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What’s really going on at Cultural Affairs, and what happens to arts and music now?

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What’s really going on at Cultural Affairs, and what happens to arts and music now?

Lois Weisberg and Megan McDonald



“Whether it’s onstage at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion or under the Family Fun Festival Tent on the Chase Promenades, programming will continue to expand throughout Millennium Park as programming expands from seasonal to year-round,” reads the optimistic language addressing the soon-to-be-merged Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in the 2011 Chicago Budget.

“In 2010, DCASE will offer 704 free programs at Millennium Park. In 2011, this number will increase to a target of 726 programs over the same programming time period.”

Maybe—but maybe not, say skeptical sources concerned about both the dismantling of the Department of Cultural Affairs, where 29 employees have been laid off since October, and the push to privatize the big summer music festivals in Grant Park.

Scott Waguespack (32nd) is the first alderman to go on the record in emphatically questioning whether the Daley administration is screwing the arts on its way out. In an email to this blogger, he wrote:

“Mayor Daley should do what is right by the people of this city and keep the festivals in-house instead of further suppressing the culture of the Chicago music industry. This deal is no different than the parking meters in that lame duck Mayor Daley has reduced a well-run city department to ruins overnight and sold off what could be a success story. Shifting funds and all of the staff out of the Department of Cultural Affairs in the waning days of this Administration has completely sealed the fate of experienced staff and the music festivals. The shifting of virtually every penny out of the Cultural Affairs office is a giant step backwards and people will be even more skeptical about the survival of Chicago’s music scene. Unfortunately, the facts and shifting of funds that led to the inability to run the festivals have been as distorted as the parking meter deal. The actors in this deal may (or may not) be different from the ones who conspired to monopolize the summer music scene with Lollapalooza but the end result will be the same. The privatization of Chicago’s festivals is happening out of arrogance and self-interest that plays right into the hands of private corporations looking to make a killing on the festivals and Chicago taxpayers.”

Many of the other Chicago blogs that picked up my report last week about the dismantling of Cultural Affairs--as well as Howard Reich at the Tribune today--focused on the firing of beloved, hard-working, and extraordinarily talented music programmer Michael Orlove, and accepted at face value the city’s attempt to spin the story as merely “shifting” his job to the non-profit Chicago Tourism Fund.

But Orlove is only one of the dedicated cultural programmers who were laid off. Theater programming was hit even harder than music, and many in that community are bemoaning the loss of Claire Geall Sutton, who is as revered in the theater world as Orlove is in the music community.

Sources say that only four of the 29 people axed at Cultural Affairs have so far been offered jobs at the Tourism Fund. Many of these staffers measure their service to the city in decades, but even those who are allegedly lucky enough to be rehired by the Tourism Fund will be making substantially less money with fewer benefits, and they’re losing their city pensions, even as the unusually well-paid and well-clouted-up employees at the Mayor’s Office of Special Events hold on to all of their goodies.

Sutton did not respond to a request for comment, but her husband Mark, a renowed improv comic and one of the founders of Annoyance Theatre, posted the following on the wall of the Department of Cultural Affairs theater page:

“Just thought I’d let the people who follow this site know that Claire Geall Sutton, who was the Director of Theater for Cultural Affairs and responsible for nuturing dozens of artists, theaters and programs for 17 years in Chicago was let go by the Department last week. She was one of 20+ people caught in a ‘reduction of force’ by the city... however she was one of only 2 not offered a job by the ‘non-profit’ Chicago Tourism Fund that will supposedly be taking over theater programming for the city. This, despite her programming being some of the little that generates revenue for both the artists involved and the city. Motives and fall-out are TBD.”

For his part, Orlove continues to decline to talk about the lay-offs and the future of the music programming formerly handled by Cultural Affairs. But he did post a message to his Facebook page late last week. He wrote:

“First off, let me say how lucky I feel to have such an incredible ‘family’ out there. This viral outpouring of support has been overwhelming and humbling to say the least. THANK YOU!!! The last couple weeks here have been quite difficult, especially having to watch many of my beloved colleagues go through this entire... ordeal. It is hard to explain or understand why this all happened but numerous dedicated and creative employees of the Department of Cultural Affairs have been terminated. I am fortunate to have the option of joining the Chicago Tourism Fund starting January 1 (2011). In this economy I feel extremely lucky. I am no longer a City of Chicago employee but (as far as I know) remain 100% involved in organizing events at Millennium Park, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago SummerDance, World Music Festival, etc. along with the incredibly talented team of Brian Keigher, Carlos Tortolero and Helen Vasey in the new year. Not the way I wanted to end 2010 but hopeful that next year could be even better.”

The “hopeful” no doubt is there in part because running the formerly Cultural Affairs arts programming out of the Tourism Fund is a new and untested model, and it remains to be seen whether the same funding will be available. And at issue here again seems to be the political turf war between the Mayor’s Office of Special Events under executive director and Daley family friend Megan McDonald and long-running Cultural Affairs chief Lois Weisberg.

In the past, Special Events was funded by a pool of money call Fund 356, which accounted for all of the ticket sales and sponsorship revenue that its events generated. But as reported earlier, that income was down by almost $3 million in 2010. In 2011, the new city budget is using Hotel Tax Fund 355, which used to fund Cultural Affairs, to keep Special Events running. And Cultural Affairs is, in the words of one knowledgeable source, “being thrown under the bus,” even as Special Events prepares to pawn off its biggest job, the seven festivals in Grant Park, to a private promoter.

Another source in the thick of all the turmoil and reluctant to be named for fear of hurting future employment opportunities summed it up thusly: “For reasons no one here can really understand, it just seems like Daley or someone has decided to bring Lois Weisberg to her knees.”


A second benefit of shifting the politically-connected employees at the Mayor’s Office of Special Events to the new Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events is assuring their job security. In their current positions, they are exempt from the Shakman Decrees and can be fired at the pleasure of the new mayor. In their new positions, they will be covered by Shakman and cannot be fired for politics.

I wanted to ask Peter Scales, spokesman for the office of budget and management, about Funds 355 and 356 and to further probe the Shakman implications of all of this, but he did not respond to requests for comment on Friday. Nor, for that matter, has chief Cultural Affairs spokeswoman Karen Vaughan deigned to talk about the changes in her department beyond the oblique comment that, “I can tell you that we have every reason to believe that all of our programs will continue next year and be better than ever. When we have more information, we would be happy to share it with you.”

Asked to comment about how the Chicago Tourism Fund will maintain the quality and level of programming previously provided by the Department of Cultural Affairs, Dorothy Coyle, the point person there, wrote, “Unfortunately, I don’t have any additional information at this point, but I’d be happy to speak with you in the new year.”

Most conspicuously silent of all: Weisberg, who has declined numerous requests to talk about the cataclysmic changes in the department she has spent much of her life building.

Waguespack, who says the shifts at Cultural Affairs were jammed through the City Council in committee, isn’t the only one comparing what’s happening to the arts in Chicago to the parking meter deal—and for a reminder on how well that went, you can’t do better than this excellent article by investigative reporter Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone.

Meanwhile, pretty much everyone in the arts community agrees that the city has made a thorough mess of communicating exactly what happened and why, or how this move will improve cultural programming in 2011 and beyond.

Earlier reports in this blog about privatizing the city festivals and the battle between the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and the Department of Cultural Affairs:

Dec. 16: Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs is dismantled as 29 are laid off

Dec. 14: Nope, they won’t have to remain free… and answers to other questions about privatizing the city music festivals

Dec. 7: City festivals chief responds to this blog’s reporting on the push for privatization

Dec. 6: Are a political power struggle and a sweetheart deal fueling the city’s push to privatize the summer music festivals?

Nov. 22: Psst! Hey, buddy: Wanna buy a city festival?

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