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City Defends Cost Of Next Year's Great Chicago Fire Festival

By Chuck Sudo in News on Oct 31, 2013 2:00PM

Rendering of the proposed festival by Lin Ye.

Back in March the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events announced a planned “Great Chicago Fire Festival” in October 2014, another of Mayor Emanuel’s attempts to showcase Chicago as a—wait for it—”world class city.” On paper it’s an ambitious festival. DCASE is partnering with Redmoon Theatre (which knows a few things about planning public art projects across the city) on the project, which would culminate in a procession of illuminated floating fiberglass sculptures and a fire spectacle along the Chicago River’s main branch.

Emanuel, in the press release announcing the festival, said it “puts into action several goals of the Chicago Cultural Plan, including the creation of a new large-scale cultural festival that attracts global attention and highlights our City’s cultural assets and heritage.” The 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan is heavy on the vague marketing buzzspeak that has become an Emanuel trademark, and geared toward increasing tourism in the city.

The question hanging like the Sword of Damocles over the festival’s head is the cost. The Emanuel administration has a working budget of $1 million to produce the festival; $250,000 of that would come from the city to fund “community engagement.” DCASE commissioner Michelle Boone defended the cost during City Council budget hearings Wednesday.

Aldermen led by Budget Committee chair Carrie Austin (34th) were concerned about the cost given that Venetian Night, the popular fireworks show and lighted boat procession that brought hundreds of thousands downtown, was canceled because of budget concerns and cost only $300,000 to produce.

“For us to put out money to have an event, and then don’t have anything coming back, then we’re just putting money out,” Austin said. But when has that ever stopped the city from spending money on projects it didn’t need?

Boone noted the 1.5 million people who attended this year’s Taste of Chicago, the slight profit the city made from this year’s Taste and the wider-reaching economic impact of the festival as reasons to budget the money for the Great Chicago Fire Festival.

“Hotel stays. People who come downtown for the event also will go to restaurants and do some other shopping. So, these things don’t just kind of happen in isolation with money going out” and nothing coming back in, Boone said.

The festival could have another unforeseen reaction, as the Reader’s Deanna Isaacs wrote shortly after the announcement.

But when Redmoon founder and co-artistic director Jim Lasko described the festival to reporters covering the announcement, he said something surprising: the plan is to have city residents build large effigies of whatever their neighborhood most wants to get rid of, and to have a parade of those effigies on the river that'll culminate in their ritual burning.

Who could hear this without seeing in their mind's eye a huge, smoking gun sailing down the river in tandem with representations of homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, bad schools, segregation, and poverty?

Now imagine neighborhood artists hijacking the festival's denouement as a public protest of Emanuel's policy. Or, for that matter, a procession of Emanuel effigies floating along the river to their eventual fate?