Life after Lois | Lois Weisberg
Assessing the legacy of the city’s former culture queen, Lois Weisberg.
A then-heavy-smoking, coffee-gulping dynamo with rhinestone-studded eyeglasses, Weisberg hung with doctors, lawyers, musicians, political activists, writers and actors. She disseminated information and, above all, ideas—lots of ideas. She could have more influence than a Fortune 500 chief by creating ties among constituencies private or public, rich or poor.
Now that Weisberg has exited her post, she feels betrayed. She decamped without the celebratory farewell she deserved. She complained about the merger of her department and a plan, since abandoned, to charge admission to her festivals. She feels done in by the bureaucrats and lawyers she fenced with over the years, at times in a Don Quixote–like struggle against legal constraints at which she scoffed.
Dig deeper, though, and it’s clear she paved the way for her departure by not complying with efforts to eliminate patronage in city hiring. Weisberg believed one simply can’t run a great city’s cultural affairs under the same hiring rules as Streets and Sanitation or the Police Department. The so-called Shakman decree, a 1983 federal court order barring politically motivated hiring and firing, stated otherwise.
She sees the merger of DCA and MOSE, supposedly done for efficiency’s sake, as naive and needless. “The city made terrible mistakes, and a great many people are involved and injured,” she says.
Look at the achievements she feels are now at risk, and it becomes apparent how she helped Chicago become in many respects a global cultural metropolis. Weisberg brought worldwide attention to painted cows on Chicago street corners; daytime classical and jazz concerts at a revived Cultural Center; and the grand programming that has accentuated the wondrous public space of Millennium Park. As a result, tourists flocked to the city.
“Lois embodies the spirit not just of ‘official Chicago’ but of the broader city,” notes Chicago lawyer and longtime Daley confidante John Schmidt. “In the end she has managed to turn even bureaucracy to spiritual use, and more than anyone I can think of over the past two decades, she has nurtured the soul of the city.”
The bureaucratic miracle unraveled over the last two years, with the perhaps inevitable inspection of Weisberg’s realm by a federal monitor of city compliance with the Shakman decree. The Shakman rules, including requirements about posting vacancies, can be rigid and time-consuming. Weisberg didn’t confront them head-on so much as execute what she deemed a legitimate end run.