What Rahm Should Do For Chicago Arts

Published May 12, 2011

Finding Financing and Improving City Government

How to finance all of these projects is the big question that follows these suggestions. One idea for a service the mayor could do for the arts in Chicago is establishing good working relationships with corporations and philanthropists to work jointly to help promote the arts in Chicago. The construction of Millennium Park is an excellent recent example of this civic-private partnership.The City also needs to work to improve some of its existing programs.

What Rahm Should Do for Chicago Arts

Incoming Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has committed to helping the arts and artists of Chicago, a challenge in this era of fiscal restraint, limited city resources and big financial deficits. Still, now is the time to start discussing what can be done to help support Chicago arts, as the new mayoral administration considers its options and sets its priorities.

Following is a list of projects and initiatives which would help Chicago's arts scene and economy: not a complete list by any means, but these suggestions (with the exception of a Chicago-specific arts museum) should not be particularly expensive in terms of a big-city budget.

For instance, the Public Art Program, which provides artwork for new buildings in Chicago, has eliminated the public panels which were in the ordinance to provide some public feedback on the choice of artwork. These panels are an important element to the success of this program. As it stands now, for instance, even the head of a new library which is scheduled to receive artwork for the building officially has no say in what art is best to appeal and represent the people of the neighborhood.

Sculptor Jerry Peart related to me that he arranged for a coffee and cookies meeting with people of the neighborhood to explain what he was trying to do with his sculpture, to be installed in a public space. The meeting went well, and even those who did not initially understand his abstract works received it with enthusiasm well after a better understanding of what he was trying to achieve: a kind of homage to River View Amusement Park which had been located near the site.

This is part of the purpose of the Public Art Program: to include people in the areas that public art is placed into the decision-making process. The new mayor would do well to restore the public into the art selection process for this public art. More attention should also be paid to create, where feasible, several smaller projects in lieu of one monumental sculpture or mural, as is too often the case. An effort should be made to spread the benefits of the program to more artists and to make each place one where on can take a tour of the art and experience a wide range of art.

Chicago Artists Month is one of the premier showcases of Chicago art, and although the city maintains a commitment to it, recent staff cuts at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events calls into question whether enough resources will be available to keep it a successful and popular event. Chicago Artists Month is the biggest showcase the city runs to help the visual arts, and it is hoped it gets the attention it deserves. Why not put events associated with it on television to reach a larger audience?

Finally, there is the major question of what is going on with the staffing of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Recently there has been some controversy about moving some Cultural Affairs staffers over to the Chicago Office of Tourism, and also some nasty rumors that the Department of Cultural Affairs will be eliminated. Actually, this is not true: There is only a shifting of how some staff members are getting paid, a matter which involves a not-for-profit corporation that allows certain staffers to continue work on behalf of the city.

Of more importance, the departure of long-time Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg, and the retirement of Janet Carl Smith as Deputy Commissioner, has left a leadership gap at Cultural Affairs. I was recently at the farewell party for Ms. Smith who is a beloved figure, having contributed a helping hand to more art projects than a Renaissance prince. Attending this party was a representative from almost every field of creative life in the city of Chicago, and Ms. Smith was on first-name terms with practically all of them. Such relationships between top city staff and Chicago artists is what makes things work. In recent years, the city has unfortunately been showing a policy where top staffers have been sent into early retirement. There has also been some controversy about the running and management of City Theater and Music Festivals that needs to be worked out.

The new mayor should get solidly behind enlarging the Chicago Office of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. His commissioner picks should have broad knowledge of and warm relationships with the art communities across the board. The mayor has already started picking his appointees for Chicago's cultural affairs team, including Chicago Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee Board chair Nora Conroy (outgoing Mayor Daley's daughter), Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone, and advisory committee Vice Chair Marj Halperin.

The mayor should be looking for people who artists have some trust in. Recent staff changes and reductions, including replacing key figures who have successfully run dance, music and theater venues, calls into question Chicago's commitment to the arts. The new mayor will have to address the problem of providing enough staffers to get the arts on track in Chicago, as well as support the people currently at the Department of Cultural Affairs.

The quality of Chicago Art is very high, and it is hoped the new mayor makes a renewed commitment to showcasing the artists who work here to the people of Chicago and to the world. If Chicago is going to establish itself on the world stage as a major art center, the city has to step in and help promote what is created here. It should be remember that the arts have an economic as well as a cultural impact on the well being of the city, as can be easily demonstrated by the benefits that arts-centric neighborhoods bring to real estate values.
The arts are one of Chicago's biggest assets and if the city is in trouble financially it might be wise to view it's commitment to the arts as a short term investment that will pay dividends later on, not as a budget buster, but one of the principal assets that makes Chicago a place where people want to live, work and invest in Chicago.

The Site of Big Shoulders art and classical music critic Robert Kameczura has a long history of organizing arts initiatives in Chicago. He is one of the founders of the Chicago Artists Coalition, was one of its first directors, was the head of the legislative campaign that created the Public Art Program, was President of the Hild Cultural Center Project, ran a campaign to create a museum of Chicago art, was one of the originators of Chicago Artists Month which he co-chaired for the first two years, and for many years chaired a committee devoted to establishing fair practices for artists.

Over the years he has been in involved in numerous projects related to the arts, in the dance, literature and music worlds as well as the visual arts. In addition he is a noted artist, photographer, art writer and lecturer and has work in several museums and private collections around the world. His work can be seen at www.kameczura.com.