Making a fist for the arts

February 22, 2011

For the first time in Chicago electoral politics, a coalition of arts organizations has come together with a political agenda. Arts Power Chicago does not expect to influence the outcome of the mayoral election, but hopes to influence the policies of Chicago's next mayor. Its task is "to make sure the voice of the arts industry is heard loud and clear in the 2011 Chicago election" (their website says). The non-partisan campaign is working to educate candidates and voters about the importance of the arts and arts education.

The primary movers in Arts Power Chicago are Arts Alliance Illinois and the League of Chicago Theatres, but other coalition partners include the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, Chicago Arts Learning Initiative, Urban Gateways, Lawyers for the Creative Arts, African-American Arts Alliance of Chicago, Chicago Music Commission, Chicago Public Art Group, Chicago Artists Coalition, Chicago Cultural Alliance, Hyde Park Alliance for Arts & Culture and Actors Equity Association. Day-to-day leadership of Arts Power Chicago is provided by Scarlett Swerdlow of Arts Alliance Illinois.

Accessing artspowerchicago.com, one finds two avenues of direct action urged by the group, both aimed at keeping the cultural fire burning at the feet of the various candidates in the primary (which culminates today) and the run-off election (if there is one). First, Arts Power Chicago urges web readers to attend a forum, talk or public event at which a mayoral candidate will be present, and ask an arts-related question that will put the candidate on-the-record with a response. The website offers a calendar of candidate events. Second, the site asks readers to sign a petition that calls on the next mayor "to recognize and extend the contributions of the arts to the economy and workforce, the education of our children, and the vitality of our neighborhoods. We ask the next mayor to advance policy proposals that strengthen the arts industry in Chicago."

Arts Power Chicago also offers information and links to inform readers of what history each candidate already has with regard to arts and culture. Most helpful in that regard is the site's reprint of a Feb. 17 online survey conducted by the Chicago Tribune, in which the Trib posted written responses submitted by the four major candidates to an arts-specific questionnaire. The Arts Alliance Illinois and, on occasion, PerformInk have done this in many previous elections for state-wide offices, but this is the first time a survey has been taken of mayoral hopefuls, for the simple reason that this is Chicago's first competitive mayoral election in 22 years.

Further, the site offers links to the stories of a number of writers (among them wbez.org blogger Jim DeRogatis) with news and reportage about the candidates and the arts. For example, follow the "Latest News" tab and you'll find Crain's Chicago Business political reporter Greg Hinz's report that all six candidates have signed a pro-arts pledge put forward by Arts Alliance Illinois. Chiefly it calls for general support of arts and culture, but it IS specific enough to include language saying that Chicago's cultural community “should have a seat at the planning table and be a partner in decision-making about economic development . . . land use, regulatory, tax and business policy.”

Whether there is an ongoing role for Arts Power Chicago following the mayoral election remains to be seen. The coalition website offers reminders on just about each of its various tabs that the arts in Chicago are the center of $2 billion in annual economic activity, and sustain 150,000 jobs.