Everyone knew that Maggie Daley meant the arts

In the summer of 2010, Mayor Richard M. Daley showed up at an anniversary event celebrating, and designed to further promote, Chicago's downtown theater district. But the real news was made when the mayoral voice started to crack while talking about the importance of the arts in public education. "Every one of these children can learn," Daley said from the podium, fighting back tears.

Maggie. That was the word everyone present was suddenly whispering.

It was known that Mrs. Daley was suffering from breast cancer. It was understood that Mrs. Daley stood for the arts, and widely assumed that her wildly successful lobbying had begun with her husband. And thus if Mayor Daley was becoming emotional talking about what the arts could do for his beloved city's young people, then it followed in everyone's mind, as surely as Adams Street lies north of Jackson Street, that he was actually becoming emotional about his wife.

Whether that was, in fact, the case wasn't the point. It was a revelatory moment because it illustrated the total surety that those who care about the arts in Chicago always felt about Maggie Daley.

It was a surety built on hard, practical evidence.

Uninterested in the trappings of the socialite, Maggie Daley was not synonymous with glittering opening nights, celebrity sycophancy or elitist artistic salons. Neither she nor Chicago ever had much patience for that. She saw the arts as a tool to change young lives. And Maggie Daley was very much aware that most arts-in-education advocates in America are unable to prevent their own marginalization, whatever the strength of their case. But Maggie Daley knew how to harness clout for creativity. When it came to that oft-underestimated talent, she was without obvious peer.

For proof, one needed only to attend one of the eye-popping annual fund-raising galas for After School Matters, the non-profit organization dedicated to the arts in the Chicago Public Schools. A vast sea of the well-connected would reliably appear — aldermen, businesspeople, politicos, consultants, city employees, the governor of the State of Illinois. They would mingle, and then, a tad reluctantly, head in for a weeknight show. But the chosen student performers would proceed to blow everyone away by singing, dancing and playing in a huge, dynamic, technically remarkable, unwaveringly beautiful swarm. Maggie Daley made sure of that.

And thus everyone present there would simultaneously arrive at the same personal revelation: To offer top-level artistic opportunity only to an elite is to deny the self-evident truth that raw artistic talent can and does show up in all kinds of economic circumstances. The talented just have to get the same training and opportunity.

Maggie Daley understood that they rarely do. And by letting the best arts students of the Chicago public schools make their own case at the gala, Maggie Daley made it feel like not writing a check would be the equivalent of failing the young people of our city, of allowing the inequities of modern American society to rage further out of control. You could see it dawning, as reliably as clockwork, on worn, lined, fatigued faces all over the room. At this event, schmoozing became mind-changing.

When, after her husband left office, it was charged that some felt pressured by city employees into making a contribution to After School Matters as a thank-you for city-dispensed benefits, there was a reminder that the forceful artistic passions of the former first lady did not always sit easily amid the need for city governments to be democratic and transparent. And yet there was never any charge of self-interest. It was just understood that arts education was important to the Daleys and this was a way to please them. Some capable kids were the beneficiaries.

It's surely no coincidence that two of Daley's daughters, Lally and Nora, are well poised to carry on their mother's work supporting the arts. Nora Daley Conroy chairs the Emanuel administration's Chicago Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee and chairs the board of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Elizabeth "Lally" Daley worked quietly but extensively on the Chicago Children's Theatre's autism project. Maggie Daley's artistic legacy will, for sure, continue. She has made the arts part of the signature of the city; no future politician will be able to ignore it.

Actually, you can sit on a good chunk of that artistic legacy. Since the halcyon days of Gallery 37, a precursor of After School Matters supported with equal passion by Maggie Daley, young artists and artisans from the Chicago Public Schools have built distinctively colorful seats and benches and sold them to help pay for arts programs — they still attract attention around town in offices and at the airport, where they signal the arts matter in Chicago. I bought a folding black seat for myself years ago; it sits on my front porch. It didn't cost much.

With their carved flowers and bright colors, their optimism and vibrancy, their depiction of personal narratives of the young, they're as apt a metaphor as any for Maggie Daley's remarkable contribution to the Chicago she loved.

The seats are beautiful, free-spirited, urban and individualistic. Their creators did not need to know a lot of technique to paint them well. And, at the end of the day, they're just chairs and benches. They're practical. Anybody can sit on them and rest awhile in the city. And recall some of what Maggie Daley did for its young artists.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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