The city's new culture chiefs

February 17, 2011

The fog is beginning to clear over at the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and its newly-independent first cousin, the Chicago Tourism Fund (CTF). We now know at least a few of the people who will be running things in the name of culture. My colleague Jim DeRogatis, who broke this story last December, has kept you up-to-date on what will happen to the City's various music festivals and events, and now I'll do the same for theater programs.

To remind you: late last year, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and the Mayor's Office of Special Events were merged without the approval of the DCA. Many senior employees of the DCA were let go, and management of its actual presenting programs--theater, music, dance, visual arts, public art, etc.--was shifted to the Chicago Tourism Fund (CTF). Thing is, the CTF was a fiscal entity not an administrative entity. It funded various positions for folks working for the DCA and the Chicago Office of Tourism, but the CTF itself had little staff and no executive leadership. Also, longtime DCA Commissioner Lois Weisberg--who had the trust of the cultural community--resigned as of Jan. 30 in a white-hot fury over what had happened to the DCA. Along with the retirement last Dec. 30 of Weisberg's longtime Number Two, Deputy Commish Janet Carl Smith, this left the new DCASE with no leadership.

So, Dorothy Coyle, the respected veteran chief of the Chicago Office of Tourism, was temporarily shifted to DCASE as First Deputy Commissioner and has been in charge of things since Weisberg's departure. But, as of today (Feb. 16) Coyle becomes Executive Director of the Chicago Tourism Fund, thereby leaving DCASE once again without a captain at the rudder. DCASE spokesperson Karen Vaughan said it's now up to the Mayor's Office to name a new DCASE boss, whether at the rank of Commissioner, Deputy Commish or Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. The Mayor also could leave DCASE without a head-of-state and let the new mayor appoint someone.

One of Coyle's first jobs will be to complete hiring staff for the Chicago Tourism Fund to plan and execute all the cultural programs. It's known that the CTF already has brought on some of the very same cultural pros who were sacked from the DCA, but as of today there still is no one with responsibilities for theater programming. To remind you, the CTF now will have authority over the City-owned Storefront Theater and the Chicago Cultural Center Studio Theater among other venues.

Theater programming does have a new publicist, however: Benjamin Kelner, a CTF Communications Specialist, is now handling the info flow for events at the Storefront and Cultural Center. CTF spokesperson Joyce Rowe notes that Storefront and Cultural Center theater programming through July was booked many months ago by the DCA and remains in place. She reports that theater programming for the remainder of the 2011 calendar year will be announced by mid-March, with selection being the result of applications submitted by various theater companies and vetted by a working group within the CTF and DCASE.

Central to that working group is a name new to most of us who cover the cultural scene, Caroline O'Boyle, who is the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Programming for DCASE. Under the new regime, DCASE has a contract with CTF to develop and execute cultural events and programs, but DCASE still retains oversight and final approval. Ms. O'Boyle is the individual who will oversee all music, theater and visual arts programming performed by the Chicago Tourism Fund on behalf of DCASE. She joined the DCA just 14 months ago, having previously been Director of Environment, Culture, and Special Events for the Chicago Park District (geez, how DO you get these jobs?). In that capacity, she supervised arts programs such as movies in the parks, music, movie, and theater performances at various Park District field houses and Theater on the Lake. Her personal accomplishments are very much arts-oriented and include folk singing (with Pete Seeger no less), credits as an exhibited artist and work with a dance troupe.
 
So, little by little the new DCASE and CTF appear to be finding their groove. It's a great shame that this organizational mess was motivated entirely by political considerations rather than cultural considerations or the budgetary considerations the City claimed as the reason for its actions. Certainly, Dorothy Coyle is a dedicated public servant who understands the importance of Chicago's cultural image, and Ms. O'Boyle appears to have the right stuff as well. What remains unknown is how deeply political (vs. cultural) DCASE will be, and whom a new mayor ultimately puts in charge. That choice is several months away. Hopefully, Dorothy Coyle's appointments of additional staff--including a Director of Theater--will happen much more quickly.