Will the Chicago Cultural Center Survive the Loss of Its Longtime Champion, Maggie Daley?

Will the Chicago Cultural Center Survive the Loss of Its Longtime Champion, Maggie Daley?
The Chicago Cultural Center
(Courtesy Wikipedia; Photo by David K. Staub)

Last November saw the passing of Maggie Daley, the former Chicago First Lady who was widely regarded as one of the most powerful fundraising agents for the city's arts programs. When added to the dissolution of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs in 2010, and organizational changes under the new mayorship of Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago arts scene is finding itself in an uncommonly strained position. Now, members of the Chicago Cultural Center Foundation, for which Maggie was a leading advocate, say that the board of directors has not met or held a fundraising event for the past year. Without her help, many believe the otherwise stalwart institution may not survive. "Now it's just a different situation," Ruth Horwich, an art collector and honorary chair of the Hyde Park Arts Center, told the Chicago Tribune. "I think that now that Maggie Daley's gone, my personal feeling is that 'that's the end of that.'"

For more than a century, the Cultural Center has been a beloved gem on Michigan Avenue's "Magnificent Mile," a stretch of downtown Chicago that runs from the Art Institute to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The city's fifth most attended cultural institution, it features some of the most beautiful architecture and stained glass designs in the city, and is host to hundreds of cultural events every year, often for free or at low cost. When Daley was mayor, the city's investments in the Center Foundation — some totaling as much as $700,000 — were plentiful, and support for startups like the Chicago Artists Resource and the World Music Festival have been particular points of civic pride. But expectations are starting to change. According to the Tribune, the MacArthur Foundation, which has pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars for programming at the Center through 2014, is making contingency plans for the money in case the organization shuts down. A recent suspension of the Center's lunchtime concert series has been a particular source of chagrin, as was the closing of the building's popular café and gift shop.

Though it's hard to place singular blame for the Cultural Center's problems on Emanuel's shoulders, the arrival of the new mayor coincided with several crucial changes in how the city supports the arts. Earlier this year, Michelle Boone, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, was on the defensive when she allowed a contract with the Center to expire. While her decision was in line with the mayor's wish replace staff at many major Chicago cultural institutions with "in-house" employees, corresponding posts in the city government have yet to be filled, and many locals are concerned. "This isn't good," a frequent visitor to the Center told the Tribune. "Making changes without discussion, and the prospect of not replacing things with equally good stuff."