The future of summer fests

Major shake-ups in city government and declining festival revenues put summer music festivals in danger.

  • Summer Dance Chicago

  • Summer Dance Chicago

  • Jazz Fest Chicago

  • Chicago Country Music Festival

  • Picasso in Birthday hat

  • Taste of Chicago

  • Blues Fest Chicago

  • Photograph: City of Chicago GRC

  • Photograph: Javet M. Kimble

  • Taste of Chicago

  • Gospel Fest Chicago

Summer Dance Chicago

The bust of playwright George Bernard Shaw is gone. The electric fireplace is dark. In the corner, a coatrack where there once hung a gown given as a gift by Gerald Arpino, the late Joffrey Ballet artistic director, stands bare. The walnut bookshelves, once filled to overflowing, are nearly empty.

Almost no sign of Lois Weisberg or her 21-year tenure as head of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs remains in her former office on the third floor of the Chicago Cultural Center. The unoccupied space is a vivid reminder of the civic void created by her departure.

In late January, Weisberg quit in a storm of recriminations soon after Mayor Richard M. Daley merged the Cultural Affairs department with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. One of Daley’s closest allies, she nonetheless says she was “strongly opposed” to the merger. A short-lived proposal to privatize and likely charge admission to many of the city’s free festivals was another insult to her free-entertainment ethos that Weisberg refused to endure.

With the summer festival season only weeks away, there is scant information about how the city and its new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, will carry out the cultural legacy of the woman who helped create Cows on Parade, SummerDance, Gallery 37, Blues Festival, Taste of Chicago and many other neighborhood and musical events.

Emanuel did not comment much on the merger during the mayoral campaign (he told Time Out Chicago in the fall, “City departments should be merged if the resulting agency improves services and reduces costs by streamlining operations. This proposal deserves further study—if it meets both of these goals, I will support it.”), and his advisers tell us he has not yet focused on the details and impact of realigning the two departments.

The city’s huge budget deficit will likely influence his decision. Most of the festivals lose money, and even the Taste of Chicago barely broke even last year.

Whatever action the new mayor takes, city officials are adamant that the city’s cultural events will continue uninterrupted and Chicagoans can expect just as many, if not more, summer programs.

Michael Orlove, the senior artistic director at the Chicago Tourism Fund, who programs SummerDance, New Music Mondays and Music Without Borders, says his schedule will “be equally as strong and as exciting as in years past.”

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