The NEA Comes to Chicago

In case you haven’t heard, an arts confab organized by the National Endowment for the Arts is about to commence in the Windy City. Behind the scenes scores of people in Chicago and Washington are busy ensuring that the three-day event will come off exactly according to the wishes of the nation’s newest czarina of the arts, actress Jane Alexander, appointed chairman of the NEA last fall by President Clinton.

Scheduled for April 14 through 16 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, the meeting, pretentiously titled “Art-21: Art Reaches Into the 21st Century,” will examine four rather broad themes: “The Artist in Society,” “Lifelong Learning in the Arts,” “Expanding Resources for the Arts,” and “The Arts and Technology.” Formal invitations hit the street last week. According to an NEA spokeswoman only 6,000 were mailed, but recipients are being encouraged to pass along xeroxed copies to other interested parties. Attendance will be limited to 1,000, and some respondents may be shut out so that the endowment can get the proper politically correct mix. “We don’t want 1,000 painters at the event and no other kind of person in the arts,” explained an NEA staffer.

The invitation describes Art-21 as “a national conference to explore issues relating to art in the lives of Americans and to inform a federal vision for the arts through policy and planning initiatives.” It boils down to two breakfast and three lunch speeches, four breakout sessions to discuss the speeches, a buffet reception (what would a conference be without one?), and one gala dinner. For all of this attendees will shell out $200 plus lodging and airfare expenses and other incidental costs.

At NEA headquarters last week the mood seemed somewhat frantic. Olive Mosier, the NEA minion heading the organizing efforts, was too busy to talk, but one spokesman said that the endowment is close to finalizing the list of speakers and that none of them will be particularly big names in the world of arts and entertainment. “If people are expecting [Jane Alexander] to use her Hollywood connections, she is doing just the opposite,” said the spokesman. “We are going for less recognized people that we believe will be better speakers.” While Mosier is busy lining up speakers, NEA staffer Rosemary Cribben has been crisscrossing the country trying to snare conference sponsors–organizations willing to underwrite the expenses of participants who otherwise could not afford to attend. Cribben, who was on the road last week, was unavailable for comment; no one else at the NEA seemed to know how much success she was having.

Meanwhile our city’s very own arts czarina, cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg, has been busy planning how best to welcome the Art-21 crowd. When the conference ends Saturday afternoon Weisberg will preside over a reception at the Chicago Cultural Center for conference attendees, who will be invited to sign up for several tours of the city’s cultural attractions Saturday evening. Weisberg’s minions will also man a hospitality suite at the Hyatt Regency where conference participants can collect information about Chicago’s cultural attractions and schmooze with local arts executives.

One of the many minidramas swirling around Art-21 last week centered on arrangements for the conference’s gala “Chicago Night” dinner April 15, which will include entertainment spotlighting the Chicago arts community. Word had it that Alexander was hell-bent on holding the soiree in the scenic rotunda at the far end of Navy Pier, a location that would provide spectacular views of the city and provide conference attendees with a welcome escape from the dreary confines of Hyatt Regency meeting rooms. But there was a problem. Sony had already reserved the rotunda for that day to begin setting up a week-long trade show for its dealers that’s starting April 18. When word of the scheduling conflict hit NEA offices, according to one source, it was suggested that the Secretary of Commerce’s influence might be used to help persuade Sony to push back its load-in. Fortunately no such unseemly arm twisting was required: Sony agreed to the schedule change at some point last Thursday afternoon, after talking only to nervous Navy Pier booking agents.

But one question still hangs over the event: Why the rush to mount this national conference so quickly after Alexander’s appointment? “I’ve asked that question many times myself and have yet to get an answer,” observes one surprisingly forthright NEA spokeswoman. Maybe the conference is just a way of hyping the new NEA chief. Or maybe Alexander genuinely feels an urgent need to foment discussion and formulate policy.

Court’s Surprise

Charles Newell, who will become artistic director of the Court Theatre in June, has announced the company’s 1994-’95 season, and it includes one real shocker: Sleuth. British playwright Anthony Shaffer’s thriller, which debuted in the U.S. on Broadway in 1970, was slickly mounted and popular–but it’s certainly not the kind of fare heretofore associated with the classics-oriented Court. Newell, however, was ready and waiting to defend his choice: “We’re doing plays about language and actors, and we also need to attract and entertain audiences.” Indeed, the need to expand a shrinking audience base at many of the city’s resident theater companies may be the reason we see artistic leaders reaching more and more often for chestnuts like Sleuth. Court’s production will star David New and Canadian actor Nicholas Pennell, who seem to be on the verge of becoming the Lunt and Fontaine of the Chicago theater scene. They were seen earlier this season at Apple Tree Theatre in Not About Heroes and at that time expressed an interest in working together on other projects.

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