Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein. "In The Moment" offers a quick 60-second read about new ideas, events, shows and productions in the HMS world, and "Adventures In Yes" takes a deeper dive into how art and media reflect, define and inspire our world. Enjoy!

April 23, 2019

ADVENTURES IN YES: "The Art of Leadership"

TL/DR: Get politicians to talk about the arts, and for better and worse, they'll tell you more about themselves than they might realize. Two cases in point (and studies in contrast): the President of the United States and the newly inaugurated Mayor of Chicago.

Lori Lightfoot, Chicago's 56th Mayor, with her wife Amy.

Welcome to City Hall, Lori Lightfoot.

I’ve had a few opportunities to talk with our new Mayor, and I'm impressed by her intelligence, wit, empathy and spine.

All these qualities and then some were on display throughout a tough campaign. All have been evident since. And they all shine brightly when our new Mayor talks about the arts.

Several times I’ve heard Mayor Lightfoot recount her how the arts make all of our lives (and have certainly made hers) exponentially more beautiful, by showing us the world in ways we would likely never have otherwise experienced. And she readily acknowledges that the way a city embraces the arts is a measure of its soul.

I deeply appreciate that, and it had a lot to do with why I voted for her.

Yes, I know. Lori Lightfoot's feelings about the arts are not what won her the election. Admirable as a candidate's position on arts policy may be, it's never going to be the defining issue that gets them elected to any office, much less Mayor of Chicago.

But if you want keen and unexpected insights into how candidates view the job they seek, the world they inhabit, the government they intend to lead and the people they aspire to serve, then you would be well-advised to listen to them talk about the arts.

Take President Trump.

Money is my least favorite way to talk about the arts, but it’s the President’s favorite way to talk about everything. So you'd think the Dealmaker-in-Chief would find these facts compelling:

  • The arts account for 4.2% of America’s GDP.
  • They generate $763 billion in economic activity.
  • They account for nearly 5 million jobs.
  • Those nearly 5 million jobs generate $370 billion in pay.
  • Arts advocates are requesting $167.5 million of taxpayer dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts (which is about half of Bryce Harper’s contract and just over a third of Mike Trout’s). The arts generate approximately $9 billion in federal tax revenue that go straight back to the government (and that doesn’t include the billions more tax dollars generated for state and local governments). $167.5 million out, $9 billion in. That’s an almost 54-1 return on investment.
  • The arts export $20 billion more than they import. The President’s misunderstandings of trade deficits aside, you’d think he’d be all over an industry that pulls that off year after year.

And yet.

For the third year in a row, a President who prides himself on his business acumen and brags incessantly about his ability to know a great deal when he sees one has called not for the zeroing out of the budgets for National Endowment for the Arts (and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcast, Museum and Library Services and all arts and culture related programs and agencies), but for their complete elimination.

Forget for a moment that these agencies benefit our country socially, culturally, educationally and medically. They are also clear economic winners, with a profound return on investment. And the President of the United States, whether out of ignorance or malice, wants them gone. It’s for moments like these that Hans Christian Anderson wrote “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Now, contrast this with Lori Lightfoot.

At the Mayoral Arts Forum hosted by Arts Alliance Illinois, our new Mayor certainly had key facts at her disposal (for example, that the arts have a $2.25 billion-dollar annual impact just on Chicago’s Loop). She also embraced broad social perspectives about the arts, and opined that Chicago’s greatness will be measured in part by how welcoming and livable it is for artists. And, buttoning her remarks with both savvy and sensittivity, she quoted Steppenwolf Theatre’s former artistic director, the late great Martha Lavey:

We are fortunate to live in a city that recognizes that artists, and the institutions that support their work, are essential to the quality of life in the city, and to its future. Chicago is a city that recognizes the great human need for beauty, for story, for the respite that the arts provide to engage our imagination. The arts permit us to shift our frame of reference, to see the world through the eyes of another, to see and hear the world anew.

That same Martha Lavey quote headlines Lightfoot’s “Advancing Arts & Culture” policy statement, something none other Mayoral candidate created, in which the soon-to-be-Mayor declared her intention to:

  • Prioritize funding for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for increased equitable grantmaking and microfinancing to individual artists, arts organizations and arts corridors.
  • Audit and streamline city licensing and permitting regulations, including the Public Performance and Amusement license.
  • Develop an Artist-in-Residence program to build job opportunities for artists and mentorship opportunities for young people.
  • Bring together ideas and resources from the city, philanthropy, culture and the arts to develop policies and strategies to keep artists living and working in Chicago.
  • Build investment in Chicago’s public art program by overhauling the Percent for Art ordinance.
  • Enhance the voices of socially-active artists to encourage civic engagement and support developing creative conversations and solutions to our city’s biggest challenges.

Mayor-Elect Lightfoot speaks as someone who sees the arts as a unique way to embrace the most essential part of our humanity.

She acts as someone who sees them as a force through which we can shape and improve the way we talk with and learn from each other.

And she appears to think in a way that suggest that “Yes And” actually means something to her.

Time will tell.

But for now, I'm gratified that the arts played a pivotal role in revealing not just what Lori Lightfoot wants to do for our city, but how and why she plans to do it.

And I'm optimistic that our new Mayor will approach arts policy, and indeed all policy, with the kind of creative, improvisational and ensemble mindsets characteristic of the arts in Chicago.

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