Nailing Down the Art Czars

In September 1997 a firefighter stumbled upon a large piece of metal in a weedy scrap yard on the banks of the Chicago River. It turned out to be Chicago Rising From the Lake, a bronze sculpture created for the city in 1954 by artist Milton Horn. The discovery of the artwork, which cost $60,000 to restore and reinstall in the summer of 1998, was only the latest in a series of embarrassments for the Chicago Public Art Program. For years the program had been criticized for lax administration and record keeping–artworks turned up in unexpected places or were lost altogether. Much to the chagrin of officials, no one could account for everything in the city’s art collection, reportedly valued at $40 million to $50 million.

Reacting to the bad publicity, the Department of Cultural Affairs drafted an amendment to give the Public Art Program more authority–and money–to catalog and conserve works in the city’s collection. The program was created in 1978 under the Percent for Art Ordinance–which mandates that 1.33 percent of the budget for every city construction project be devoted to purchasing or commissioning artwork–but it was never charged with looking after art acquired in preceding decades. The amended ordinance sought to enlarge the program’s responsibilities, requiring the creation of a conservation subcommittee to safeguard older pieces and increasing funding to inventory and restore artworks.

That didn’t satisfy attorney Scott Hodes, a partner in the firm Ross & Hardies and a founder of the local nonprofit Lawyers for the Creative Arts. Hodes thought the amended ordinance “did not substantially address the program’s deficiencies,” and so he began a one-man campaign to reform the Public Art Program, chronicled in a Reader cover story in April 1999. He urged that the proposed amendment order the Department of Cultural Affairs to fully disclose the operations and finances of the Public Art Program on an annual basis. He also wanted 75 percent of new art purchases to go to local artists.

“For some unknown reason, the initial ordinance did not hold the Department of Cultural Affairs to disclose publicly in any meaningful way the details of how much money came into the account, how this money was spent, or the status and extent of the city’s art collection,” Hodes says. He worked closely with the City Council Committee on Special Events and Cultural Affairs to craft a substitute amendment, but the committee ended up siding with the Department of Cultural Affairs. Its amended ordinance passed the City Council and went into effect early this year.

But Hodes didn’t give up. In the summer of 1999 he submitted a Freedom of Information Act request asking for a detailed account of how the city spent its public art allocations for the three preceding years–information, he points out, the “public was entitled to know.” The program’s annual administrative costs alone were estimated at $400,000. Hodes says he received “some sketchy but incomplete” records on artist commissions within the seven-day FOIA response period and was told by a city information officer that a “computer glitch” had prevented the Department of Cultural Affairs from complying any further.

In October 1999 Hodes filed a lawsuit against the city for its failure to fulfill his FOIA request. He says an official in the comptroller’s office told him it would take an “incredible expenditure of time and money” to piece together the accounts of the Public Art Program. Records had been in disarray since the 1992 death of program head Jim Futris, and even then, Hodes learned, information wasn’t readily available. “The comptroller’s office admitted that the public art account, as originally envisioned when the ordinance was first enacted, did not exist for prior years,” Hodes says. “So even if I pressed on with my lawsuit, I probably would never find out how much money should have been allocated to the public art account or how much money had been spent pursuant to the program.” He couldn’t even come up with a list of all the artists who had received commissions or sales during the last 20 years. “I had hit a dead end.”

Hodes promised city lawyers he’d drop his lawsuit if the Public Art Program provided a “full annual accounting” of how it spends its money. The city demurred at first, Hodes says. He then notified its attorneys: “I would start taking depositions immediately.” Within days the city invited Hodes to help draft a revised amendment, which was subsequently approved by the Law Department and the Department of Cultural Affairs. This summer the mayor’s office introduced the new amendment to the City Council, and it passed September 27 with little fanfare. The law now requires the Department of Cultural Affairs to submit an annual report to the City Council by May 1 detailing the amounts, sources, and recipients of Public Art Program funds. It also ensures Chicago artists will receive “at least 50 percent of the number” of commissions and purchases.

Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg says her department couldn’t furnish annual expenditure reports because it had neither the money nor the staff to do so, “not because we didn’t have the information. We weren’t keeping secrets.” She points out the original 1999 amendment called for an annual report, but Hodes’s amendment requires more itemized information. This past year the department hired two part-time workers to improve record keeping and to compile the reports.

Hodes says he’s glad the art selection process “will now be out in the open and ripe for public examination and debate.”

Kicked Off the SOFA

The turnout at last month’s gala opening of SOFA Chicago seemed sparse to some observers. The tickets started at $175, and in exchange invitees got a first look at the international exhibition of sculpture, objects, and functional art.

In 1998 and ’99 proceeds from the gala benefited the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, which raised $195,000 to support its grant-making programs. This year the AIDS Foundation had budgeted for the gala and had even started enlisting sponsors when it learned it had been dropped by the fair. SOFA had decided to hook up with a new charity. “We were totally blindsided,” says an AIDS Foundation member.

“It put us in a lurch.”

Publicist Maria Bechily was cochair of this year’s SOFA gala. The wife of Scott Hodes, Bechily is also a board member of the Northwestern Memorial Foundation. Bechily says she suggested the Northwestern Memorial Foundation’s art program as the new beneficiary, and SOFA’s board invited it to submit a proposal.

SOFA director Mark Lyman says Northwestern “gave us the opportunity to work with something growing and working with a broader range of support in the community,” including AIDS care. “There’s always a letdown on the person you don’t go with.” He says the SOFA gala was “well attended,” drawing over 1,200 people, and it kicked off SOFA’s “best show yet.”

One SOFA source told me “food shortages” at last year’s gala played a role in the decision to go with a new charity; the board was also concerned about attracting “big-time buyers.” So what about the perception of smaller crowds at the gala? The AIDS Foundation says Northwestern never asked for its guest list, which may have resulted in some regulars not being invited. “It was an unfortunate situation,” says another member of the AIDS Foundation. “But people are entitled to do what they have to do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Merideth.