Art Works Blog

Postcard from Chicago

Washington, DC


Onstage at the Museum of Contemporary Arts symposium. Photo by Richard Cahan

I just spent a few days in Chicago, one of my favorite cities. One of the great things about this trip is that we were hosted throughout the trip by the MacArthur Foundation. Bob Gallucci, the foundation?s president, was an incredibly welcoming host who really extended himself. The whole staff at MacArthur did. And Deepa Gupta, she?s in charge of the arts portfolio at MacArthur, was especially helpful.

It?s just so inspiring to be in a city where the mayor gets it, and Richard Daley was really the first. He took office in 1989 and used the arts to transform the city. He is passionate about the arts; he is committed. He renovated the downtown vaudeville houses that were in a terrible, falling-down state of disrepair, and brought them back to life as Broadway touring houses. He really created a downtown cultural district, which was hugely transformative. I think the Mayor really gets it, and it was great to be with him.

We did a press conference together, and Mayor Daley gave basically a ten-minute sermon on the importance of arts education---how valuable that is, how important, and how it should be the last thing cut from the schools. He talked about how arts education catches the kids who are not necessarily performers on standardized tests. And he was incredibly moving and affecting when he talked about that.

I also visited Street Level Youth Media, They?re doing digital media, which has been a commitment of the MacArthur Foundation. They?re really giving a chance to kids who, if it weren?t for this program, wouldn?t have any. And some of them have really taken to it, and they're learning about what is really the future of communication. And some of them are going to be employed in that field, and it?s very heartening to see. We also went to the Architectural Foundation, where they have this huge scale model of Chicago in the lobby and that?s something to behold. They do really great work there. And we went to the Field Museum, to the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, for a presentation by Alaka Wali, a researcher who?s doing really useful anthropological work on the cultural sector.

Then on Saturday I participated in a symposium at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, which was different than anything I?d ever done before. It was an audience of local artists and folks from more than, I think, 200 arts organizations. The framework was that I had three different topics, and I did five minutes of, I would say, provocation and there was about a half-hour of discussion. It was fantastic, and I want to do more of these forums. The topics were what?s special about arts and artists, and how do they integrate into the rest of the community; the importance of failure and how that?s part of learning; and what it means to really develop audiences and concentrate on audiences as a focus.

I was especially struck by the whole conversation around the idea of failure. I think this whole notion of failure is something that the artists really fastened onto because artists intuitively know that they have to fail in order to succeed. You have to be willing to risk that kind of failure. If not, then you?re never going to do anything interesting or new. New, almost by definition, means taking a chance and risking failure.

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