PILSEN — For more than a year, Ald. Danny Solis has been plagued with questions about "missing money" — unaccounted for funds that had been set aside for art projects in the 25th Ward.
Where was the $140,000 in ward funds, dollars that were specifically earmarked for murals and other artwork?
Why weren't artists paid for work they completed a year before?
As the questions rolled in, Solis' office gave the unpaid artists, curious reporters and angry residents the same response. The delay was caused by a "bureaucratic snafu," they said, without explaining further.
At Bow Truss earlier this month, Solis was ready to set the record straight.
"I am very sorry this happened," Solis said. "But there was never any question of money being lost or money being misappropriated or any shenanigans involving money."
When the 25th Ward changed the funding mechanism for the Art in Public Places initiative, Solis admits mistakes were made.
"[We] probably moved too fast on something we should have been more careful with," he said.
This story starts in 2012, back when Solis was funding the Arts in Public Places initiative — a plan to pay for more murals in the ward and get more kids involved in art — with campaign funds. From April to December 2012, Solis paid for 31 murals to be completed with his committeeman dollars, he said.
Citing the success of the program, Solis wanted to dedicate more money toward creating murals, and decided to fund the projects out of his $1.3 million ward fund, commonly referred to as "menu money" each alderman receives annually.
In 2013, Solis budgeted $140,000 of those dollars — money that is intended to be spent on infrastructure and beautification improvements in the ward — for art and culture programs, he said.
"We needed more money [for the initiative], and I sold it to the city that we should be able to use menu money for this," Solis said.
He then designated Lauren Pacheco, a member of his staff, to oversee the program. Pacheco no longer works in the 25th Ward office; she left in January of this year, according to her LinkedIn profile.
In the summer of 2013, artists were hired under the Art in Public Places initiative, and some were given the go-ahead by Solis' staff to begin work on murals.
Six months after the first murals were finished, the 25th Ward office discovered they had a major problem. Because those first artists were not properly insured as required by the city before performing work, the city's budget office refused to release the funds to pay them.
“The city wanted us to get insurance for work that had already been done," Solis said. "It would have been impossible to comply."
Was Solis' office not aware that insurance would be needed to pay the artists, who were in some cases working on railway overpasses, with city funds?
"I don't know. I'm not a micro manager," Solis said. “Was it a mistake? Yes. Obviously it was.”
There were other issues, too, but the insurance proved to be the biggest hurdle.
In an effort to pay the artists, Solis asked the city's budget office to work with the city's Legal Department to see if an exception could be made. But the Legal Department wouldn't sign off, fearing the move might hurt the city in the long run.
If an artist had been hurt performing the work, and the city paid them, the city would ultimately be liable.
So the issue of paying the artists — and releasing the rest of the funds committed to projects — would remain in limbo, stuck between the layers of city government. For months, the city departments went back and forth. Back and forth, Solis said.
When the new publicly funded Art in Public Places initiative got off the ground in 2013, Solis said his staff selected the Eighteenth Street Development Corp. to act as the fiscal agent for the project. Because the program used menu money — city dollars — and Eighteenth Street was a delegate agency of the city, the choice made sense, Solis said.
When agency's executive director left in 2014, Solis' staff decided to select a new fiscal agent for the project.
Eighteenth Street's former executive director, who asked not to be named, said that the Eighteenth Street Development Corp. was never contracted to disseminate the money. The agency's former leader declined to discuss the initiative further.
With Eighteenth Street out, Solis' staff decided that the Chicago Public Art Group, a Pilsen-based artist collective dedicated to producing public art, should instead act as facilitator for the projects.
Artists will be paid soon
In the end, the Chicago Public Art Group was able to fix the insurance problem.
The artist collective was able to retroactively insure the mural artists through its existing insurance policy, according to the art group's executive director, Jon Pounds. Other agreement issues were hammered out, too.
“We’ve taken the responsibility of first paying artists that need to get paid," Pounds said.
Of the $140,000 earmarked for projects, $28,000 was owed to artists who completed seven murals and weren't promptly paid, said Solis spokeswoman Stacy Raker.
Raker said Wednesday that the city's budget office had processed the funds and expected the Chicago Public Art Group to receive the payment this week.
Once the money hits the art group's account, Pounds plans to notify the unpaid artists and pay them promptly.
Among the groups owed money is Pawn Works, a Ukrainian Village-based arts collective that ended up recruiting artists for Solis' Art in Public Places initiative in 2013.
By the end of 2013, Pawn Works was owed $16,000 — about half of the group's $30,000 contract with the ward. The artists weren't paid the next year, either, and by August, Pawn Works co-director Nick Marzullo had had enough.
"This is not some ridiculous payment owed to us. It's an amount that is to be a reimbursement for work created to improve the neighborhood," Marzullo wrote to DNAinfo Chicago at the time. "We are not awaiting payment, but a REIMBURSEMENT for money down out of pocket, all while they continue to accept accolades and notoriety for our work."
Solis said his staff communicated with the artists while officials "peeled back the layers" of the problem, but the artists were understandably tired of excuses.
"I'm embarrassed. I'm sorry," the alderman said. "But now, [the program] will work."
After the unpaid artists are paid, the remainder of the money, about $110,000, will be used to fund new murals and other art projects in the 25th Ward.
The Chicago Public Art Group will act as the facilitator for the program, assisting artists in the development of viable proposals, passing the proposals to Solis' office for approval, and then making sure the artists get paid.
The public art group is in a better position to facilitate the program and understands the city's rules for funding, Pounds said.
"It's a very dense process, but it's not wrong of the city to want it. It's public money," Pounds said.
The remaining funds will be dedicated to an art project at Benito Juarez Community Academy and used to restore the iconic 1976 mural Galeria del Barrio by artist Aurelio Diaz, which depicts a series of Aztec warriors on 16th Street, among other projects.
Despite the yearlong issue, Solis said he will continue to dedicate funding to keep the Art in Public Places initiative alive.
“The idea is still a good idea,” Solis said.
After more than a year of delays, the arts funding is being released a week before the municipal general election Tuesday, where Solis faces four challengers. Early voting began this week.
The "missing" art funding has been a hot button issue in the 25th Ward race.
One of Solis' challengers, candidate Byron Sigcho, filed a complaint with the city's inspector general in January. In the complaint, Sigcho alleged that Solis had misappropriated $140,000 of taxpayer dollars.
“All we want to know from the alderman is where is our money?” Sigcho asked at a news conference announcing the complaint. The candidate is lead instructor at UIC's Center for Literacy.
Solis said Sigcho's charges are "completely false."
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