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Kirsten Leenaars & Circles and Ciphers awarded Artist Response Grant by the City of Chicago

Circles and Ciphers, Present Tense.

Congratulations to Chicago-based Dutch artist Kirsten Leenaars, who received one of the Artist Response direct grants ($100,000) from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events to develop and produce a video project with the restorative justice organization Circles & Ciphers in Chicago!

Mosaic of twelve photographs that depict headshots of a number of men and women, groups of people performing, and text reading "Circles and Ciphers" and "America has been built on a series of systems that keep people of color marginalized"

Circles and Ciphers, Present Tense. Courtesy of Circles and Ciphers

About the video project

What does collective freedom look, sound, and feel like? This question and its political stakes will guide our second collaborative multimedia project. Through the creation of performative actions, through rhyme and rap in parks and abandoned lots in the Rogers Park neighborhood we will activate these spaces as sites for our own radical imagination and as sites for healing, joy and community. We invite the young people that are part of Circles & Ciphers, as well those who are currently incarcerated, to respond to the notion of collective freedom based on their personal experiences, including considering the ways Covid-19 and the prison industrial complex have impacted their lives and communities. The produced videos and performances will serve as interventions in public space.

About Kirsten Leenaars

Kirsten Leenaars (NL) is an interdisciplinary video artist based in Chicago. Various forms of performance, theater, and documentary strategies make up the threads that run through her work. She engages with individuals and communities to create participatory video and performance work. Her work oscillates between fiction and documentation, reinterprets personal stories and reimagines everyday realities through shared authorship, staging and improvisation. Leenaars examines through her work how we relate to others and explores how through the production of the work itself new forms of relating can be created. Recent projects include The Broadcast (2019), a video project for the Broad Museum in East Lansing considering truth and distortion in public address and media representations; Present Tense (2019), a multichannel video work, commissioned by Illinois Humanities, in which young men and women reflect on their lived effects of the current justice system and prison-industrial complex. (Re)Housing the American Dream (2015-ongoing), a multi-year performative documentary project with American born and refugee youth commissioned by the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee.

Her work has been shown nationally and internationally, at venues including the Museo Universitario del Chopo, Mexico City; MAI, Montreal; the District of Columbia Arts Center, Washington DC; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Art Institute of Chicago, The Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee; Glass Curtain Gallery, Threewalls, Gallery 400, and 6018North, Chicago; Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, Detroit; Printed Matter, Inc., New York; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; and Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin. Leenaars has received multiple grants from the Any Warhol Foundation; The Mondrian Fund; cultural support grants from the Dutch Consulate in New York, Milwaukee Art Board Production Grant and Fonds BKVB. Leenaars has been nominated for the 3Arts Award and the USA Fellowship and received an Envisioning Justice Award from Illinois Humanities. She currently is an Associate Professor in the Department of Contemporary Practices and the Performance Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

About Circles and Ciphers

Circles & Ciphers is a hip-hop infused restorative justice organization led by and for young people impacted by violence. Through art-based peace circles, education, and direct action we collectively heal and work to bring about the abolition of the prison-industrial complex.

Mayoral announcement about Arts 77

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), the Chicago Park District, and other City of Chicago departments today announced “Arts 77” — a citywide arts recovery and reopening plan for all of Chicago’s 77 community areas, representing an initial investment of over $60 million to support local artists and organizations. Additional updates regarding financial grants and programs to support arts recovery will follow in the upcoming weeks.

“Before the pandemic struck, our arts and culture sector was a significant employer and economic driver that generated thousands of jobs and billions of dollars for our city,” said Mayor Lightfoot. “With this incredible program, we will not only be able to revitalize this critical sector and provide support to our artists, creative workers and organizations, but also place the arts at the center of our city’s recovery efforts.”

“Arts 77” signals a new direction for Chicago’s cultural policy, in which the arts are embedded in initiatives and strategies across City government. This plan seeks to expand access and participation in the arts citywide, prioritize employment of creative workers through City programs and services, and deepen public sector investment in the creative sector through financial support and cultural policy. Today’s announcement launches new and expanded programs including the Neighborhood Access Program, the Chicago Band Roster and  Chicago Presents grant programs, Culture in My Neighborhood (a $40 million collaboration by DCASE, the Chicago Park District, and Chicago Public Library), Individual Artists Program grants, Artist Response Program grants, and $18.5 million in art and infrastructure investments. For details and upcoming Arts 77 webinars for the cultural community, visit

“Chicago’s arts sector has been decimated by the global pandemic. We have assembled an unprecedented array of resources to bolster our vital arts sector, and today’s announcement is the first of several to follow,” said DCASE Commissioner Mark Kelly. “These new programs will strengthen the arts and culture landscape, support the City’s reopening, and advance Chicago’s economic recovery. DCASE will lead these comprehensive citywide efforts as we animate our neighborhoods with cultural life and position the arts as central to Chicago’s future.”

“The arts are uniquely positioned to aid in Chicago’s recovery efforts, and creative workers stand ready,” said Amina J. Dickerson and Alison Cuddy, Cultural Advisory Council Chair and Vice Chair. “To thrive post-pandemic, the City must leverage the power of its arts and  culture sector, putting artists to work rebuilding, reimagining, unifying, and healing our neighborhoods.”

About the Artist Response Grants Program

Through its new Artist Response Program, DCASE has awarded five artists and artist teams $100,000 grants. Artist awardees announced today are: Tonika Lewis Johnson; Santiago X; Kirsten Leenaars with Circles and Ciphers; Pilsen Housing Cooperative with Hector Duarte, Nicole Marroquin, and Gabriel Villa; and an artist team with Aquil Charlton, William Estrada, Andrés Lemus-Spont, and Marya Spont-Lemus. In addition to individual artist grants, seven arts organizations will receive grants ranging from $50,000 – $100,000 to re-grant funds to approximately 60 artists. Re-granting partners announced today are: ConTextos, Folded Map Project/Englewood Arts Collective, Full Spectrum Features, Greater Southwest Development Corporation, Jazz Institute of Chicago, Kartemquin Films, and the National Museum of Mexican Art. The Artist Response Program represents a $1.2 million investment, including over $600,000 in support available soon through re-granting partners.

About Arts 77

Follow this link to read the full statement about Arts 77 by Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot

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