Word came today that Lois Weisberg, the former linchpin of nearly everything that’s cultural about Chicago, died last night in Florida, where she’d been living the last few years. She was 90.
Weisberg headed the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs in its various incarnations for Mayors Harold Washington and Richard Daley over a three-decade span that stretched from the 1980s to an abrupt departure in 2011. She brought us Cows on Parade, the Block 37 Arts program (now After School Matters, founded with Maggie Daley), and numerous free public music and art festivals, and instituted the original Chicago Cultural Plan. She was responsible for the transition of the former Chicago Public Library building into the city’s fabulous Cultural Center, and for establishing culture as an equal partner in city government, with its own “commissioner” at the mayor’s staff table.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted in a statement today that “As Chicago’s Cultural Affairs Commissioner, Lois revolutionized the role that culture can play in building a better Chicago.” Well before most others, she understood that a thriving arts scene would be vital to the city’s economy and to its place on the global map.
A onetime aide to Congressman Sidney Yates and a founder of institutions including Friends of the Parks, her legendary capacity as a social connector and catalyst was immortalized in Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker profile, “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.”