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Weisberg Dethroned: Chicago's Cultural Ambassador's Departure And What It Means For the Future Of Events In Chicago

By Michele Lenni in News on Mar 29, 2011 5:25PM

Image via the Chicago Tribune

There are many things that distinguish the great city of Chicago from other metropolises across the United States. Though many that visit the our shores immediately gravitate towards our most commercially driven symbols like Wrigley Field, our signature deep dish pizza and the startling view into the great beyond from the top of the iconic Sears/Willis tower. The events that punctuate the seasons, like the Taste of Chicago, the Blues Festival and the Monday night Downtown Sound free concert series are truly the events that have made a deeper impact on those that walk our streets each day. Sometimes we take for granted how lucky we are to have such rich and diverse cultural events here, and over the past twenty years our lives are much richer by the one-woman machine that both founded and headed the Department of Cultural Affairs: Lois Weisberg.

Weisberg left her post as Cultural Affairs Commissioner after a 20-plus-year tenure in January after Mayor Richard Daley's announcement that the DCA and Mayor's Office of Special Events would merge, with many of her subordinates — including ace music programmer Michael Orloveshifting over to the Chicago Tourism Office. "I'm very disappointed," Weisberg told Time Out Chicago. "I feel the department won't survive." Weisberg, who was profiled in detail by Malcolm Gladwell in a 1999 piece by the New Yorker entitled Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg, was Daley's right-hand-woman and one of his most trusted lieutenants throughout his mayoralty. Her clear feelings of betrayal after the merger, though not surprising, are of distinct contrast to her long and fruitful relationship with the powerhouse that is Mayor Daley.

At first glance, there is nothing amiss in the merger of the two departments, but upon further investigation, we feel that it will make less of these events free and available to the masses and more of a pay-to-play, privatized capital venture, charging for admission and other accouterments of these cultural events. The signs have been written on the wall since last autumn, when the city started taking bids from private contractors for festivals like Taste of Chicago and the city's major music festivals in Grant Park. (The sole bid received suggested a $20 admission fee to Taste.)

Though this was jarring news to some, with revenues from these events dropping up to 25% in the past three years, we were not surprised that Daley and the city took drastic measures to tighten its metaphorical belt around the DCA, Weisberg's beloved programming and the dissolving merging of the DCA with the Office of Special Events.

Though it's easy to blame Daley, who with lightning speed cemented the merger into place and shifted a majority of the department to the Tourism Office, we can't say that Weisberg isn't entirely at fault for the collapse of her vestige. Weisberg refused to run Cultural Affairs like other city departments such as Streets and Sanitation or the Police Department. Though, in theory, this seems like a more of a pro than a con, her lack of adherence to hiring and firing policies that are the construct of other city-run departments may have been her eventual undoing.

Budget Office spokesman Pete Scales explained back in December that the DCA was in violation of the Shakman decree, a 1983 federal court order barring politically motivated hiring and firing. Because she would not follow these basic policies, Noelle Brennan, the court-appointed monitor to ensure city departments were in compliance with Shakman, had Weisberg and the DCA under the microscope as recently as two years ago. Brennan's investigation of the DCA found that 174 people hired to a nonprofit department Weisberg aided in creating known as the Chicago Tourism Fund (CTF), were hired with no regard to the Shakman decree. These CTF hires worked in city facilities as subordinates to, and sometimes even supervisors, of city workers, which clearly violates this and many other city employment regulations. Later, the employees of CTF were laid off and some DCA workers were eliminated permanently. Curiously, CTF employees later rehired with fewer benefits and, notably, no city-paid insurance. These events became the catalyst that in turn merged the Mayor's Office of Special Events and the DCA.

None of this legal mess of the CTF hiring nor the future of DCA have really been touched upon by the new administration led by the aptly nicknamed "Tiny Dancer" himself, Rahm Emanuel. Of course there is the occasional sound bite here and there from Emanuel's office stating that a "transition committee, focused specifically on arts and cultural affairs, will further examine ways to improve the city's investment in artistic and cultural programming." This and the new administration's constant pressure not only to trim budgets wherever necessary, but also bring in capital to Chicago's ever-growing deficit, are not much conciliation to our fears that the once free and available events that have made Chicago a global cultural power, will only be available upon a price of admission; thus denigrating Weisberg's fundamental philosophy of delivering these events to all, not just those who can afford them.

The future remains uncertain for events in our great city. It may be more than a year or longer until we truly know the impact of Weisberg's absence or the hammering of the Shakman decree on our city's doors. Nonetheless, Weisberg's contributions to the city's immense cultural landscape are already set in stone. As our mind drifts into thoughts of the colorful cows that lined the streets of Michigan Avenue and the lazy summer evenings where we basked in the twilight as we listened to jazz float airily through the park, we remember our best and brightest moments here were made possible by Weisman and cultural credo. For these and the many other cultural experiences we've had over the past 20-plus-years during her reign as our cultural ambassador, we cannot, nor should we forget the groundwork that Weisberg set for our city's commitment to cultural enrichment for everyone, regardless of age, income or background.