Cultural Affairs: Same money, different pots

January 18, 2011

Updated: Weisberg speaks out to Jim DeRogatis

A month ago, my WBEZ blog colleague Jim DeRogatis broke the story about the city administrative reshuffle merging the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and the Mayor's Office of Special Events, effective January 1, 2011. He reported that nearly 30 DCA employees had been laid off, and that many of DCA's functions were being switched to the little-known Chicago Tourism Fund, which is the funding arm of the Chicago Office of Tourism (COT). Among those let go were the highly-regarded directors of DCA's theater and music programming. Also, the Chicago Tourism Fund (CTF) never had functioned as an executive authority, but only as a fiscal agency. Got it so far?

Jim's narrower interest was/is the city's privatization of the various annual music festivals, which here-to-fore had been free public events but now will sell tickets. My interest is how the reshuffle will affect ongoing arts programming and policies, especially theater, and what the hell is really happening, anyway? And why?

First off, the merged entity is the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, or DCASE. It remains a Mayoral cabinet-level department headed by a commissioner. For the time being, the commissioner is the long-serving DCA chief, Lois Weisberg, a familiar and reassuring figure. She could be replaced by the new mayor in May. Would a new DCASE commissioner be someone well-regarded by the cultural community (as Weisberg is), or primarily a political loyalist? Would the new mayor consult with the cultural community before selecting a commissioner? If Chicago history is our guide the answers would be "maybe if we're lucky" and "no."

Indeed, one reason the arts community has been so upset about the shuffle is that the cultural community was not consulted or advised in advance, and even now there has been no public statement or announcement or explanation of the changes. In other words, Chicago government has acted the way it usually acts: for its own reasons and hidden from public scrutiny.

Nonetheless, I've pieced together some detailed information after scanning city budget documents, and talking off-the-record with sources within the old DCA and on-the-record with official spokespersons Karen Vaughan (of DCASE) and Joyce Rowe (of the Chicago Tourism Fund).

The creation of DCASE was mandated under the City of Chicago's 2011 budget in which the City—to quote the budget statement itself—"continues the process of consolidating departments to reduce costs and avoid duplication." For 2011, the departments of General Services and Graphics were merged (bet you didn't know we had a Dept. of Graphics), and the departments of Community Development and Planning, in addition to merging DCA and Special Events. The 277 jobs cut (among them the 30 at DCA) will save the city $13 million in payroll costs.

OK, that seems reasonable in times of constant economic crisis. But, as DeRogatis reported, the real reason for letting DCA people go was so employees from Special Events could take those budgeted jobs. Y'see, Special Events is a political office directly under the mayor, so its job-holders are subject to political firings. But most DCA jobs are protected against political firings. So the cultural specialists are let go, and job-holders connected to the outgoing mayor are shifted to safe positions. None of this was motivated by the need to cut jobs and even less by what's best for culture in Chicago.

Let's see how it works budget-wise. For Fiscal Year 2010, the DCA was budgeted at $12,506,000 (over $7 million of which went to Millennium Park, by the way), and Special Events was budgeted at nearly $24,689,000 (although staff costs were a mere $563,000). Total of both: $37.2 million. For Fiscal 2011, DCASE is budgeted at $37,700,000 with $20.4 million allotted to the Bureau of Special Events and $17.3 allotted to the Bureau of Cultural Affairs. So, culture would appear to be reaping big gains with an increase of nearly $5 million.

But what's the point—and where is that money going—if cultural affairs employees have been dismissed and cultural administrative functions have been shifted to the Chicago Tourism Fund?

Here's what you need to know next. The Chicago Tourism Fund (CTF) and the Chicago Office of Tourism (COT) used to be sub-agencies of DCA and now are independent entities. Actually, they are one entity with CTF as the incorporated parent, a non-profit organization, a 501 (c) 3 just like your neighborhood theater troupe or dance company. It falls under a special category of tax-exempt non-profits that receive all or most of their funding from the public sector, which is to say our tax dollars. But it can accept money from foundations, individuals and corporations, too, which is why the Chicago Community Trust and the Joyce Foundation are among the CTF's ongoing grantors. This mechanism also allows corporate donations—perhaps naming rights to a festival or presenting program—to be made on a tax-deductible basis.

Again, nothing wrong with that. It's worked pretty damn well so far. But now CTF will have a very large new function, that of executing visual/public art, tourism, cultural programs including theater, grants, events, production, retail and some finance and administration. The CTF will administer these functions on contracts from DCASE, with each functional area retaining a DCASE contract manager with oversight responsibility. Says CTF spokesperson Joyce Rowe, "Under Commissioner Weisberg’s leadership, DCASE will retain complete creative control over CTF's work." The 2011 budget for the CTF is $14,615,000 of which 75% comes from City and State dollars. In other words, all of the $5 million increase for Cultural Affairs—and more beyond that—will flow by contract to CTF.

In order to fulfill its new responsibilities, CTF is hiring new staff, many of them the dismissed DCA cultural specialists (but DCA Director of Theater Claire Sutton is not among them, so far). So least some of the guys who actually know the cultural community still will run the cultural programs through the CTF, but those with "oversight responsibility" for the city may be the politically-connected new DCASE staffers. The city budget boasts of saving money by cutting jobs, but the city still will pay for the jobs through its contract with CTF. In effect, the city has partially privatized what was the DCA in order to play a smoke-and-mirrors budget game.

But politics aside—and that's what most of this story is made of—is that good or bad for the arts? We don't know yet, but at best it may be neutral. We don't know who the DCASE commissioner will be come May. We don't know who at DCASE will be responsible for oversight of music, theater, visual arts and dance programs. We don't know who at CTF will supervise the theater program because that person hasn't been hired yet. At this moment, the CTF doesn't even have an executive officer. Rowe says that "The CTF is in the process of finalizing its structure, including the Theater Program, which will be established by February 1." By that date, Rowe says, the CTF Board will have hired an executive director and a director of theater programming.

Rowe iterates that the old DCA's commitment to local artists and neighborhoods, through popular programs such as the CityArts (sic) Grants, will not change under the new structure. "I can assure you that there will be no change in DCASE and CTF’s commitment to support and nurture local artists and arts organizations, both emerging and established. . . . CTF will also continue to create opportunities for Chicago-based artists of all levels to perform and exhibit in our venues, including the Chicago Cultural Center, Millennium Park, and the Storefront and Studio Theaters."