The city sticks it to some of its best culture staffers… again

October 31, 2011

For the second time in less than a year, some of the city’s hardest working and most talented cultural affairs staffers are anxiously waiting to learn if they’re being elbowed out of a job, and questions loom large about who will control popular and hugely successful programs such as Downtown Sound: New Music Mondays, SummerDance, Music Without Borders, and Summer Opera at Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center.

Adding insult to injury: The pending upheaval seems to have little to do with the catastrophic budget crisis forcing the closure of libraries, huge cuts in city services, and mass layoffs of city workers, and everything to do with cleaning up the mess created in the waning days of the Daley Administration at what then were two separate city departments (Cultural Affairs and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events), now consolidated as the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

On Thursday, new Commissioner Michelle Boone addressed the City Council about how Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 budget will affect her department, where the budget is shrinking from $32.8 million in 2011 to $29.2 million next year (still a very respectable figure for the arts, especially given the budget crisis). Most of the press coverage focused on how Gospel Fest will move to the South Side and Taste of Chicago will significantly shrink; here are the stories in the Trib and the Sun-Times.

Buried or missing in most reporters’ accounts—WBEZ’s Lynette Kalsnes was a welcome exception—was the fact that the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events is about to undergo another period of restructuring that will rival last year’s turbulence, which was covered in-depth by this blog. Here is Kalsnes:

In the waning days of Mayor Daley’s administration, Daley essentially dismantled the Department of Cultural Affairs. He merged it with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, laid off a bunch of staff, and transferred much of the arts programming to the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. There was a storm of criticism, and long-time and influential Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg resigned in protest of the merger.

“Those decisions were made without any regard to the merger or the impact to the Department of Cultural Affairs joining forces with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events,” Boone said.

Boone said she came in with the charge to reexamine those decisions and make the department “whole.” She ordered an audit to look at all of the programming. She plans to have the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events take back arts programming, exhibitions, grants, and most programming related to Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center.

Boone said tourism-related functions will stay with the tourism office. DCASE will significantly reduce the city’s grant to the tourism office.

How is this actually playing out? Last December, 29 city staffers, including some of the brightest lights in the department that culture czar Weisberg spent much of her life building, suddenly saw their city positions eliminated. About 20 of them then got new—and often less remunerative—jobs at Tourism doing exactly the same thing they’d been doing at Cultural Affairs, which is to say booking the city’s best free arts and music programming.

Programmer Michael Orlove, the man responsible for Downtown Sound, SummerDance, and other vital music series, was one of the lucky ones who landed at Tourism. Theater programmer Claire Geall Sutton, as admired in her world as Orlove was in his, was one of those left out of luck and unemployed.

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, infamous for its waste and inefficiency and a notorious political patronage dumping ground throughout the Daley administration, didn’t lose a single significant staffer. And it still hasn’t suffered many layoffs, even in the current budget crisis, and even though its main functions—overseeing Taste and the other big music festivals—either have been significantly downsized or completely eliminated. (The Celtic Music and Viva! Chicago Latin Music festivals are now history, for example.)

Responding to questions about the situation via email, Karen Vaughan, Director of Public Affairs for the new Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, wrote:

“Next year, we’re planning to reintegrate cultural programming, including SummerDance and Downtown Sound: New Music Mondays, back into DCASE. Cultural programming, along with visual and public arts and city grants, is an integral part of our mission. Having [the Tourism Office] and DCASE both producing cultural programming for the city is inefficient and doesn’t allow us to create a common vision.

“The goal of this division is to produce arts programming of the highest caliber while protecting taxpayer dollars.

“There will be a number of new positions in DCASE. These positions will be made open to the public and anyone is welcome to apply. Hiring for the positions will adhere to the city’s Shakman hiring rules. Acts at summer music festivals will be booked by the Arts division in consultation with the current Events Programming staff.”

In other words, the staffers shifted from city jobs at Cultural Affairs to non-city jobs at Tourism late last year will no longer be doing what they were doing in either gig, but they are free to apply for a small number of city culture jobs—six news positions, plus a few slots now vacant—that will open up after most of what they used to do is now tasked to a department still overstocked with seemingly untouchable and well-clouted Daley Special Events survivors. How’s that for an employment prospect?

Where does this upheaval leave Orlove and other culture and visual arts programmers shifted from Cultural Affairs to Tourism—a group that includes well-respected names such as Elizabeth Kelley, Nathan Mason, Rob Lentz, Michelle Bibbs, and Eva Silverman—and how do they feel about it? They either could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment.

The biggest irony here is Vaughan’s comment that “hiring for the positions will adhere to the city’s Shakman hiring rules.” The so-called “Shakman Decrees,” crafted by the courts to eliminate political hiring, also prohibit city employees from supervising or working directly with employees of not-for-profits, and using funds raised by those organizations for city-run events. A belated effort to conform to these rules was the reason that the Daley administration cited for dismantling Cultural Affairs and shifting its programming to Tourism.

How is it that Shakman was a problem that required dramatic changes last December, but it is not a consideration with the city resuming these duties now? Apparently, when the programming jobs move back to the city, no city employee will be supervising any not-for-profit employee, as once was the case. Why the situation could not have been remedied so easily last December is one of many mysteries former Mayor Daley has left us.

Meanwhile, the fact remains that many of the people administering cultural programs that have been singled out as success stories by Boone before the City Council and by the new mayor in his budget address will soon lose their jobs just before the holidays for the second year in a row.

The benevolent reading of all this is that the new commissioner is just trying to get her house in order and create a sensible, sustainable department that can move forward with the arts in Chicago, and she may well rehire the people who were doing good jobs. Think of it as someone finally cleaning up the parking meter deal—though some have suggested that the long-term damage to city arts programming may be even more difficult to undo, since many of Daley’s cronies were shifted from political jobs to positions protected by Shakman as the former mayor rode off. Culling the very expensive dead wood at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events will by no means be an easy task.

The less generous reading of things is that those workers who’ve been doing a great job and who were lucky enough not to get the shaft last year are getting it now, while others inexplicably remain well paid with taxpayer dollars funding their mediocre work. And if you think that’s too harsh, well, just imagine a future where Downtown Sound brings us the same sort of bookings that have made the music at Taste of Chicago such a joke for much of the last decade.

Earlier reports in this blog about the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events:

Jan. 20: Lois Weisberg: "This is one of the worst things that ever has happened to the city."

Dec. 20, 210: What's really going on at Cultural Affairs, and what happens to arts and music now?

Dec. 16, 2010: Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs is dismantled as 29 are laid off