The future of summer fests
Major shake-ups in city government and declining festival revenues put summer music festivals in danger.
The Cultural Affairs staff has been reduced by 29 people. And while other departments and the Chicago Tourism Fund rehired many of them, others were let go. The entire Special Events staff retained their jobs, officials say, even though the department’s workload has declined since the Park District took over Taste and the other four festivals.
Over the years, cabinet officials and City Council members have grown accustomed to Daley acting without much warning. After all, this is the mayor who sent bulldozers in the middle of the night to destroy Meigs Field when he couldn’t get the City Council to pass an ordinance to shut down the lakefront airport.
“Seeing how this whole thing has come about has been a little disturbing,” says 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack. There was no democratic process and no involvement by a Council committee, he notes. Daley’s abrupt action has left questions about where the city is headed on the cultural front. The merged departments would seem less than ideal candidates for a bureaucratic marriage, since their paths—one toward culture and the other toward politics—had diverged years before. Cultural Affairs was seen as a font of creativity and innovation. Weisberg once headed Special Events as an aide to Mayor Harold Washington, but over time that department has increasingly been viewed as a patronage army hiding behind a facade of Daley-sanctioned good times.
“Intrinsically there is nothing wrong with that consolidation,” says Don Rose, a veteran political consultant. “Extrinsically, as it was, we had two departments who in effect have two different practical purposes. One was to really be the cultural promoter of Chicago and the cultural innovator for the city of Chicago, and the other was a mayoral cesspool.”
Bureaucrats will always battle over turf, payroll and power. It’s part of the job description, along with a willingness to serve the government in near-anonymity. But Weisberg was hardly faceless—in fact, quite the opposite. She was a champion of free public access to the city’s cultural life.
Those who maintain their optimism about the future say Weisberg fortified many of her former colleagues with her vision—one hinging on free and accessible cultural programs. Her successors are determined to carry on the Weisberg legacy.
Others say it will be Emanuel—nicknamed “Tiny Dancer” by some in the arts community because of his short stature and ballet past—who will set the agenda. Emanuel’s intent will begin to emerge when he selects a head of the newly merged department, but apparently not sooner, since the mayor-elect and aides have not shared their views.
It will be difficult to find someone who can match Weisberg’s stature. Part of Chicago’s cultural fabric for nearly 30 years, she developed an unequaled institutional memory that complemented her penchant for innovation. There were the free festivals that came to define Chicago as a cultural hub and, true to Weisberg’s nature as a connector, she actively encouraged a spirit of public participation in her department’s activities.