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Rahm Emanuel talks the arts

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You've got to hand it to Chicago's new mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel. His city is facing a budget deficit of anywhere from $600 million to over $1 billion, depending on who's doing the numbers. Yet the guy has the chutzpah to call in the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones to talk about... the arts.

To put things in perspective, last August Indianapolis' Mayor Greg Ballard announced that this city was up against a $50 million shortfall. To his credit, Ballard chose not to cut arts funding. Perhaps that's because public money for the arts in Indianapolis had already been chopped to a 10-year low.

But Chicago is not only a different order of magnitude from Indianapolis, it's a different story. That story has to do with civic ambition, which is something Mayor Ballard — and whoever runs against him in the mayoral election later this year — needs to understand.

While it's true the city that Rahm Emanuel is about to lead is suffering a massive fiscal migraine, that city has also elevated itself to international status thanks, in large part, to making the arts a major focus of public policy.

It may be hard for a lot of us to remember, but when Emanuel's predecessor, Richard M. Daley, was first elected to be Chicago's mayor in 1989, that city was a shadow of what we see today. The Chicago Symphony and the Art Institute were, as always, stalwart. But the Loop was moribund after dark, there was no self-proclaimed Theatre District. Columbia College's now world-renowned Dance Center was operating in low-rent quarters uptown and the Museum of Contemporary Art was in a cobbled-together space on Ontario St. There were no plantings decorating city boulevards. Most of all, there was no Millennium Park.

Chicago was big and it was gray. It had been torn by racial hostility during the administration of Harold Washington, a mayor who died before his vision for the city could be realized. And it was hammered by Rust Belt economics, the erosion of its industrial base. As the great Studs Terkel put it, visitors were in the habit of saying, "What a great city!" But they were always staring at Lake Michigan.

Daley changed things. He did it by realizing that it was too late to re-inflate the city's sagging industrial base. Daley saw that if Chicago could be known for its brains, as well as its brawn, it could attract the corporate power necessary to reinvigorate the city's economy. He used the arts to send a message.

Daley empowered the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, turning it into a major tool for civic development and making its head, the legendary Lois Weisberg, one of his closest advisors.

Chicago became more colorful, known for its free festivals, neighborhood events and internationally-covered exhibitions and performances. But it also achieved a ranking as fourth most important business center in the world by MasterCard Worldwide. It created the greatest number of new or expanded corporate facilities of any U.S. city during five of the last six years.

As time passed, however, Daley's reach seemed increasingly to exceed his grasp. Last December, the Department of Cultural Affairs was all but dismantled for reasons that are still hard to fathom. Lois Weisberg, the last of Daley's original cabinet members, resigned angrily.

Enter Rahm Emanuel. He's a mayor-in-waiting awash in red ink. But Emanuel also knows what part the arts have played in getting Chicago to its current, albeit troubled, status. "Phil Condit liked our opera," Emanuel said of the former Boeing CEO who moved his headquarters to Chicago. But: "The challenge we are going to have here," Emanuel told the Tribune's Jones, "is that this period of time has a financial reality. How do you think grand and not be constrained by that?"

Jones wrote that Emanuel listens to Wilco, "likes the darker plays at Steppenwolf Theatre and American Theater Company and is not about to stop hanging out at rock venues like Schubas or the Riviera Theatre." Emanuel told Jones he wants to make Chicago "an international destination for dance," boost neighborhood theater companies, and that a major focus will be arts after-school programs for kids, in order to reach "the souls of those children who seem to be left out of our civic and cultural life."

According to Jones, Emanuel didn't want to talk about budgetary and managerial specifics. No wonder. Coming to grips with Chicago's budget crisis will be a bloody process that will anger a lot of people — arts groups included.

But this interview was a public way for Emanuel to say that, when it comes to the arts, he gets it. And not just because somebody's slipped a copy of The Rise of the Creative Class in his briefcase. He knows Chicago. He knows the edge the arts have given his city.

"What was I going to do with this liberal arts education," Emanuel said of his upbringing. "Put it to waste?"

Indianapolis mayoral candidates: Pay attention.

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