Our Shrinking World

A couple of weeks ago the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs formally announced the dates of the fifth annual World Music Festival. As usual, musicians will come from nations around the globe–this time including Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, India, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, and Papua New Guinea–to perform at public and private venues throughout the city and to give workshops and talks in schools. But where previous editions featured about 70 acts over ten days, the 2003 festival will present about 30 in five, with the bulk of the programming crammed into three days starting Friday, September 19. As disappointing as it is to see one of Chicago’s best and most important music festivals cut back, it could have been worse: there was almost no festival at all.

The weak economy has tightened government purse strings, and the cultural affairs budget wasn’t spared. According to festival organizer and department program director Mike Orlove, there was talk of canceling the WMF and bringing it back in 2004. “In four short years we, along with other festivals in the country, have made the last two weeks in September an actual period of time that artists from around the world will consider touring in the U.S.,” says Orlove. “Erasing the festival one year could set everything back.” But thanks to a grant from Boeing the WMF was able to generate enough funds to present the shortened event.

The truth is that the festival has always had to scramble for money, except in its inaugural year, when it was fully funded by the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. “We wanted to help them showcase what a full World Music Festival could feel like so they could get sponsors interested,” says special events executive director Jim Law. “What would have had to happen after that was relationships would have started forming with different members of the corporate community.” While Law says Orlove has succeeded in getting some regular sponsorship, he suggests that developing a self-sustaining ten-day festival can take a while. “We made a commitment to do the first-year launch, and we couldn’t guarantee after that that we could pick it up.”

The Office of Special Events, whose budget comes entirely from corporate sponsorship and Taste of Chicago revenue, presents all of the major music festivals held each summer in Grant Park, including the blues, jazz, gospel, Latin, and Celtic festivals, as well as the Taste. Each of these offers sponsors the chance to advertise to hundreds of thousands of people in a single place in just a few days; that’s something the WMF, spread out over many smaller sites–which work better for its often lesser-known artists, as well as its goals of reaching ethnic communities and encouraging cooperation between local presenters of world music–can’t match. “We couldn’t automatically transfer interest among existing sponsors,” says Law. “That’s not to say there weren’t other sponsors interested in this intimate situation, but those were not the ones we were as familiar with.”

“Special Events festivals can promise a banner to be seen by a large number of people, and what they’re selling is exposure,” says Janet Carl Smith, deputy programming commissioner for the cultural affairs department. “With the WMF there may not be any more than 500 people attending any single event, but those people are the ones that [some sponsors] will be interested in because they’re a very diverse audience, and when you add up all the people going to all the events the number becomes significant.”

Borders has been a sponsor throughout the five years of the festival, but so far other large arts-related corporations haven’t joined up. In the past, the WMF has relied heavily on government and private arts funding. In 2000 the festival scored a $75,000 grant from Chicago’s Sister Cities program; in 2001 it received $50,000 from the Joyce Foundation; last year the Joyce Foundation gave $65,000 with the city’s Office of Tourism kicking in $100,000. But that help didn’t show up this time. According to Smith the budget for 2003 is only around $100,000; Boeing put up about half, with the rest coming from Borders and smaller sponsors.

So it was cancel or scale back. “The idea,” Smith says, “was to compress the best of the fest into five really strong days for this year and continue to try to do a festival, and in the future to try to bring it back to a longer festival when there is more money available.” She points out that the primary business of the cultural affairs department is to program events at the Cultural Center–free concerts and exhibitions that attract more than 800,000 people annually. Outside programs like the WMF and the Summerdance concert series are secondary. “I feel really good about what we’ve got,” she says of this year’s WMF. “We’ve got a strong supporter in Boeing, and we’ve got United Airlines coming on board, and we have some other funders matching what Boeing put in. We’re request-ing money from the city for [next year], but we don’t know whether we’ll get it.”

Smith adds that it’s become more difficult to book international acts as security concerns have made it harder to obtain visas. While Orlove agrees, he says this has nothing to do with shortening the festival. “I look at the fact that [Iraqi pop singer] Kazem Al Saher toured here this year, right before the war, as evidence enough for me that there’s a glimmer of hope for any artist to tour the U.S.,” says Orlove. “This year has been the hardest yet to bring people in and it’s only getting harder, but does that mean we give up? We have to try.” He notes that previously the WMF, often with the help of United, has been able to fly performers to the States, sometimes even booking additional tour dates for them. But United, facing its own money troubles, is providing only domestic flights this year. For the first time, all the musicians must get to the U.S. on their own.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been in a position a month after the festival ends to say [next year] we’re definitely bringing in this group from Brazil or this group from Algeria, because there’s always a question if we’re going to have flight sponsorship or money to actually work with,” says Orlove. “That makes a big difference when you’re planning a festival.”

While the budgets for Grant Park festivals fluctuate from year to year, none has ever been canceled for financial reasons. This year’s Celtic festival couldn’t find a major sponsor, Law says, so the shortfall is being made up with Taste of Chicago proceeds. When asked if Special Events could conceivably use funds from the same pool of revenue to keep WMF afloat, Law explains that the money has other destinations too: “You have to understand that it’s also helping to pay for the Jumping Jacks program and things like that,” he says, referring to the inflatable moon walk that Special Events provides free to neighborhood block parties. “It’s not a line item waiting for a festival.”


Since collapsing after an April 26 performance in Phoenix, Austin rocker Alejandro Escovedo has been under treatment for hepatitis C. Like many musicians he’s without health insurance, and without his usual performance income he’s run up some medical debt. This weekend a bunch of Chicago-area pals are playing a pair of benefits to help defray Escovedo’s expenses. On Thursday, July 31, at the Abbey Pub the lineup includes members of Poi Dog Pondering, Robbie Fulks, Jane Baxter Miller, Nora O’Connor, Danny Black, and Puerto Muerto. Friday’s show at FitzGerald’s features among others the Waco Brothers, Sally Timms, Nashville’s Paul Burch, Nicholas Tremulis, Kelly Hogan, Devil in a Woodpile, Mr. Rudy Day, and Deanna Varagona along with a silent art auction.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.