Does the new Chicago mayor love the arts? Really? You're sure?

April 4, 2011

Those of us in the arts community should take care not to get too intoxicated by Rahm's going to the theater or to a dance concert, or even by his appointing a multi-member arts committee for his transition.  Many if not most theater and dance companies are nonprofit organizations, and the mayor-elect has recently made clear that nonprofits should beware of riding this tiger lest they end up inside.

As was widely reported last week, the Mayor-elect solicited and received $200,000 from some of the city's top foundations to pay for his transition.  Transition expenses are ordinarily paid out of campaign funds, and as has been equally widely reported, the Emanuel campaign had plenty of those left over after his decisive win in February.  Some of that money has gone into the campaigns of aldermanic candidates whom the Mayor-elect supports (presumably in the hopes that they'll return the favor).  But there surely was enough left over to pay for planning and policy development.

So why ask the foundations for help?  My guess: it's a way of signaling to those foundations that paying up is a necessary precondition for being heard in City Hall.  Admittedly, this isn't much of a shock--it's the way things have been done in Chicago at least since the Daleys took over the 5th floor--but it's a disappointment to anyone who imagined (or imagines) that we've got ourselves a new and different kind of mayor.  Moreover, if arts groups have to compete with city government for foundation largesse, it's not hard to guess who'll win--and, while $200K is chump change to foundations and city alike, it's an amount for which most artists would crawl across a nail-studded floor.

Then remember that during the campaign---right here on WBEZ---then-candidate Emanuel announced his intention to reduce the city's deficit by $20 million by charging non-profits for water.  This isn't necessarily a terrible idea, and it's certainly not one that will hit the arts segment of the nonprofit community hardest---that honor will be held by hospitals, universities, residential facilities and YMCAs.  It is, however, an indication of the Mayor-elect's attitude, namely, that nonprofits are not sacrosanct and that the priorities of city government outweigh those of community organizations which also serve Chicago's citizens.

There's nothing to be done about this except to be aware, and be prepared to push back if and when the new Mayor takes aim at programs and services directly affecting the  performing arts.  But let's remember that the new Mayor's enthusiasm for the arts doesn't actually require the arts community to reciprocate.  Rahm's private tastes won't prevent the public man from screwing the arts community (or anyone else) if he thinks it's in the best interests of more powerful constituencies.

So let's keep our panties on, okay?