The candidates: Vallas, Preckwinkle, Chico, Wilson, and LIghtfoot; at right are moderators Allison Cuddy and Craig Dellimore Credit: Zachary Whittenburg

How important are the arts in the upcoming Chicago mayoral election?

Not important enough, apparently, to command the presence of Bill Daley or Susana Mendoza.

Both candidates were invited, but neither participated in the 2019 Chicago Mayoral Arts Forum, sponsored by Arts Alliance Illinois and the League of Chicago Theatres and held Sunday night at the Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower Place.

Amara Enyia wasn’t there either. She’d been expected, but—it was announced—had developed a last-minute “scheduling conflict.”

Here’s who showed up: Gery Chico, Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, Paul Vallas, and Willie Wilson.

Be assured that they all love and value the arts. They were as one in declaring the arts integral to Chicago’s well-being.

But it wasn’t clear that they’d given this subject a lot of thought.

None of them seemed to be aware of the major arts policy initiative of the Emanuel administration, the widely hyped 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan, with its ten priorities, 36 recommendations, and hundreds of possible actions—all aimed at goals like fostering arts education and expanding neighborhood cultural assets. Or, for that matter, of its predecessor, developed under Mayor Harold Washington, the groundbreaking Chicago Cultural Plan of 1986.

I don’t mean they weren’t aware of their details (or their serious flaws); there are a lot of them, and that could be understandable. I mean they didn’t seem to be aware that a nationally recognized Chicago plan for the arts, whose development entailed an extensive public process, exists at all.

Over the course of a 90-minute session in which each candidate got a minute and a half to answer a series of questions put by the moderators, Chicago Humanities Festival artistic director Alison Cuddy and WBBM Newsradio political editor Craig Dellimore, Gery Chico repeatedly called for “a plan for the arts in this city” as if it were a brand-new idea.

“We have to have a plan,” Chico said, boldly putting it out there. None of his co-panelists seized on numerous opportunities to point out that, in fact, Chicago has a major plan in place.

When Cuddy posed a question late in the session that included that information, Chico changed his mantra. “It’s certainly time to refresh the plan,” he said.

And all of the other panelists agreed (like so many harmonizing backup singers on the Grammys, which we all were missing). It’s time to take a fresh look, they said, at that plan that they hadn’t mentioned before.

Chalk it up to politics? Rahm distancing? Could be, otherwise you’d have to call it flat-out cluelessness. And that would be a mean thing to do to the folks who at least showed up to talk about the arts in a city plagued by gun violence, financial distress, entrenched corruption, and an uncertain future.

Here’s some of what else they had to say:

Vallas: “We need to give the arts community the power to impact decision-making.” He thinks local school councils should make decisions about art in the schools, and he would establish “a strong arts advisory council” that would, among other things, have input on budgeting. He wants mental health clinics (and possible art therapy) in each police district. “We’ve got to create an infrastructure of empowerment.”

Preckwinkle: As a grandmother and former history teacher, she said, she knows that “the arts are critical to our communities.” She’d audit city assets and invest in the arts, especially on the south, west, and southwest sides. She’d also make city-owned lots, small business development programs, and vacant schools available to arts organizations and encourage aldermen to use their discretionary funds for the arts. “It’s a cultural and also an economic development factor.”

Lightfoot: “It’s nonsensical not to support the arts given the return on investment,” she said. “Our arts community sets us apart from other cities.” She’d do more with grants to individual artists and artists-in-residence in Chicago schools. She favors a “modest” increase in hotel taxes to support the arts and wants “dedicated income streams in the budget” for neighborhood arts. As for financing arts in the schools: “CPS is not broke, just mismanaged.”

Chico: Besides forging an arts plan, he wants to “bring the one-third of Chicago Public Schools still lacking adequate arts resources up to the standard” and thinks we could pay for it (and more) by creating access to O’Hare airport from the west and charging for the use of it. Other sources of increased revenue for the city could include a casino, legal cannabis, and a tax on high-end real estate sales.

Wilson: He would “invest in the young people,” run the arts as a business, put a lobbying office in D.C., open marketing branches in other countries, lower taxes, and “investigate corrupt people and lock them up.”

None of the candidates would change the nonprofit tax status of arts organizations; all believe arts resources need to be better shared with the neighborhoods. All support the existing Percent for Art program for municipal construction projects and the 2017 Chicago Public Art Plan—which, like the Cultural Plan, they probably had just then heard about.

When it was Wilson’s turn to make a 90-second concluding statement, instead of summarizing his own agenda, he served up something we weren’t expecting: a prayer for God’s help.

Whoever wins this race is going to need it.   v