New Emanuel arts team settles Cultural Dept. confusion

May 16, 2011

Chicago little notes nor long remembers--if it's aware at all--when the Mayor appoints a new commissioner of Department X, Y or Z. A handful of important posts--say, the commissioners of Finance, Police and Fire--may receive a lot of scrutiny but rarely any of the others. Be truthful now, how many of you even knew that Chicago has departments of Fleet Management or Procurement Services (which sounds like a cover for immoral activities).

So the brouhaha since December surrounding the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) has been both unusual and out of proportion to the size of the department. In 2010, Cultural Affairs was one of the City's smallest cabinet-level units, budgeted at just $12.5 million (of which $7 million went entirely to Millennium Park). Nonetheless, it became the major cultural story as the Daley Era drew to a close, continuing through the mayoral election and the Emanuel transition. Just days before his May 16 swearing-in, the Rahmster brought it to an apparently happy conclusion with the appointment of Michelle T. Boone as new DCASE Commissioner, along with a capable support team.

Boone's appointment has been widely hailed by Chicago's arts communities, especially the non-profit sector. Boone arrives from the Joyce Foundation where she was Senior Program Officer for Culture, she has extensive hands-on experience in non-profit arts management and early on was director of the City's Gallery 37. She's well-known and respected as someone who understands both the arts and arts business. Even so, the new cultural team is not as straight-forward as it seems.

Quick recap: last October, without any public discussion, Mayor Daley gutted the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) in order to merge it with the Mayor's Office of Special Events. Some 30 senior Cultural staffers were let go so that Special Events job-holders could take their places. At the same time, development and execution of most real-time cultural programs was outsourced to the Chicago Tourism Fund, a quasi-independent agency (now renamed the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture with a greatly-expanded budget and staff, many of them the cultural pros DCA let go).  In the wake of all this, the admired long-time leaders of Cultural Affairs left the department. Deputy Commissioner Janet Carl Smith retired after 30-plus years of City employment, and Commissioner Lois Weisberg resigned January 31 after unleashing an angry blast at Daley.

Weisberg's blast was telling as she was the only remaining Commissioner from Daley's first term as Mayor: she had led Cultural Affairs for 22 years. She might have stayed on as a caretaker, submitting her resignation to Emanuel as is typical when a new leader takes over.

Weisberg's hurried and heated exit added spice to the ongoing story, and added urgency to knowing Emanuel's plans for DCASE; plans he kept partly under wraps. As recently as April 27, Emanuel dodged a direct question about cultural leadership asked at a symposium hosted by the MacArthur Foundation, Arts Alliance Illinois, the Goodman Theatre, the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Less than two weeks later, on May 4, he made his announcement via press release, although the announcement was overshadowed by a the previous day's arts news heralding a Tony Award for Lookingglass Theatre Company and a new artistic director for Victory Gardens Theater.

However, the real news is not the appointment of a new DCASE Commissioner--which would have come sooner or later--but the appointment of a large cultural mechanism in support of DCASE specifically and culture broadly speaking. In addition to Boone's selection as DCASE Commish, Emanuel also announced that David McDermott will serve as her Chief of Staff. This newly-created position (unless only the title is new and he officially will be Deputy Commissioner) ought to raise eyebrows. The President has a Chief of Staff, governors and even mayors have chiefs of staff but not city department heads, especially when the department is small.

The deal here is this: while Boone may be regarded as an all-arts kinda' person, McDermott unquestionably is all-political. For the last seven years he's been a senior aide to Illinois Senator Richard Durbin. He served as Deputy Campaign Manager for Durbin’s 2008 re-election campaign and also has managed campaigns at the congressional, county, and municipal levels. So why does DCASE need, in effect, a political officer?

Here's why: the old Dept. of Cultural Affairs was a non-political bureaucracy but the Mayor's Office of Special Events was entirely political, its staff answering directly to the Mayor himself. FYI: it had a 2010 budget double that of Cultural Affairs. In the new DCASE, the new Bureau of Special Events will command the lion's share of the money with the Bureau of Cultural Affairs the junior partner. Many special events--among them things such as Presidential visits to Chicago--are inherently political and most of the others involve juicy public contracts for everything from security to fireworks to portable toilets. Get the picture? DCASE is a bifurcated department and Emanuel is going with the flow, in effect picking one from Column A and one from Column B. It's anyone's guess how they will taste together.

In addition to Commissioner Boone and Chief of Staff McDermott, Emanuel also announced the leaders of an advisory body, the Cultural Affairs Advisory Council. This body isn't new but has been moribund for some years. In reviving it to active status, Emanuel is making good on a public campaign pledge, which also promised a new comprehensive cultural policy for Chicago. Emanuel did not name the full make-up of the advisory council, he did name Nora Daley as Chair and Marge Halperin as Vice-Chair, both of whom are familiar figures in Chicago arts AND Chicago politics. Daley is the daughter of You-Know-Who, is professionally involved in progressive policy initiatives and advocacy, and chairs the Board of Trustees of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Halperin, a media specialist and marketing strategist, served in several high-profile City posts under Richard M. Daley and was executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres for eight years. More recently, she's run a consulting business. On March 15, I blogged that Halperin might become the first DCASE Commish. I was wrong, but not so far off.

Emanuel's choices are smart, capable and seasoned people who straddle the fence between culture and politics, perhaps necessarily. No one can doubt his personal interest in the arts, or say that his new arts team favors large institutions over small or commercial culture over non-profit or Downtown over the 'hoods. The extra voices he's putting into arts and culture, and the promise of a cultural policy, in themselves enhance the stature of arts and culture in Chicago. It's an astute beginning.