What Rahm Should Do For Chicago Arts

Published May 12, 2011

by Robert Kameczura

Spanish dancers in Chicago

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.

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.

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.

1) Establish Neighborhood Cultural Centers

The mayor-elect has expressed an interest in getting art out to the neighborhoods. A natural outgrowth of this could be neighborhood cultural centers, which would support local arts in a variety of ways. Larger cultural centers could reside in existing city structures like libraries, and storefront spaces could be employed for smaller centers. These centers could feature art exhibits, theater, movies, dance performance and education in many areas of art. Some events might be free, others, like performances and classes, might include a charge to defray expenses.

Neighborhood cultural centers could also help place resident arts groups. Many art collectives and theater companies struggle to find working spaces to perform, teach, rehearse and exhibit. The careful selection of resident groups based on specific criteria would be essential for their success. They would provide a significant share of the artists who would program the performances, classes and art to make the centers operate efficiently.

Music in the loftThese centers should offer a variety of programming that appeals to a variety of groups: children, teens and adults. Every effort should be made to involve the local community in the running of and the activities of the center. Local businesses may help defray expenses in consideration for sponsorship opportunities, naming rights,

A strong Chicago track record for this model can be found in the Hild Cultural Center Project of the 1990s, which eventually morphed into the Old Town School of Folk Music. This type of neighborhood-based, cultural center development could be viable in multiple parts of the city.


2) Establish Arts and Crafts Shops Run by The City of Chicago

The Illinois Artisans' Shop has been a successful project that gets leading Illinois-created arts in front of likely consumers. Chicago would do well to emulate this strategy via one or more Chicago Arts and Crafts shops that do the same for Chicago-area artists. These shops would sell one-of-a-kind arts and crafts, including paintings, art prints, photography, jewelry, pottery and hand crafts of all kinds in a range of prices.

Chicago gallery interiorTo begin with, a few shops should be established in areas where crowds congregate, perhaps near theaters or other major art venues to ensure a steady flow of people; one in the downtown area, one each on North and South Sides, and perhaps one near or inside Navy Pier. These would not only be a good place to showcase Chicago talent -- if run correctly, like the Illinois Artisan's shop, they would make money for both artists and the city.

3) Leverage Chicago Cable TV to Showcase More Local Arts

We live in a world where television is the principal way people get familiar with art, and the old quip about "If it isn't on television it doesn't exist" has some truth in it. It is something of a pity that almost no Chicago theater or dance appears on television in Chicago. For the most part, only a few art exhibits receive five-minute clips without any depth of coverage, and the majority of arts programming on on Municipal Television consists of performances and events conducted in the Cultural Center.

The city should use the existing City of Chicago TV station to do more to showcase the arts in Chicago. It should run features on the arts, including video on art exhibits, scenes and perhaps even whole plays and dances from Chicago theaters and dance companies, not to mention readings by Chicago authors and content from other local creatives. One might envision whole plays performed by Chicago-based theater companies, films by local filmmakers, and dance performances filmed on location in theaters. Chicago's municipal television needs to establish more outreach and film more on location where things are happening and should produce programming that could also be sold on DVD.

Chicago should make available a studio with equipment that art groups can use to create their videos. The city might also provide technicians for on-site filming. (Groups could apply to the city for consideration in this regard.) One TV host/coordinator/line producer for each artistic discipline -- art, dance, theater, literature, music – could help manage the process and programming. Official sponsors could help underwrite these productions, and discussions with unions and artists may help to reduce costs to manageable levels.

Imagine the value of performance of fine plays written by Chicago authors, performed by Chicago theater companies and appearing on television (and DVD). This would not only benefit audiences, it would help sell more tickets to Chicago theaters and raise the profile of Chicago artists in the public mind.


Dancer in doorway4) Place Video Screens in Key Locations to Showcase Local Arts

These video screens would showcase Chicago art events in short advertisements and feature videos aimed at passers-by. The content could showcase paintings, prints, photography and
short videos created by Chicago artists; they could show snippets of upcoming dance and theater shows, as well as include readouts about what is happening about town in the arts during a given week.

The screens should be large enough to be noticed -- perhaps similar in size to the one downtown off Daley Plaza – and placed carefully in areas where large crowds congregate, like on Michigan Avenue, downtown, and in public squares and transportation hubs around the city. O'Hare Airport's terminals would be another likely spot, so people arriving from other cities can get a look what is happening in Chicago arts.

5) Establish a Museum Devoted to Chicago Art of Past and Present

If the city can successfully create a space like Gallery 57 to showcase children's art, it is ready to move up to a museum that exhibits professional art by Chicago artists of the past and present. A huge need exists for such a museum, as local museums have not, for whatever their reasons, placed a priority on exhibiting local artists.

Such a museum should be centrally located, of significant size and architectural quality and might be constructed with the help of private donations ala Millennium Park. (It should be designed to be self-sustaining financially.) It would house both a permanent collection and rotating exhibits by living artists or artists of the recent past. The initial "permanent collection" might be seeded in the beginning with art from major collections and donations from artists. Specific exhibition rooms could focus on various media: paintings, photography, sculpture, tapestry, etc.

A museum like this could be instrumental in promoting Chicago art to the world, exploring Chicago's indigenous styles and promoting Chicago artists through exchanges with other museums. It would not just be a "Museum" of Chicago art, but a promoter of Chicago art as a unique entity in today's art world.


6) Support More Live/Work Spaces for Artists

Toronto has an excellent program that helps sponsor live/work spaces for artists, offering below-market rents to assist working artists and to promote the arts in Toronto. Chicago would do well to consider programs and incentives that achieve the same results through more affordable live/work spaces.

In a program like this, artists would have to apply and be judged on the quality of their work. Various disciplines of artists could collect together in contiguous living spaces: a live/work complex for dancers, another for theater artists, one for writers, and one for visual artists. Shared spaces within these complexes could accommodate different disciplines, for example, a gallery space for visual artists, or a theater for actors or dancers.

These spaces would also serves as cultural schools for their neighborhoods, presenting theater, art shows and dance concerts, as well as offering classes taught by some of the artists who live there. Although a city administrator would oversee management of the program, at least some of the basic property upkeep – as well as governance of the spaces' policies -- could become the responsibility of resident artists.

The Magic Flute opera

7) Establish International Arts Connections

When Sir George Solti brought the Chicago Symphony to Europe, it put everyone on notice that one of the world's great orchestras made its home in Chicago. This was a watershed event for music in Chicago, and we need to look for more opportunities like this across Chicago's arts disciplines.

The City of Chicago should establish a program that works within both the Cultural Affairs office and the Department of Tourism to plug Chicago into the world community of art. Exchanges with other countries and other U.S. cities could be achieved by working with civic leaders who have national and international connections. Cultural exchange groups, the "Sister Cities" program, or the State Department might be other avenues to establishing these relationships. The City of Chicago should also help arrange large exhibits through this program, both here and internationally.

To date, Chicago art has not received national attention; a notable recent exception was a large exhibit of Chicago art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Reviews of this exhibit were ecstatic, calling Chicago art a valid alternative vision, on par with anything from Europe or the East and West coasts. Making the international community aware of Chicago art would not only help local artists establish themselves, it would promote tourism and raise our profile as a center for the arts on the world stage.


8) Establish an Arts Awards Program to Inspire More Arts Media Coverage

A principal problem for the Chicago arts community is a shortage of media coverage, both locally and nationally. One example: Chicago currently does not have a single full-time visual arts critic at a major newspaper. This situation might be mitigated by one or more coverage-friendly events: a set of awards for media, corporations and individuals who support the arts, as well as the artists who create it.

Night sculpture in ChinatownThis "Chicago Arts Supporter Awards" would pair nicely with a "City of Chicago Art Awards" that recognizes excellence in theater, dance, visual arts, photography, music, literature and other disciplines. All would be presented in a televised gala, attended by the mayor, with awards presented by notable Chicagoans.

This "Oscars" for Chicago arts would not solely be focused on mere glitz, but also on exposing the public more to the range of quality art that comes from right here at home. Such awards would help put a share of quality artists more in the public eye and raise interest in the work of some of the best artists in Chicago.

9) Establish Annual Shows of Local Artwork at City Hall

The mayor should arrange for Chicago art to appear in his office and throughout City Hall, selection of which could come through an annual contest. Winning art would not be purchased, but rented from the artist for a year, and used to decorate the area around the mayor's office and some public and some private areas in City Hall, the Daley Center and other city buildings.

Winners and nominees would be invited to a gala party and have a chance to meet the mayor, alderman and major city officers. It would be a nice way for artists and government leaders to meet and establish a new rapport, as well as adding some visual interest -- even some glamor -- to City Hall and the Daley building.


10) Supplement City Grants with Corporate and Individual Support

Money is usually pretty tight for grants, and a wider spread of corporate donations would be a big help. Right now, corporate arts money is concentrated in big organizations like the Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony and Art Institute. Some additional focus on smaller organizations would help to support a wider range of Chicago arts.

An "Art Chicago" fund – spearheaded by the Mayor's Office – would help provide opportunities for corporations and large individual donors to support local arts by supplementing the money available for city grants. The City of Chicago can use its infrastructure and existing grants programs to gather and distribute its funds, some of which might be used by art groups for things currently restricted by many grants: capital improvements, building renovation, staff salaries, new office equipment, etc.

Flamenco Chicago11) Sponsor a Chicago Fine Art Poster Contest

The City of Chicago needs more iconic images to showcase Chicago as the cultural hub of the Midwest. Many people enjoy the posters from Chicago history, like the 1933 World's Fair posters, but more should be present to celebrate life in Chicago in the 21st Century.

An annual "Chicago Poster Contest" would solicit original designs from local artists. The winning poster (or posters) would be featured prominently in civic buildings, with copies of the poster for sale in both a general inexpensive edition and as a limited edition fine art print. Top entrees could be collected in a booklet with reproductions of the works and information about the artists who created them; this booklet then could be offered for sale in the Cultural Center, book shops, and other likely locations. Signed or special editions of the Chicago Poster for a given year could even become special gifts for visiting dignitaries.

These posters would be a way of helping artists, instilling civic pride, promoting the city abroad, and putting a fresh gloss on the face of Chicago life every year.


12) Establish More Programs Where Chicago Artists Can Share Their Work

Chicago music concertChicago Artists working in all disciplines need more ways to connect directly with the people of Chicago. A series of events centered around various disciplines – literature, theater, art, dance – could provide accessible venues for both audiences and artists.

In terms of timing and location, one possibility could be pre-concert at Pritzker Pavilion in Grant Park. Others arts sharing events could site themselves in large libraries, schools and cultural centers. Artists could perform, exhibit and/or talk about their work.

Years ago the State of Illinois had a program by which poets were paid to read their poetry in state tours. This was quite successful in that it helped Illinois Poets reach a larger public. The City of Chicago should consider a similar program for a wider variety of arts.

13) Create a Ticket Voucher System for Chicago Theater

A French program provided theater ticket vouchers to people who ordinarily couldn't afford to go. As a result, a lot more people started going to the theater. When the new government threatened to cut these vouchers, one Frenchman, a middle class working man, said "If they cut my salary a bit I can live with that, and if they cut my pension a by a few Euros I can live with that. But if they try to cut my theater tickets, there's going to be big trouble!"

Chicago would benefit from some similar types of programs to boost theater attendance and raise its overall local profile. Perhaps tickets could be offered through special programs at half-price, or "first-timer" passes provided to people who haven't attended a given theater. Family passes or "family nights" would help make theater more affordable to a wider range of Chicagoans, and serve an important role in exposing more children to the arts.


14) Put Arts Education Back Into the Schools

It goes without saying that many canceled arts and music programs should be restored in the public schools. In recent years, the march of math and science has shouted out the value of an arts education. Studying the arts makes for a more rounded person and awakens a deeper interest in ethical and aesthetic matters. However, art should not always be taught in a dry classroom setting. Some efforts should be made to integrate Chicago arts education with working artists groups, orchestras, chamber
music and dance and theater groups.

One remembers that one of Chicago's most outstanding citizens, the late artist and humanitarian Louise Dunne Yochim, was Director of Art in the Chicago's Public Schools for over twenty years. Is there such a position now? It might be a good idea to find someone with a certain prestige whose job it is to coordinate how the arts are taught in schools, and who puts some passion and imagination into coordinating the arts into our educational programs.

Robert KameczuraThe 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.

Rahm suggestions placard


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.