Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs is dismantled as 29 are laid off

December 16, 2010

UPDATED 11:30 A.M. THURSDAY. (SEE NEW MATERIAL BELOW.)

While the Mayor’s Office of Special Events has been spearheading the drive to privatize the city’s biggest free music festivals in Grant Park, the Daley Administration has been dismantling the Department of Cultural Affairs, which has been responsible for the far more rewarding free concerts in Millennium Park and countless other worthy events annually at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Twenty employees at Cultural Affairs were laid off on Friday, including many key programmers. This brings to a total of 29 the number of employees eliminated at the department since October, according to city spokesman Peter Scales of the Office of Budget and Management.

These losses effectively leave legendary and long-running Cultural Affairs chief Lois Weisberg overseeing a shell of a department, and raise questions about whether the city will able to present much-lauded events such as the World Music Festival, SummerDance, and Downtown Sound/New Music Mondays at the level they’ve been offered, if at all, in 2011 and beyond.

Among those who lost their city jobs: Cultural Affairs programmer Michael Orlove, the man most responsible for the events cited above, and whose work has been effusively praised by WBEZ (“Michael Orlove Keeps Chicago Alive with Music”), the Chicago Tribune (“Man of the Year in Music, 2009”), the Reader (“Michael Orlove, the missing man”), and just about every other news and arts organization in town.

Orlove declined to comment for this story. Weisberg rejected several requests for an interview, and Cultural Affairs spokeswoman Karen Vaughan deferred comment to Scales.

 “Over the years Department of Cultural Affairs and Chicago Tourism Fund employees have worked together to accomplish the many important goals the city has related to cultural affairs and tourism—promoting celebration of the arts, serving the people and institutions that create and sustain them, and marketing the city’s cultural resources to a worldwide audience," Scales wrote in an email late Thursday night.

“However, it is important for the city to ensure that there is a separation between the two entities, as one is a city department and the other is a separate non-profit organization.”

Scales asserted that the music and arts programming previously handled by the Department of Cultural Affairs will not be hurt by the shift.

“The following functions will be transferred to the Chicago Tourism Fund, effective January 1, 2011: visual/public art; tourism; cultural programs and grants; events, production, and retail; and some finance/administration.  Therefore, the 20 city positions that currently perform those functions in the budget have been eliminated, and a commensurate amount of funding is being provided to the CTF so that CTF can hire CTF employees to perform those functions… Because these functions and the commensurate funding are not being eliminated, but rather being transferred to the CTF, there will be no impact on current initiatives, including Downtown Sound, World Music Festival, Summer Dance, etc. In fact, this shifting of personnel should go unnoticed by residents and event participants.”

But several sources knowledgeable about these events and other inititiatives by the Department of Cultural Affairs are extremely dubious about that claim. So what’s really going on here?

As outlined in this blog last week, a political turf war seems to be underway as the Mayor’s Office of Special Events prepares to merge with the Department of Cultural Affairs. Cultural Affairs chief Weisberg was to have been in charge of the newly combined department through the waning days of the Daley administration, with the woman now serving as the executive director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events, Daley’s goddaughter Megan McDonald, answering to her. (CORRECTION; SEE NOTE BELOW.)

But McDonald and her office have suffered the loss of only one job in recent lay-offs, even as the privatization effort is set to eliminate the major function of many of its employees. Meanwhile, Weisberg has been stripped of many of her most valuable staffers, as well as many of the department’s functions and resources.

From McDonald down through the ranks, many of the employees in the Mayor’s Office of Special Events are not only exceptionally well-paid, but especially well-connected, as evidenced by the number of those staffers who appeared on the so-called “clout list” that was a centerpiece in the trial of Daley patronage aide Robert Sorich.

While the ax is falling throughout the city as officials grapple with a $655 million budget deficit this year, cost-cutting does not seem to have been the primary impetus for gutting Cultural Affairs. Some sources say that a reorganization has been pending for some time stemming from the so-called “Shakman Decrees” crafted by the courts to eliminate political hiring in the city, and prohibiting city employees from supervising or working directly with employees of not-for-profits and using funds raised by those organizations.

Yet the Shakman decrees have been in effect for years, and there is no obvious reason why the city would have to make these changes now.

Many of the events programmed by Cultural Affairs were funded with money raised from corporate donors through the not-for-profit Chicago Tourism Fund. Despite Scales' claim, sources say that only a handful of staffers laid off from Cultural Affairs have been offered jobs at that not-for-profit, while some others are just facing the unemployment line. But many union employees merely have been reassigned to other city departments, which will not result in savings for the city budget.

According to Scales, "These are the 20 positions moving from DCA to CTF: 2 Web Authors; 4 Program Directors; 6 Production Assistants; 1 Supervising Production Assistant;
1 Project Coordinator; 2 Curator of Exhibits; 2 Cultural Affairs Coordinator II; 1 Cultural Affairs Coordinator I; 1 Executive Director, Office of Tourism. To be clear, these position reductions are separate and unrelated to the 13 DCA positions eliminated as part of the department merger (which included nine layoffs, three vacancy eliminations, and one transfer to Procurement Services)... Next year, CTF will be responsible to Department Cultural Affairs and Special Events, as they are today, for performing those functions to the City’s satisfaction."

Yet this seems to contradict the very reason for the lay-offs, if they were indeed required under Shakman: The new Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events cannot supervise the workers at a not-for-profit under the law as written.

Whether the new arrangement can produce any events of the quality of those coming from Cultural Affairs in the past remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that the city has just blown up one of the very few departments that seemed to be working--and the only one that truly cared about music and the arts in Chicago.

 

Departmental chart of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs

 

Earlier reports in this blog about privatizing the city festivals and the battle between the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and the Department of Cultural Affairs:

Dec. 14: Nope, they won’t have to remain free… and answers to other questions about privatizing the city music festivals

Dec. 7: City festivals chief responds to this blog’s reporting on the push for privatization

Dec. 6: Are a political power struggle and a sweetheart deal fueling the city's push to privatize the summer music festivals?

Nov. 22: Psst! Hey, buddy: Wanna buy a city festival?

 

CORRECTION, 11:20 a.m. Thursday: Though half a dozen people who work for or close to Megan McDonald have referred to the executive director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events as the mayor's goddaughter, she has emailed me to correct that information: "To clarify yet another piece of misinformation printed in your article, referenced on NPR and now reported by Chicagoist... I am not, nor have I ever been, the goddaughter of the Mayor. I have two wonderful godparents who have absolutely no relation to the Daley Family. In fact, they do not even live in Chicago or the State of Illinois. They are family members of mine who live in Colorado and St. Louis, respectively. I have no idea where this rumor is coming from, or who your incredibly misguided 'source' is, but this is absolutely incorrect information that I would like to see clarified. Thank You."

McDonald is, however, a close personal friend of the Daley family who, as reported earlier, attended the same high school and college as the mayor's daughter, which may be the source of this common misperception. I regret the error.

UPDATE: Several readers with contacts in the Department of Cultural Affairs have spoken with employees who were laid off but offered new jobs with the Tourism Fund. To clarify: By no means have all of the people who lost their city jobs been rehired. Peter Scales of the Budget Office wrote the following this morning in response to my questions attempting to clarify this yesterday:

"As I explained, the funding for those 20 previous City positions is being shifted to CTF. But it is entirely up to the CTF who they will hire in their organization. Those who were laid off from DCA are certainly able to apply for those CTF positions, but I don't believe that entire process has concluded yet in these few days since the announcement last week. I'm sure you understand that hiring decisions made by outside entities cannot in any way be influenced by the City. The City has the right to ensure the services CTF must perform are done to the City's satisfaction, but who CTF chooses to hire to perform those functions is entirely up to them, and the City has no say in the matter."