Art Works Blog

Postcard from Indiana and Illinois, Part Two

Here I am, speaking in Chicago. Photo by Patrick L. Pyszka

After our stay in Indiana, it was off to Chicago. The day started bright and early at the Chicago Cultural Center, and it was a great morning for us. Michelle Boone, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in Chicago, and her commission, along with the city of Chicago, has recently announced and released a comprehensive plan for the arts in Chicago. It’s very comprehensive; it offers 36 recommendations for implementing the arts across the city. It involves creative placemaking, the intersection of art in the neighborhoods, public art, and there’s a big section of arts education. They want arts education---serious arts engagement---in every school district in Chicago, K-12. There’s a lot of discussion about the scaling up of resources, and this is something I could relate to right away. Boone and her team want to use the different agencies in the Chicago city government to work together on behalf of the arts: the Transit Authority, the Department of Education, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing, etc.

The first participant who spoke was the mayor, Rahm Emanuel. As I told the Mayor, I was very flattered that he took the time to come and bless this, and preside over it, and speak. He’s very passionate about the arts. After he spoke, the first thing I said when I got up was that I had been to a previous session with the Mayor, at a convening that the MacArthur Foundation brought together in Chicago; he and I were both addressing the audience. And before he went on, he said, “This is about arts and the economy, right?” And I said, “Yes,” to which he replied, “Check, the arts and the economy.” So he goes on and gives his remarks, but doesn’t once mention arts and the economy. Instead, he talks about how arts affected him personally, his family, how he believes in it for people, that the arts are part of our soul, part of our central humanity, part of our being, and he spoke passionately and eloquently about that, and he did that again the other day at the Chicago Cultural Center. He spoke about the importance of arts for us as human beings, as well as the importance of arts in Chicago. Chicago is an arts city; it’s the greatest arts city in the country, in my view. He talked about how Chicago is the most American city, and how the arts have been a huge part of the revitalization of that city. This really started when Mayor Daley was elected in 1989. He took all of those old Vaudeville houses and renovated them, made them into viable, working theaters, despite a lot of criticism, and a lot of controversy. He spent a lot of money on them. That created the downtown cultural district, and it changed Chicago, it changed the economy of the place. From that time on, Chicago has been an art center among other things, with the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the bridge connecting them, the arts festivals seemingly on every corner. Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets that, and is totally committed to the role of the arts.

Michelle Boone spoke too of course, and I think she is going to be a very dynamic cultural commissioner there. This arts plan that they released is very ambitious. It’s very wide in scope, and I think it’s going to be a catalyst and a real driver for the expansion of the arts in the city of Chicago. The other speakers were Gabe Klein, who runs the Chicago Department of Transportation---he came from DC---Beth Swanson, the deputy chief of staff for education, and Joe Iacobucci from the Transit Authority, who spoke and talked about the role of arts within his department. It was a coming together of all aspects of the city government, which is what we’re talking about doing in DC, on behalf of the arts. You’re beginning to see real collaboration, real cross-silo interchange. It was a really neat morning, and you really saw what kind of commitment there is to the arts in Chicago, and what kind of collaboration there is across the agencies. Of course, that starts at the top, with the mayor. We had a good back and forth with the audience, and it was packed wall-to-wall. As a recovering Broadway theater producer, I love to see a good box-office. And it was a well-produced event, as I said to Michelle Boone. Everyone left there on a kind of high.

That evening, we had a dinner event at the Joyce Foundation, which featured a conversation between myself and Theaster Gates. Theaster is becoming a good friend. I had just seen him at the Aspen Ideas Institute; we had our own meeting there, and I went to a panel that he was featured in. Theaster is the champion of creative placemaking in Chicago. Last year, his Rebuild Foundation received an ArtPlace grant to convert an abandoned warehouse in the Dorchester section of Chicago into the Black Cinema House Live/Work Space. We visited that on an earlier trip and it was just great.

The conversation was hosted by Ellen Alberding, who runs the Joyce Foundation. It was a very spirited conversation, and we had a fun exchange. Ellen didn’t ask softball questions, she asked challenging questions, and I was back on my heels a few times, but I like when that happens. And then there was a performance that was done by Jackie Taylor, with some good Motown sounds. It was a very fun dinner. The Joyce Foundation is very committed to both education and the arts, and we wanted to make sure that we intersected with them.

And that wrapped up my trip to the Midwest! All in all, we learned a lot and saw a lot, and I can’t wait to get back.


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