectivity, and opportunities). Our bylaws appoint a chair for a term of one calendar year, so my goal is that every chairperson after me has a clear roadmap, a solid network, and a few long-term goals to hang their hat on.

What’s on the horizon for you?

The Joliet Arts Commission encouraged local organizations and individual artists to participate in the COVID-19 Cultural Sector Impact Survey conducted by Arts Alliance Illinois, our state's arts advocacy organization. Responses from across the state informed COVID-19 responses for the arts and cultural sectors, including #ArtsforIllinois and the Arts For Illinois Relief Fund. These initiatives provide our community a place to share, connect, and support one another during this tough time.

In June, we’ll report on our progress and give recommendations to the Joliet city council. This year’s report will include organizational information, plans through December 2020, and recommendations for long-term projects and initiatives. After that, we plan to take our show on the road throughout Joliet, listening to community members, artists and creatives, business owners, and students. These feedback opportunities and data will help guide and refine how our commission moves forward.

Meanwhile, there are new cultural projects happening in Joliet that may require us to be nimble. We are excited about the new Illinois Rock & Roll Museum on Route 66 opening downtown. We are watching the Joliet Public Library's reimagining of its downtown campus. And we are celebrating visual artists from the Old Joliet Prison project whose work has now gone on display at the Illinois State Museum in Lockport. We are attempting to build a road that already has a lot of traffic on it, so being slow, deliberate, and collaborative is deeply important.

What words of wisdom would you offer others looking to create an arts agency in their community?

If I can offer any word of encouragement, it is that you are not alone. There is a network of folks across your state and the country who are doing this work, even if you are a solo act in your community. Joliet could not get this far this quickly without the guidance, support, and encouragement from our state and national local arts networks. About two years ago, I walked into a meeting in Galesburg, Illinois, and said, “Joliet wants to start a local arts agency,” and the resounding response was “Okay, how can we help!” I have found that people in these roles want to help you and are looking for opportunities to connect with you. Reach out, be humble, and ask questions.

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