Entrance interview: Rahm Emanuel
The incoming mayor shares his plans to improve summer music festivals, fight food deserts and more.
You’ve discussed driving job growth by creating an environment for business to thrive. How does that relate to the arts in Chicago? What kind of environment do you want to create to foster the growth of venues and galleries and theaters?
Arts and culture, and I use that in broad stroke—I really want an environment where they’re a vibrant part of our quality of life, which is an essential ingredient for attracting business. I always use this anecdote for my neighborhood [Emanuel owns a house in Ravenswood]: When the Old Town School of Folk Music moved onto Lincoln Avenue, that whole neighborhood just exploded. One of the tipping points for Boeing moving to Chicago was that [former Boeing chairman and CEO] Phil Condit was an opera buff and loved the Chicago Lyric Opera*. Now, those are kind of polar examples: One is a neighborhood, one is downtown. One of the things I want to get away from is, as I’ve said on other issues—we’ve got to stop thinking about these as either-or choices. Our neighborhood club scene is fabulous. But that doesn’t mean if we have a neighborhood music scene in, say, Uptown, that somehow that takes away from downtown. What we have got to realize is that there’s a synergy here between our neighborhood theaters and our downtown theaters. Neighborhood theaters haven’t [been] hurt because we have a downtown theater district. Having big shows in Grant Park in the summer only entices people to see Chicago as a music destination. My duty is that I’d love us to get beyond this stale debate of either-or.
[* The $63 million state and local incentive package for Boeing might have helped turn Condit’s head as well.]
Either you focus on downtown development or you focus on the neighborhoods.
It’s not true. It’s just not true. Louder than a Bomb [a teen poetry slam founded in Chicago in 2001] is the biggest high-school poetry competition in the country. I consider that a celebration of the talent of our children and our young adults here in our city. I consider that a great forum in which we want to make Chicago the destination for this new, exciting urban art form as much as dance has [made us a destination]. You have kids in high school who will not see or interact with this art form. That speaks volumes. I want us to get past this either-or because there’s such great synergy. I’m looking for cooperation that we all can win in situations. There are win-win moments. You couldn’t have a vibrant city without a vibrant downtown. You can’t have a vibrant downtown if people don’t go to the neighborhoods. It’s all part of a breathing, energized city.
Interesting that you see the arts as bait for business and economic growth.
If companies are thinking about headquarters or regional operations—obviously we have a geographic advantage. Obviously we have transportation advantage. What I want us also to have is quality-of-life advantage, and I think the arts are part of that. One of my disappointments is that Chicago once had a great art show [Art Chicago, which now takes place in smaller form as part of the annual Artropolis event at the Merchandise Mart]. We still have great art shows, but we lost [many big-name galleries] to Art Basel Miami. You look at the traffic and the tourists worldwide that would come. When you lose something like that—not just as a city, but another city picks up on it—it’s very hard to get back.
How do you see making big cultural improvements with the city running a historic budget deficit?
Well, it’s not going to be done on public dollars, for one. The Art Institute built a wonderful new wing. That wing wasn’t done on public dollars.