State of the Arts, Part Two

Right on the heels of the massive MacArthur Foundation report on the arts described here last week, another study, this one commissioned by the Illinois Arts Alliance, presents startling data guaranteed to anger anyone sensitive to the lowly status accorded the arts in Chicago. This study, paid for (ironically) with city funds and prepared by two firms–Opinion Research Associates in Madison, Wisconsin, and the local Creticos & Associates Inc.–analyzes local support for the arts in 11 metropolitan areas across the country. The findings couldn’t be more embarrassing for Chicago or more indicative of how poorly the arts have fared in the halls of our local government.

In the study’s most damning set of statistics, ORA looked at combined city and county expenditures on the arts as a percentage of a governmental expenditures in metropolitan areas for the fiscal year 1989-’90. Of the seven comparable city-county areas in the study, Chicago wound up dead last, way behind sixth-placed Detroit and much further behind Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. First-placed San Francisco, with a population less than two-thirds the size of Chicago’s, spent $8.5 million on the arts; Chicago spent $5.2 million.

But not all local arts institutions have been equally shortchanged. Another chart in the report mentions a Chicago Park District tax that goes only to the nine cultural institutions situated on Park District land. The tax took in $30 million in the 1989-’90 fiscal year, a windfall for those lucky arts organizations on park turf–which include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society, and the Field Museum. The Art Institute, according to its most recent annual report, received close to $6 million from the Park District tax, while the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, directly across the street, received not a penny of it.

The Creticos & Associates portion of the report suggests several ways Chicago might boost its pitiful arts funding. Among the suggestions are a special lottery, a sales surtax at table-service restaurants, and a countywide tax that would shift part of the responsibility for supporting city arts institutions to suburban Cook County residents, who also use them. Such suggestions are surely well-intentioned, but for anything to happen the mayor and the City Council are going to have to realize that allocating more money for cultural affairs would help boost the economy and enhance the city’s image.

The IAA report was delivered to Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Lois Weisberg two and a half weeks ago, and Alene Valkanas, the ever-optimistic executive director of IAA, believes the study will pave the way for more city funding for the arts. “The arts support from the city’s general revenue base has to increase,” says Valkanas, “and we look forward to working with the city administration to achieve that.” Earlier this week, Weisberg sounded gung ho about the report and its potential impact. “We’re going to have the best arts funding in the nation,” she predicted. Presumably Weisberg is going to develop a plan for generating a new revenue stream dedicated to the arts that she’ll take to the powers that be in City Hall. But don’t bet your last dollar we’ll see much improvement.

Two Developments at the CSO

Things don’t seem to be going Henry Fogel’s way, at least not as far as building a new performing arts center is concerned. CSO executive director Fogel is on record as backing the $300 million center (which would house the Lyric Opera as well). But rather than rallying round the cause, the CSO board of directors spent most of its meeting last week listening to a report on three ways to renovate the orchestra’s existing home in lieu of a new center. The cheapest of the plans, around $5 to $6 million, would include some improvements to mechanical systems and basic painting and patching, while the most expensive option would involve raising the Orchestra Hall roof and moving back the west wall of the hall to expand the current cramped stage space, a major problem according to Fogel. The CSO board was told that the priciest option, which could cost as much as $60 million, could significantly improve the hall’s acoustics, another of the board’s main concerns. The orchestra trustees did not vote on whether to build the new center or renovate, and no vote has been scheduled. But one board member present at last week’s meeting says he believes the performing arts center project is all but a dead issue as far as the CSO is concerned.

On another front, the CSO’s longtime chorus leader, Margaret Hillis, announced last week she would retire in the fall of 1992. Fogel praised Hillis for her role in developing the chorus, but several months ago a source in the chorus said Fogel had told members of the chorus’s contract-negotiating committee last year that Hillis would not be director when the chorus’s next three-year contract begins in the fall of 1993. The source said some chorus members had grown displeased with Hillis’s manner of treating them like children and that Hillis, who is 69, had hearing problems and difficulty keeping a tempo. At the time Fogel declined comment.

Calling All Diners

Chicago’s recession-weary restaurateurs are racking their brains for new ways to entice diners. The Eccentric, for instance, has opened a Wednesday evening art studio in a section of the restaurant that once housed a cafe. Both expert and novice artists are offered a chance to try their hand drawing with pastels or charcoals; two helpful School of the Art Institute graduates are present during studio hours, from 6 to 9 PM, to offer instruction and advice. At Gordon, owner Gordon Sinclair has opened up the bar to single diners during lunch and is offering them a $9.95 lunch of soup, salad, entree, and dessert on a single large plate. A sign posted around the bar promises that Sinclair will “eat it” if the lunch takes longer than 12 minutes to arrive. A spokesman for Sinclair said the message could be interpreted to mean the lunch would be gratis. Meanwhile, “Italian” is the new buzzword at That Steak Joynt, on Wells Street. Owner Billy Siegel is keeping his trademark beef dishes but is expanding the menu with options such as pastas and an Italian seafood salad.

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