Credit: Patrick L. Pyszka

After three months on the job, the city’s new commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events sat down in his Cultural Center office to talk about how he got to his position and what’s coming up in 2017, Chicago’s Year of Public Art.

Deanna Isaacs: Do you have Chicago roots?

Mark Kelly: Born and bred on the south side. I went to Quigley South high school before [leaving for] John Carroll University, a Jesuit college.

Are you an artist?

I’m a percussionist. In college I actually had the honor of being a percussionist for an Allen Ginsberg happening. And for Hal Russell—I was the worst percussionist to ever play for a world-class player.

What was your college major?

Sociology, and I went on to grad school in counseling. My thesis in graduate school was on milieu therapy—the argument was that our environment shapes how we act. And really, that idea ties in to my work in the cultural sector.

You were part of the Columbia College administration for more than three decades, ending as vice president for students. What’s that got to do with this job?

I know the cultural landscape of Chicago and its creative industries, because I spent 32 years connecting our students to that landscape. But when I started at Columbia, it was a commuter college, with no student galleries or performance spaces for students. I was the architect of the Manifest Urban Arts Festival, putting a spotlight on graduating-student work, and of the Wabash Arts Corridor, and the Muddy Waters mural, at Washington [and State].

The last thing I’ll mention about my background is the Halloween Gathering, which started two years ago. I was asked by the Cultural Mile Association to create an event that had an impact for the cultural life of the city, and I said, “Let’s do a procession that gathers together all of our creative communities.” First year, we had 200,000 people.

Are you surprised to be here?

I had no intention of leaving Columbia. I thought I was going to die with my boots on. But I got a call one night, was told I’m on the short list for commissioner. Was I interested? Knowing the history of DCASE and knowing the legacy, in particular of Lois Weisberg, my knees began to shake and at the same time I said, “Hell, yes! I’m interested.”

When was that?

I started August 15, so it was several months before that.

Were you given a mandate?

To make this city more vital in its cultural and artistic life and support the entire ecosystem; and at the same time, strengthen DCASE.


It wasn’t prescriptive. It’s bringing fresh eyes to everything we do. And respect what we’ve accomplished, but don’t assume that what we’ve accomplished is necessarily what we do going forward.

Has there been a cut in DCASE funding?

We have the same budget going forward ($31,292,551).

Staff changes?

No. I’m working with the staff, and I’m pleased with who they are. We’re figuring out how we’re going to do the best work we can with the resources that we have.

So what changes will we see?

I think the Year of Public Art is a great example. The rubric is “50 x 50.” This is the 50th anniversary of the Picasso unveiling, one of the first public art pieces in the city that wasn’t built to memorialize or to honor, but was art for art’s sake. We forget, because it’s now become iconic, but I remember the cry about this meat-and-potatoes city and this alien object that has invaded it.

And then 50 years ago was also the anniversary of the Wall of Respect. So here’s a different form of public art, political art, at 43rd and Langley, long gone but highly impactful.

The other part of “50 x 50” is that public art is no longer for one special place or downtown—it’s going to be everywhere. We’re going to match, up to $10,000, for any alderman who chooses to use some of their “menu money” to bring public art to his or her ward. Over 100 organizations are putting on their own year of public art programming, and we’re going to have a major event around the Picasso, unveiling it again.

At the Cultural Center we’ll have a retrospective of Latino mural art, an open call “50 x 50” show, with one artist representing each of the wards, and a show about the Wall of Respect. And 25 percent of the individual artists grant program for 2017 will be for artists working in the public art realm.

What’s the biggest challenge?

It’s hard for me to speak about a challenge because I just see opportunity right, left, and center. I’m a kid in a candy store.  v