Lois Weisberg: “This is one of the worst things that ever has happened to the city.”
When the news broke Wednesday morning that Lois Weisberg is resigning as commissioner of the newly merged office of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, it came as a shock—not so much because Chicago’s legendary empress of the arts isn’t ready for retirement (she is 85 years old), but because of the thorny comments she made in her announcement about the merger of her department and the Mayor's Office of Special Events and the Daley administration's push to privatize the city music festivals. (As far as I can tell, none of the local news organizations have run that statement in its entirety; I’ve tacked it on here at the end of this post.)
Well, if you thought Weisberg was unusually outspoken for a veteran political operative in that press release, read on to see what she said to this reporter during a long and frank interview this morning, the transcript of which follows unedited and in its entirety.
Q. Hello, Lois. How are you?
A. Good; how are you, Jim? I’m sorry to have put you through this, not being able to talk to you, but I just couldn’t talk to you. I did not have the information that I needed.
Q. I’m sorry to have been harassing you; I was just trying to do my job.
A. You did a good job of protecting the arts, and I am very grateful. I had no problem except that I couldn’t talk to you. Now, here I am: What do you want to know?
Q. Well, it’s frustrating to me that my colleagues in the press, such as Howard Reich over at the Tribune, have completely bought the city flacks’ spin that things are just going to be peachy with what the Department of Cultural Affairs formerly did at Millennium Park, that Mike Orlove will continue to do what he did, and that there won’t be any problems. And I’m hearing from sources very much in the position to know that they don’t know if that will be the case.
A. Well, I guess even if I was still there—and I am going to be there another week—I think I’d say the same thing. Nobody would know. Even if I was still running the department, I couldn’t fix this. What’s happening in that department is not easy to explain, to make this whole changeover—which you do understand—and put everybody that was working for Cultural Affairs on a different payroll, which is what this whole thing is about.
No one can predict what will happen, which is why I kept trying to assure people that everything would be alright. The reason I said that was that the city said that it would be. The Budget Office even put out a statement to that effect. But the answer is I haven’t got the faintest idea if it will work or not. And not only do I not know if it will work, I can’t explain it. It’s so hard to explain. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t explain it a person; I can’t explain it to my own son or my own relatives or the people that I work with. It’s too complex.
Q. I would think that’s incredibly frustrating after as many years as you spent building this department into a world-class institution, to see it dismantled, and you can’t even answer the questions of why or what happens next.
A. You’ve got to understand something: It wasn’t just one issue. I resigned because I felt that they had overlooked me. They merged these departments, and I didn’t approve of it. Once they merged the two departments and put me in charge of everything, they still didn’t ask me anything or tell me anything. They never asked me what I thought of the merger; they just came and announced that it was going to be merged. And then after that, when all of this stuff started about Taste of Chicago and the festivals—which, by the way, there was nothing wrong with any of them that couldn’t have been fixed—they didn’t ask me my opinion, they just went ahead and bid it out. And my concern, and I think this was the concern of everybody in the arts community, was, “What was going to happen to our free festivals?”
Also, I’m not sure there was a big debt.
Q. It’s not there on paper; until recently, Taste and the Blues Festival were making money.
A. They were making money because we always had a charge, and why wouldn’t they recognize that the amenities charge, which I put in years ago, was taking care of everything? So something went wrong. There was too much money spent, but even so, why would the city pick on the festivals, to take them away from the people for free? They should have spent the money! They spend money on other things. But all of the sudden, the arts are not making money. Since when were they supposed to make money? That’s what the problem is, I think. I have always advocated for free programming and for the city to put money into it. And suddenly they’re not in favor of that.
Q. You said there was nothing wrong with the festivals that couldn’t have been fixed. What would have needed to be done to make them work under city control?
A. I think the management could have been changed.
Q. Well, the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, according to the documents that came out in the Sorich trial, was one of the Daley Administration’s top patronage dumping grounds.
A. I ran that office [in the past], and that’s why I didn’t want to have it! I think that was clear what I was saying: It didn’t fit with Cultural Affairs. If they wanted to have a patronage dumping office, as well as the other things that were wrong with it, they’re not wrong as far as I’m concerned—I don’t care—as long as they’re not a part of Cultural Affairs. But it would have made a terrible mark—and it will now—if they’re still together.
Q. No one at the Mayor’s Office of Special Events lost their jobs, but Cultural Affairs lost 29 people in the merger.
A. Right. But that is on top of things. You had the merger problem, which I think I could have dealt with, and the Taste problem. But we also had the real problem at the same time, which I think is what you’re asking me about, which was the Tourism Fund becoming a private entity. That’s what happened, and that was because, as you probably know, of the Shakman decision. The law, which I still don’t understand at all, prohibited people from working together: City employees and non-city employees on different payrolls could not really work together.
The reason Mike [Orlove] had to leave his job—maybe this is the easiest way to explain it—is that he was doing all of the [music] programming at [Millennium] Park, but he had three people working for him who were invaluable, but they were on the Tourism payroll, so he could not longer supervise them. That doesn’t make any sense. We’ve always had people working together for years, and that’s why we were successful.
Q. But all of those people must still work with the people on the city payroll who run Millennium Park, right?
A. Right. But how do you explain that to anyone? It doesn’t make any sense. And those people that were affected by that [laid off from Cultural Affairs] lost their pensions. They lost a lot. But the city is going to lose the most. It’s going to lose a guy like Mike Orlove. He had to make the choice, and he made the choice that he wanted to keep doing what he was doing. There’s not too many places that he can do what he’s doing.
Q. But now he’s doing it at a significant personal loss.
A. That’s what I worry about with this whole thing when you ask me what’s going to happen with it. Isn’t it possible that maybe this whole thing could work? We don’t know that, so we can’t really say that it won’t.
Q. But you can’t really say that it will, either?
A. It’s the city’s attempt to work to with the monitors that we’re under with the court order [from the Shakman Decrees]. We’re still under the court order, and this did nothing to change that. The mayor did struggle for years, as you do know, to get out from under that court order, but nothing he did worked. So if you’re under a court order in the first place—and I think we’re the only city in the country that is—and it’s so affecting your arts programming… Well, cultural tourism under the city doesn’t work under Shakman, apparently, because there’s a perception that we might someday hire people on our own [for political reasons].
Q. Well, isn’t that perception the reality in the Mayor’s Office of Special Events?
A. Yeah, but that’s the irony of the whole thing! That’s exactly what they’re trying to get rid of!
Q. But they haven’t lost anybody in that office. Why haven’t there been any layoffs over there?
A. I don’t know the answer to that.
Q. Is Special Events chief Megan McDonald qualified to run this newly merged department?
A. I have no idea. I can’t answer that. I don’t know her.
Q. A lot of people who worked under you for a very long time have very bad things to say about her. You know that.
A. I don’t want to say anything about her because I’m leaving and I don’t need to say anything. That’s not the real issue. The thing is, it’s really a mess. I’m gone, so you have to get somebody to take over. The people in my department could really take over; there are a lot of people who could do it between now and when there’s a new mayor, and then the new mayor could appoint a new person. Now, whether that will happen, I don’t know. So what you’re really asking me is, “Is Daley going to appoint Megan to take over the whole thing?”
A. It’s not my problem. [Laughs]
Q. Well, it’s going to be the arts community’s problem.
A. Well, almost anything is going to be the community’s problem, because of the way it’s set up. I threw up my hands and said I can’t deal with this and I can’t explain it to anybody. Fortunately, you do sort of understand what I’m talking about. It’s really about this whole Shakman thing causing a lot of problems.
Q. I know, but there are other problems I’ve been looking at for years. You started Friends of the Park. What do you think of the city’s 10-year deal with Lollapalooza in Grant Park—a deal whereby private promoters are holding a for-profit event and not paying taxes?
A. Well, they also lost money the first two years, but because they [Texas promoters C3 Presents] were a really rich company, they were able to do that. But it’s a nightmare. Do you realize that the sound bleed [from Grant Park to Millennium Park] is terrible?
How can I explain this without getting angry? I don’t want to get angry. But the Millennium Park people suffer—the concerts—we have to change everything to accommodate things like Lollapalooza. We do it, and we work it out, but it’s very hard to do. The Grant Park band shell [Petrillo], when the mayor first built Millennium Park, he did say that he was going to move it, but he never got around to it, and it was costly. So what’s really happening is that there’s too much going on. And there are a lot of things that people don’t realize, like there is a terrible sound bleed, and there are a lot of things you can’t do. We have worked it out, but it’s a pain in the neck, and it’s not right. So what I think about Lollapalooza is not the sound bleed; it’s "Is Lollapalooza really necessary? Does it really make a lot of money [for the city] if that’s what this is about?" They make money, the Lollapalooza people.
Q. They make a lot of money. But as I’ve reported, the municipal code states that any private promoter who stages a for-profit concert on city land has to pay amusement taxes, but they’re not paying them because they partner with the Parkways Foundation.
A. But you can’t do anything about it, right?
Q. Well, I keep writing about it.
A. [Laughs] All the things that have been done to the parks, we don’t even know what those really cost, the damages. There are a lot of things we don’t know. The city’s obsession with doing so many events—all those festivals—maybe there’s too many of them. There’s a festival glut, and now they want to do more.
Then you have the problem of the police, where a lot of money is being spent on city services. The bottom line is that’s where the money went. The money went, in terms of Taste of Chicago—which at one time made enough money to pay for all the other festivals—the money went for the most part to city services. And probably they overcharged. I suspect that what the mayor was thinking of when he did this change to bid it out [for privatization] is that maybe you could use private security instead of the police, which would save a lot of money. I’m not saying he said that; I don’t know that, but it seems to me that may have been one of the reasons.
Q. What do you think is going to happen with the privatization of the festivals?
A. Taste of Chicago I think will continue to be done by the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.
Q. My read on this, Lois, based on numerous sources in the position to know, is that the city tailored the request for proposals to privatize the festivals for the Texas-based promoters of Lollapalooza, but they did not bid on it because they’re over-extended. Now the city is in the awkward position of rejecting the one bid it said it wanted—from the Illinois Restaurant Association, Jam Productions, and AEG Worldwide. And I think they’re not going to give the contract to them.
A. I don’t think so either. That’s what I’m saying. I think it will be run by the Illinois Restaurant Association and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. The mayor already is saying that they don’t want to privatize it anymore, that he believes it should be free.
Q. He’s contradicting himself, because last November, he said he thought there’d have to be a charge.
A. I know that. And Jackie [Heard, Daley’s spokeswoman] has been saying in the papers that I have the wrong information, that he never said that, that there was going to be a charge.
Q. He did say it; I’ve linked to the quotes.
A. I think he sincerely believed you could make money on the festivals.
Q. Or he sincerely believed that Lollapalooza’s promoters would bid on them.
A. Well, he’s not a festival producer, and he shouldn’t make those decisions. He really shouldn’t. But he likes that stuff a lot; he really does. The mayor likes being involved in everything.
Q. He doesn’t seem to like music much.
A. [Laughs] He certainly doesn’t. He likes food better.
Q. He’s been at war with the music community in Chicago, as I’ve been reporting, for 15 years.
A. Isn’t that the strangest thing?
Q. I've always thought that it goes back to 1968 when those damn hippies were protesting on Michigan Avenue and playing music in Lincoln Park, giving his father a hard time.
A. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve tried to be able to work this out and finally talk to you or whoever else wants to talk to me, but I have to stay away from the issue of the Shakman decision, because I can’t really deal with all that at one time and I don’t really know how to explain it. And I also don’t want that whole thing to fall apart. It [Cultural Affairs] should not be under this court order; it’s affecting everything the city does.
Q. What about the other people who were laid off from Cultural Affairs? Mike Orlove is now working for the Tourism Fund, and he may or may not be able to do the kind of musical programming he did in the past. What about Claire Sutton and theater?
A. I think theater will be O.K. There are other people that are doing that, and I think that we have the staff there. Claire is gone; some people just had to go, and she was one of them.
Q. Of the 29 people laid off from Cultural Affairs, how many have been rehired by the Tourism Fund?
A. I don’t know that; I don’t think they’ve finished doing it. It’s a different regime; now there’s a board, and that Board of Tourism is running everything. They have Dorothy Coyle [Director of the Chicago Office of Tourism], who you must know; she always was running tourism, but now they [the Tourism Fund] hired her, as of yesterday. She can now work with all of those tourism people, and that may be a big help, because she’s really good. Maybe in a few days you can find out [about the other Cultural Affairs employees], because I don’t think they’re finished.
They [the Tourism Fund] do have enough money, so if it’s properly run, it could work. But we don’t know yet. And you haven’t asked the question, which I don’t understand, but aren’t all those people from Special Events, now that the departments have merged, a part of tourism? I don’t know, because I never was there to figure that out. But they do tourism things; their events bring tourists, too.
Q. So shouldn’t those employees be governed by the Shakman restrictions, too?
A. One might think that they would have to be, but I’m not sure.
Q. Well, again, Cultural Affairs lost 29 people, but Special Events hasn’t lost anybody, except for one secretary who was reassigned.
A. I think what they thought was that if the festivals went to a private company, everyone at Special Events would lose their jobs, because then they wouldn’t have anything to do. But that hasn’t happened yet. So I think the city made the decision to hold on to those people. I have not been told this; I just imagine this is what happened. Now, if the mayor decides that he’s going to keep it going [the city running the seven free music festivals] with the Restaurant Association, that’s exactly what will happen: Those people that are there will run Taste and the other festivals.
Q. And the mayor still hasn’t called you?
Q. The mayor hasn’t called you to talk about your resignation?
A. No. [Laughs] It’s a little late now.
Q. Doesn’t he owe you a call after all these years, Lois?
A. I don’t think that he would look at it that way. I don’t really know. My original intention was just to go quietly into the night, which I could have done, but then I just felt that it wasn’t right to leave things like that, so I went a little less than quietly, because the problems are much more than I said in the press. I’m telling you that. The problems are very complicated, and I couldn’t explain all of them to any press that could be able to write it up. Now that I’ve explained it to you, you couldn’t either. You can’t tell all these problems to the public; they will never understand them. But they are totally related to one another. This is one of the worst things that ever has happened to the city, being under this court order.
Q. And we don’t know what the effect will be on the arts—that’s the bottom line?
A. No. But the city is saying, the Law Department, that everything is going to be much better. As I said, we do have the money, via the city and state partnership that is now the Chicago Office of Tourism, and it’s out from under the shackles now. It will be closely watched by the courts, but it could work. If Mike Orlove can work with those people since he changed his job, and other people can do the same thing, maybe it can work. But it is kind of strange.
I hope that helps. I don’t know how you’re going to write about this, but be careful writing about this. I mean it. Because you write too much, and people don’t get it. Maybe you need to write a little bit at a time. [Laughs] But thank you for all that you did in writing about this in the first place.
Q. As I said earlier, I’m puzzled why more of my colleagues aren’t writing about this. I’m just a rock critic!
A. You may be a rock critic, but it’s bringing all the music people together. It’s really good.
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:
Earlier reports in this blog about Lollapalooza's shenanigans:
Statement of Lois Weisberg
January 18, 2010
For more than 20 years, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs has been synonymous with innovation and world-class cultural programming. From classical, jazz and world music concerts in Millennium Park to the Summer Dance program downtown and in the neighborhoods and the exhibitions and performances in the Chicago Cultural Center, we have consistently provided free opportunities for the people of Chicago to come together and enjoy the arts. We recognize that the arts are an indispensable part of a city's quality of life. They generate civic pride, beautify the urban environment, attract visitors, educate the public, preserve our cultural heritage and enrich the lives of everyone, regardless of age, income or background.
The Department of Cultural Affairs has been an integral part of my existence for over 20 years. However, I have sent a letter to Mayor Richard M. Daley resigning my position as Commissioner effective January 31, 2011.
I am strongly opposed to the recent merger of the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor's Office of Special Events. My intimate knowledge of the inner workings of MOSE from the time I served as its Executive Director during the Harold Washington administration coupled with my years as Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs makes it impossible for me to assume the leadership of this merged entity.
I have very much enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to work for City government and especially to have served the wonderful people of Chicago. Thank you.