LOCKPORT – Peering into the glass doors of the Illinois State Museum in downtown Lockport, passers-by will see an empty picture frame positioned in the center of a white, blank wall – a space typically reserved for an Illinois artist’s vibrant work.
And it’s all because of the state’s budget impasse.
“It’s conceptual,” John Lustig, gallery manager of the Lockport Gallery, said of the empty picture frame. “But in the same breath, I think it makes a point. To think of Illinois without a museum, without art ... it’s disastrous.”
Since the new fiscal year began July 1, Lustig and his staff have crisscrossed the state in attempts to return loaned artwork to rightful owners.
That’s because, as Lustig explained, when the new budget year arrived without a spending plan in place, the state museum’s insurance that covers borrowed artwork lapsed.
“We ethically had to return the borrowed work,” Lustig said. “No one held a gun to our head and said we had to shut down or anything. But the state’s insurance [which covers traveling and borrowed works] lapsed and this was the decision I had to make.”
The Lockport Gallery is among five Illinois State Museum sites proposed for closure this year, alongside the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, the Chicago Gallery in the James R. Thompson Center, the Southern Illinois Art and Artisans Center in Whittington and the Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed the closures last month as part of a larger plan to cut back state spending, citing a major budget deficit inherited from Democrats.
“Illinois is facing a fiscal crisis because [Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan] and the politicians he controls overspent taxpayer money for years and passed an unbalanced budget, which is forcing the administration to take a series of management steps to deal with the current $4 billion deficit,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.
The exhibits taken down in Lockport were to be part of the city’s second annual 2015 Summer Art Series, but everything has been cleared out.
So the city now has an empty gallery, with Lustig directing people two blocks down to the Gaylord Building, where other art exhibits are on display.
Chris Young, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said just less than $6.3 million was budgeted for the state museum’s five branches this fiscal year. But the governor’s budget office anticipates $4.8 million in annual savings if they close.
State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, said that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the overall multibillion dollar budget deficit Illinois faces. McGuire said the five museum sites are worth saving, considering how inexpensive they are to operate. The Lockport Gallery’s operating budget is $190,000.
‘A key selling point’
Lockport Mayor Steven Streit said he often uses the Lockport Gallery – situated along the banks of the historic I&M Canal – as a key selling point when speaking with building developers.
“We’re trying to revitalize downtown Lockport, and in doing so, we have to play to our strengths,” Streit said. “I have tired and old, burned-out buildings downtown, and I need this museum to court some of these potential [developers].”
Lustig said there’s a lot of stake in closing the museums statewide. Accreditation will be at risk and legal trouble is almost certain because of the museum system’s contractual obligations with donors and Native American Indian tribes for permanently loaned collections, he said.
The Lockport Gallery, which has been in the city for the 28 years, remains a “cultural anchor” in the community and for the artists it serves, he said. Lustig said he hopes the museum’s doors remain open, with a new exhibit called “From Humbled Beginnings” in the pipeline for next summer. The exhibit uses artifacts from the 1830s and 1860s to show how residents lived in Lockport’s heyday.
Lustig was among those who testified in Springfield last week where a overflow crowd protested against the closures. He plans to join others in Springfield on Tuesday for a “Save the Illinois State Museum” rally.
Those who have an opinion on the closures of the Illinois State Museums have until Wednesday to weigh in with the Legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. That’s the deadline for public comment period.
A link to submit public comment is available at http://cgfa.ilga.gov/upload/FacClosPublicComments.html.
BY THE NUMBERS
Illinois State Museum main facility in Springfield plus Research and Collections Center: 199,304
Dickson Mounds: 50,297
Chicago Gallery: 64,300
Illinois Artisans Shop Chicago: 39,896
Lockport Gallery: 14,253
Southern Illinois Art Gallery: 18,700
System Total for 2014: 386,750
Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources