The Concrete Megalopolis Needs Its Grass Spots, Too’: Nonprofit Arts Leadership in Chicago, 1971-2001

December, 2001


In 1972, a Chicago Tribune reporter surveyed the city’s underfunded and disorganized nonprofit arts scene, and urged that "The concrete megalopolis needs its grass spots, too." For Chicago’s nonprofit arts community to flourish, the writer argued, it needed greater external support and better cooperation between organizations. Its leaders required more legal and technical knowledge. With Chicago’s own Council of Fine Arts still several years from its genesis, the writer insisted that the Illinois Arts Council (IAC), given its limited budget and statewide obligations, would be unable to serve the city’s growing needs. Months later, seventy representatives from Chicago’s arts groups—from the Organic Theater to the Lyric Opera—came together to protest proposed cuts in the IAC’s budget. For Chicago’s artists and arts managers, it marked an important moment in the creation of a collective identity. Musing that "Midwestern hardheadedness" had for too long impeded "unity among [Chicago’s] artists," one observer saw great promise in the coming together of so many arts leaders in one room. Together, the meeting’s participants agreed upon the needs to mobilize politically and to articulate the arts’ vital place in the urban fabric.

Beyond issues of funding and organization, Chicago’s nonprofits also faced public uncertainty about the artistic product offered by the city’s small and midsize organizations. In the early 1970s, cultural arts coverage in theTribune or the Chicago Reader reflected a keen awareness that this was an era of fragile beginnings. Early editions of the Reader (which first hit the press in 1972), for example, carried headlines like "Raising the Level of Chicago Theater" and "Can Chicago Support a Ballet?" A reviewer might remark, with seeming surprise, that a Chicago theater "proved [itself] capable of presenting highly professional theater [with] Chicago actors." If forward-looking, even optimistic, much coverage suggested that Chicago’s artists had something to prove with regard to the quality and sustainability of their enterprise.

Three decades later, the grass has grown. Hundreds of visual and performing arts organizations have emerged—some have lived short, but vibrant lives, while others have prospered to be counted among the city’s cultural fixtures. Many have garnered national and international acclaim. According to data gathered through the municipal CityArts grant program, Chicago today boasts approximately thirty nonprofit dance organizations with post-1970 founding dates. In the visual arts, the number exceeds thirty. In music, that number is forty. For theater, the count approaches ninety. Added to these are over thirty "multi-arts" programming centers. These figures do not even account for the many organizations that have come and gone in that time. This all evidences a trajectory of growth across the visual and performing arts disciplines. Between 1971 and 2001, the total number of organizations funded through the IAC has risen from several dozen to 761. Further, today there is a much broader constellation of support. In Chicago, more than a dozen service institutions—such as the Chicago Artists’ Coalition, the League of Chicago Theaters, the Arts & Business Council, and the Illinois Arts Alliance, complemented by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs (and its antecedent Chicago Council of Fine Arts) and the Illinois Arts Council--have risen to the allied causes of arts advocacy, leadership training, board development, and the promotion of organizational collaboration.

While the nonprofit arts thrive in Chicago, the city’s current cultural landscape offers new questions, many of which the present Leadership Succession Project attempts to address. That we can now speak of a "generation" of nonprofit arts organizations is proof of progress, but also portends challenges ahead. The arts community finds itself on the front edge of a generational shift, confronted with the needs to replace veteran leaders and, in turn, to shepherd organizations through uncharted paths of institutional transformation. Ostensibly, the pressing questions are future-oriented: How will organizations replace departing leaders? With whom? How will leadership changes affect the character of organizations?

This essay, however, will look back. It draws on extended interviews with arts veterans who have participated in and witnessed the growth of Chicago’s nonprofits from a diversity of positions. Those interviewed include (in alphabetical order):

  • Richard Christiansen, Chief Critic and Senior Writer at the Chicago Tribune, and formerly the arts and entertainment editor of the Chicago Daily News
  • Fred Fine, founder and former Chair of Columbia College’s Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management Department, and Chicago’s first Commissioner of Cultural Affairs
  • Joan Gunzberg, Executive Director of the Arts and Business Council of Chicago
  • Juana Guzman, Associate Director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, formerly Director of Community Cultural Development at the Department of Cultural Affairs
  • Ronne Hartfield, formerly Executive Director of Urban Gateways: The Center for Arts in Education, and Director for Museum Education at the Art Institute of Chicago
  • Nick Rabkin, Director of the Chicago Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College, formerly managing director of the Organic Theater, Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Cultural Affairs, and Senior Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the MacArthur Foundation
  • Arlene Rakoncay, founding member and Executive Director of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition
  • Janet Carl Smith, Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Programming at the Department of Cultural Affairs
  • Carlos Tortolero, founder and Executive Director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum
  • Dennis Zacek, Artistic Director of the Victory Gardens Theater since 1977

While collectively the interviews offer significant breadth of perspective, this essay is neither comprehensive in coverage—theater, for example, receives more attention than dance--nor does it claim to capture a universal "arts management experience." Recognizing this, these pages shy away from declarative conclusions. Instead, the essay lets the experts’ words, in both convergence and contradiction, lead the way. So doing, it makes two offerings: First, it begins to tell a history of Chicago’s nonprofit arts managers, which has yet to be chronicled in any thorough way. Secondly, it confirms the basic truth that as the field of arts leadership evolves forward, there is much to be learned from the past. As interviewees were asked to reflect on the past, they all spoke beyond the bounds of their specific organizations and institutions, and they instinctively speculated upon the future—ways to learn from past organizational failures and to model past successes, the continuing and intertwined needs to pursue diversified leadership and audiences, and the challenge of energizing new leaders with a democratic orientation toward the arts.

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