Credit: Mike Werner

Here’s a coincidence: just when public support for Chicago’s 2016 Olympics bid is tanking (according to a recent Trib/WGN poll), along comes Back the Bid Day to perk things up. September 13 is the designated date for this show of orchestrated enthusiasm by some of the city’s elite cultural institutions. On that day only, tickets for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s regular concerts will go for just $20.16 each, as will seats on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s “2016 Highlights by Bus” tour, which will cruise past potential Olympic sites. And the same amount will buy any Chicago resident admission to the Art Institute with an audio guide thrown in—a $1.84 savings. (What a deal.)

But why are the city’s nonprofit cultural institutions lining up behind a bid that looks dicey enough to send almost half the sports-besotted Chicago public running the other way?

Part of the answer is undoubtedly the overlapping membership between the Chicago 2016 committee—the private group seeking the bid for Chicago—and the boards and staffs of most of those arts institutions. The committee has about 250 members, including the presidents of the CSO, the CAF, and the Art Institute.

The other part is traceable to a conference held at the University of Chicago in June 2008. Under the sponsorship of the university and the auspices of the Chicago Consortium on Olympic Studies, which he heads, U. of C. professor and Olympic historian John MacAloon hosted a symposium on the history of the arts in the Olympics for 130 Chicago cultural leaders. Speakers included academics and officials from previous games, and MacAloon says it was an “eye-opener” for a lot of people who didn’t know “what the Cultural Olympiad is or even that it exists.”

In fact, the arts aspect of the games is required by the IOC and has a long history, starting with the orators and poets who were part of the ancient original festival. French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin (subject of a biography by MacAloon), who founded the modern Olympics in the late 19th century, meant them to celebrate the cultivation of mind as well as body, supplanting war by bringing nations together for peaceful competition in both areas. Beginning with the games of 1912 and continuing through 1948, artists actually went for the gold: medals were awarded in architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

But the artists’ contests, which never won the visibility or inspired the public passion the athletics did, had their own set of problems. In 1956, early in the two-decade tenure of Chicagoan Avery Brundage as IOC president (he ran everything from a suite in his LaSalle Hotel), they were reduced to an exhibition. MacAloon says Brundage, a fierce protector of amateurism (as well as a storied athlete and art collector), was convinced that the competing artists were mostly professionals using the Olympics to jack up their prices. After that, the arts appeared as an exhibition and/or a festival, with varying success. (Mexico City in 1968 and LA in ’84—run by former MCA head Robert Fitzpatrick—had impact.)

Then in 1992, Barcelona launched a new tradition that Chicago would follow—a Cultural Olympiad, stretching over the four-year period leading up to the games. Chicago is proposing a festival every year starting in 2013. The local Olympic committee will kick in a total of at least $25 million, most likely toward promotion. That would be “leveraged” by the city’s arts and culture budgets, MacAloon says. “Part of what makes us special is we have a world-class set of civic institutions and—in the offices of Cultural Affairs and Special Events—a very large standing budget for annual events, part of which the mayor has committed to repurposing to Olympic themes.”

That sounds like it could mean anything from diverting money from existing programs to slapping an Olympic label on everything that was going to happen anyway. But MacAloon claims there’ll be standards, and the planning will be guided by Chicago 2016’s arts advisory council, which includes the heads of all the major institutions, from the Adler Planetarium to Lincoln Park Zoo.

“We worked hard to convince the IOC that we would not run into the problems other cities have had when money gets tight,” he added. The pattern has been that when funds run short, the arts budget gets raided by the jocks; proposals for cultural programming at the bid stage regularly exceed what’s actually delivered. “We’ve put in assurances to prevent that,” he says. MacAloon says the Chicago planners are keeping in mind a paper delivered at the symposium by sociologist Beatriz Garcia (an adviser to the 2012 London team), which warned that when push comes to shove, it’s the sports that count. According to Garcia, the Cultural Olympiad, chronically out of the loop (especially in fund-raising), suffers from a lack of clearly defined goals, from a continuing lack of visibility, and from how “the commercial imperatives of the Olympic Games staging process have led to the absolute dominance of the competitive elite sport programme.”

That might be why Chicago’s planning to hold most of its major arts events before, rather than during, the games. But the plan for festivals starting four years out runs counter to the advice of Jeffrey Babcock, who headed the Cultural Olympiad for Atlanta in 1996, the last time the summer games were held in the States. “It doesn’t make sense to do a huge amount of cultural programming before the games because the visitors you’re trying to connect with aren’t there,” he says, adding that he found the four-year program a “significant distraction” and a financial drain. “Really what you want to do is hit it out of the park during the summer of the games.”

It’s also worth asking whether a Chicago Olympics would siphon off local philanthropic funds that might otherwise go to the very institutions now waving the flag for the games. Besides a $35 million investment from the Park District (take heed, Museums in the Park), the 2016 committee’s $4.8 billion proposal (sure to be eclipsed by its eventual cost; London’s budget for 2012 is now four times its bid estimate) includes $280 million in private donations. The bid committee argues that this is a “reasonable projection given other Chicago-area philanthropic contributions to projects such as Millennium Park,” according to a recent report commissioned by the Civic Federation, “a nonpartisan government research organization working to maximize the quality and cost-effectiveness of government services” in Chicago and Illinois. But the Millennium Park money was raised in a different economy. Could it be done today without affecting other giving?

And from the vantage point of these shaky economic times, the 2016 committee’s projection of $1.8 billion in locally raised sponsorship money is striking. The Civic Federation report notes that if the “optimistic” 3.8 percent annual sponsorship growth that the committee’s projecting turned out to be 1.8 percent, the result would be a drop of $440 million in revenue. And any combination of shortfalls in ticket sales, donations, and sponsorships could result in a deficit, with the city on the hook.

Babcock also thinks it’s a mistake to saddle a Cultural Olympiad with transformational expectations, even though Atlanta’s High Museum did have an image-changing experience. “For us it was a major catalyst,” says David Brenneman, director of collections and exhibitions, turning the museum from a parochial institution to one that was able to go all over the world to borrow work for its exhibitions.

Most of the time, Babcock says, any such expectations will set you up for failure. But MacAloon insists this is “a chance to carry the message of Chicago arts to the world” and cultural institutions, “particularly in our venue communities,” will benefit. “What does it mean for DuSable to be sitting there next to the Olympic stadium?” he asks: “The world, literally, the world.”