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Next mayor needs arts agenda


Laura Washington

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Updated: November 28, 2010 5:05PM

Chicago is in the midst of an arts renaissance. The city's arts and culture scene drives jobs and tourism and sings out to the globe that Chicago is a world-class city.

The New York Times trumpets the latest show at Steppenwolf Theatre and conductor Riccardo Muti's abbreviated Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiere. The Wall Street Journal is on the same page.

The days of blue-collar colloquialism are gone. The city's arts have flowered in a profusion of blossoms too numerous to enumerate. The opera, ballet, symphony and the major theater companies are producing top-notch work.

Mayor Daley's retirement opens the door for new approaches. Chicago will soon lose an unparalleled booster for arts and culture. What legacy will he leave- What should his successor do to elevate the city's arts and engage its culture-

Chicago's grande dames of the arts know the score. Grande Dame No. 1 is Lois Weisberg, Daley's culture czar. She has presided over the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs for 21 years and did a previous stint as Mayor Harold Washington's special events director. Weisberg helped launch Gallery 37, is the impresario of Millennium Park and sent Cows on Parade around the world.

Know your stuff, Weisberg advises the next mayor. Daley "read all the papers from all over the world," from the China Daily to the International Herald Tribune to arts periodicals, she told me recently. He is "very well-informed about the arts."

After Daley's announcement, Weisberg publicly urged him to steer clear of the temptation to privatize the city's parties, such as Taste of Chicago. Risky business, but at 85, what has she got to lose- Free admission to events like the Grant Park festivals and concerts is a treasured asset, she argues. "You can't get the whole city coming together unless you can have something that's free."

Ronne Hartfield is an internationally recognized arts educator who ran Urban Gateways, the acclaimed arts education center, and later became executive director of museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago. The lifelong Chicagoan was one of the first African-American women in the nation to lead a major museum's education department. She used the post as a bully pulpit to open up the stodgy halls of the Art Institute to all of Chicago.

"People can't imagine" a Chicago without a Daley, she said.

"He transformed the city during my adult lifetime. So it's hard to understand what it will be like when he is gone," she said.

If Hartfield were mayor, she would push for a tax surcharge to fund the arts. And create minority fellowships to connect artists in the neighborhoods with high-culture downtown institutions. "We need to valorize what's going on in the neighborhoods."

I reminded her that Muti is already taking the symphony to places such as Pilsen. That's a paternalistic, top-down approach, she said. "Orchestras go out into communities to play Beethoven without any attempt to connect it to the lives of the people."

Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, for example, is "all about celebrating nature, all about celebrating the country," she said, adding, "Get [young people] to talk about their experiences with the country, so they could hear something they know in the music."

Indeed. Most every black Chicagoan has deep ties to the rural South.

Cynics might cluck that in hard times, the arts are a disposable frill. Not so. The arts are therapeutic and engaging. They are not controversial and clunky, like budget deficits and street cleaning.

Why is no mayoral aspirant advancing an arts agenda- It's a no-brainer.

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