Marj Halperin: DCASE Heir-Apparent?

March 15, 2011

On February 17, I ran into Marj Halperin at the Ford Center/Oriental Theatre where we both were in the audience for the final televised mayoral forum prior to the Feb. 22 election. "Are you working for a particular candidate?" I asked, knowing her close ties to Richard Daley, Forest Claypool and Democratic politics generally. "Not really," she replied, "but I'm a 'FOR' . . . a Friend of Rahm," she explained.

Well, she musta' been a really good friend of Rahm and his campaign, because Mayor-Elect Emanuel has appointed Halperin to his newly-formed arts and culture transition committee, and word is out that Halperin is running it. An Emanuel spokesperson said the committee doesn’t have an appointed chair and that all 13 members sit as equals, but that’s just being polite. Someone HAS to run things and set the agenda and be—in an old Chicago phrase—“the Mayor’s guy” on the committee, and who better than Halperin? Street talk already sees her as a potential Commissioner of the newly-merged Dept. of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).

Halperin would seem to be a natural for the job, having interrupted her long and successful political career (although never in elective office) to serve as Executive Director of the League of Chicago Theatres for nearly nine years, 1997-2005. Paid considerably more than any previous League leader, and taking over an organization in financial straits, Halperin oversaw unprecedented growth of the League (to more than 200 member theater companies) and nearly tripled the budget before she left. Even better, she oversaw the tricky year-long process of working with the City (Mayor Daley and several powerful departments) to create new theater-friendly licensing laws, a major victory for all smaller performing arts venues. (Previous to the new laws, a storefront theater was lumped with the United Center and Wrigley Field when it came to licensing.) She left the League as President and CEO.

Halperin's pre-League dossier includes broadcast and print journalism, plus a series of Communications Director jobs with clout-heavy City agencies (the Mayor's Office, Chicago Public Schools, the Park District). She turned her media chops to good use in 2002 when Chicago's longtime dominant theater program book, Stagebill, stopped publishing and left many theatres without programs. Reacting quickly, the League created its own glossy, monthly program book, Chicago Plays, which eventually was the house program for over 80 theatres with a monthly press run of 150,000. The booklet proved to be a sink hole, however: a year after Halperin left the League, Chicago Plays came to an end owing its printer a reported $400,000. Playbill and Chicago Footlights now split most of Chicago's theater and dance program biz.

Since stepping down from the League, Halperin has served as campaign director for Forest Claypool's 2006 campaign for Cook County Board President, and has headed her own consulting firm, Marj Halperin Consulting. As leader of the arts and culture transition committee, and perhaps a Commissioner-in-waiting, Halperin is in a position to exercise her formidable marketing skills, insider's political know-how and her working knowledge--via her League years--of the arts small and large in Chicago. She’ll need all of them if the transition team is to be successful in fulfilling the second part of Emanuel’s campaign pledge on the arts: to develop the City's first comprehensive cultural plan since the Harold Washington administration (Washington was the mayor who established the Department of Cultural Affairs).

That being said, Halperin is not without her detractors and those who regard her with suspicion. Some regard the rise and fall of Chicago Plays as a serious misstep. Even more, some say that under Halperin’s leadership the League of Chicago Theatres “sold out” to the large commercial and non-profit companies (Broadway In Chicago, Goodman, Steppenwolf, Marriott, Chicago Shakespeare, etc.) at the expense of the small neighborhood storefronts, and that the League became a marketing tool for big theaters rather than an advocacy group for Chicago’s entire theater industry. On the other hand, longtime observers know that the tensions between art and commerce and between large theaters and small ones, long pre-date Halperin’s League tenure. My recollection is that the League already had made the decision to emphasize marketing when it hired Halperin, and that her charge was to execute the policy, which she did with great success.