Art Works Blog

Postcard from Chicago, Tucson, New York City

Washington, DC

Between my trips to Tucson and New York, I took some personal time for my first ever visit to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Hope to definitely make this a habit!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks of traveling. I started off in Chicago for a few days, first with the MacArthur Foundation, which hosted a panel about the arts and culture in action. I was part of a great group of opening presenters: Elspeth Revere from MacArthur itself, Roche Schulfer, an old friend of mine who runs the Goodman Theatre and Shelley Poticha from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Another one of the opening speakers was Rahm Emmanuel, the incoming mayor of Chicago. Rahm was great. He said to me as he went on, “This is about arts and the economy, right?” And I said, “Right. Do it.” And he said, “Got it.” And he went out and talked about arts and the economy. But before that he talked very personally---with humor and passion---about the importance of the art in our soul and psyche. And how it can inspire and transform, and how it’s valuable in its own right.

The panelists were Jeanne Gang, who is an artist and founder of Studio Gang; Theaster Gates, who’s a multifaceted urban planner and artist; Lindsay Gaskins, who runs the Brain Store; and Jaime de Leon, who’s the director of the New Communities Program, ENLACE Chicago. Steve Edwards, from Chicago Public Media, was the moderator.

We had a great, lively discussion. It was very focused on what’s going on now in Chicago, really the intersection of the arts and neighborhood revitalization, community building, all of our themes. I think that Chicago’s one of the leaders in creative placemaking. In Chicago, everybody knows this subject; this is basics for them. And I think we had a great panel, all around. And it was great that everybody showed up from MacArthur, it was a great day.

The next day, we had the National Mayors' Summit on City Design Opening Plenary. I think there were maybe 170 U.S. Mayors there. The speakers were NEA Design Director Jason Schupbach, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley; Elizabeth Kautz, who’s now the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Ron Bogle of the American Architectural Foundation; Thom Mayne, a brilliant architect and urban designer; and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.,  of course, who’s the godfather of the Mayors' Institute on City Design (MICD) and of creative placemaking in general.

It was great that we were in Chicago, because---for my money, as I said the next day---in a way it all started there in 1989 when Mayor Daley renovated those run-down Vaudeville houses, those old theatrical palaces, and created a downtown theater district in Chicago. He created an arts district where there hadn’t been one. It became the anchor of the revitalization of downtown Chicago and transformed the city. And Chicago’s different from any other city now, because of its arts: because of the theater district, because of Millennium Park, because of the Art Institute, and all of that. So it was great that we were in Chicago and also, all throughout the event, honoring Mayor Daley, too.

I think our next step is to really encourage the mayors to create examples that are imitated elsewhere in the country. The more and more mayors who go through MICD, the more they get it. Mayor A.C. Wharton of Memphis came through MICD, and now he has all kinds of ideas about how the arts can be central to the revitalization of his city. So, I think as we keep getting more mayors through MICD, the mayors talk to other mayors, they see what’s going on in other cities, and it has a big multiplier effect.

Friday morning, was, in part, a celebration for Mayor Daley, and we had an impressive array of mayors in the room. We also had Manny Diaz, former mayor of Miami who is a leader in creative placemaking and a leader in using the arts to make Miami what it is today. We had Michael Nutter, mayor of Philadelphia, who’s very blunt and outspoken, and we also had Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. It was quite a collection of impressive mayors.

In the late morning, we had a session that was the MICD Forum Recommendations and Federal Response. Basically, it was a meeting of the mayors and federal officials. I was sitting at a table with Derek Douglas, who works with Melody Barnes on the White House Domestic Policy Counsel; Roy Kienitz, Ray LaHood’s under secretary for policy at the Department of Transportation, Shelley Poticha, Mayor Villaraigosa, and Mayor Nutter. It was a very frank back-and-forth. The mayors said they need resources from the federal government, and it was a very good exchange in terms of what’s needed now to rebuild American cities. Tom Cochran, who heads the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was one of the speakers, and gave a ringing endorsement of the NEA and our work in cities, and talked about how important we are. It was very gratifying to hear that.

Then onto Tucson. I went to Tucson at the suggestion of Jim Ballinger, one of our National Council on the Arts members who runs the Phoenix Art Museum. It was a short visit: I attended a luncheon and gave a speech about creative placemaking and what we do. It turned out that Marian Godfrey was there, an old friend and colleague from my days at the Yale School of Drama who has been working at the Pew Foundation for many years.

It was really great to meet the arts folks in Arizona. They were gathered together to find out how they could work collectively to promote the arts in the state, and have the arts be an integral part of state policy. You know, things are not easy in any state; there’s the economic implosion, which is affecting budgets everywhere. And the state arts folks in Arizona gathered there to talk about what they can do as an arts constituency in that state, and it was great to be among them.

It’s been very difficult there with funding with the state legislature, and as I said in my talk, I was very surprised that people were not moaning and hanging crepe, and there wasn’t the sense of discouragement in the room. It was more, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and see what it takes to get this done.” There was really a sense of resolve in the room, and I hadn’t expected that. It was great to see. The arts folks in Arizona are very resilient.

The next week I was in New York City for the Ford Foundation’s Fresh Angle conference. My event was a conversation with Frank Rich, who’s an old friend---one of my best friends---and we talked about what the NEA is doing. It was a wide-ranging conversation that went on for about an hour, talking about all the work we’re doing at the NEA, and our intersection with the other federal agencies, with the private sector, and with the foundations.

I think our best exchange happened when Frank asked me about a point of view that I’ve had ever since I was a Broadway producer, about the role of subsidy in producing art. Where you have subsidy, you presumably have protection to do work that’s more adventuresome, that’s more daring. It has been a theme of mine all along. Frank’s question enabled me to talk about that and transition it to our work at the NEA where we’re trying to support work that’s maybe not supported by the marketplace. And to find a role for art and artists, find a protected environment where they can do their work and even risk failure. I had a chance to talk about the lure of commercial success and the whole success ethos in our country. It is a pet theme of mine, and I was able to, with that question, tie a lot of the strands of my career together.

All of the panels that Ford had scheduled for that day were so interesting that I ended up staying all day. It was a whole day of showcasing Ford’s engagement with the arts, which is very significant. Ford’s still a big player in the arts. Darren Walker, who’s only come to Ford in the last year or so, was the guy who ran this along with Luis Ubiñas. I thought it was a big hit. I thought everybody was engaged, was stimulated, was inspired. It was just a great day altogether, and I was proud to play my little role in it. But more than that, it was fascinating to me to listen to the panels and to engage the panels with questions when I could. It was a great day and it left me feeling very reassured about Ford’s commitment to the arts.

You know, it was a long set of days on the road. I think the assumption is that, you know, my life is lived from crisis to crisis, and that because I’m in the vortex of a lot of pressure,  I’m not having a good time.I wish people would ask me, “How are you doing? Are you having fun?”  Because I am, I’m really having a ball!

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