9:48 AM CDT, May 18, 2012
At its 25th summit in Chicago this weekend, NATO will be preoccupied with the tricky business of how to advance its various institutional priorities — like global security and the building of stability — even as its member nations are more worried about local recession and red ink. Austerity may abound across Europe and beyond, but NATO still says it intends for the Chicago summit to be the place where philosophical decisions taken at the Lisbon summit 18 months ago are turned into actual programs and initiatives.
International cooperation must roll on, NATO leaders surely will be arguing at McCormick Place, whatever the domestic climate. The argument has a self-serving element — NATO does not, of course, want to be complicit in its own marginalization, but there's still a lesson here for Chicago as it ponders how to turn widespread discussion about new international arts initiatives into a practical commitment — the equivalent, in NATO terms, of actual boots on the ground.
International cooperation in the arts must also roll on in Chicago, whatever the domestic climate. Such work in the arts is expensive, and no international cultural program, whether it's Luminato in Toronto (which starts June 8) or Spoleto in Charleston, S.C., (which begins this week) or the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland (slated for August), makes it without significant public investment, which rightfully gives taxpayers a say in how it's spent. But even if the economic-impact figures released for this weekend's NATO events — the local host committee claims $128 million in activity spawned — have been questioned by independent economists, there remain clear and palpable benefits to having a weekend when more world leaders lay their heads simultaneously in Chicago than, surely, at any previous point in the city's storied history.
With all the kvetching about traffic, street closings and security hassles, that's a historic and marketable civic moment that has not received the attention it deserves.
The results of having the several hundred associated international journalists in town have yet to be tallied, but one can sense on Chicago streets this week the thrill of action and the pull of global centrality, however temporary. Despite their outward protestations to the contrary, Chicagoans mostly, secretly, deep down, like it when the world comes in for the weekend. It doesn't happen often: A lack of international tourists, this weekend notwithstanding, remains one of the city's most perplexing (what other city offers a more authentic American experience?) and correctable deficits, and the greatest single detriment to the city's rising cultural economy and the jobs it could spawn.
It is a large part of the big lag between spending on the arts and culture in New York, where international visitors crowd Broadway theaters and the Midtown entertainment district, and in Chicago, where arts groups must, for the most part, focus on a more limited pool of locals and visiting Midwesterners. Chicago's cultural organizations remain a key to increased international visibility for Chicago: One need only to have read the reports of the rapturous reception afforded the touring Chicago Symphony Orchestra in St. Petersburg and Moscow last month or seen the recent pictures from London of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's hip-hop "Othello" steaming up audiences packed into the Globe Theatre, experiencing Shakespeare from across the world as part of an international festival attached to the upcoming Olympic Games.
New international arts initiatives must navigate some tricky waters. Local arts organizations are wary of sudden new competition for audiences and philanthropic dollars. Chicago's arts organizations are far more cooperative than those in most cities, but competitive impulses are still strong, and control of international work, especially international work with funding attached, enhances institutional and individual prestige. Those existing relationships must be nurtured and protected, but they also can't be allowed to choke new and radical initiatives. Meanwhile, local artists often argue that bringing in the likes of Robert LePage or Philip Glass (both of whom are appearing at Luminato next month) merely diverts resources from Chicago's own underfunded arts scene and offers no benefits to those who live and work here for much less compensation than such cultural titans routinely command. Yet Chicago is a huge city, and merely creating a marketing plan for what's already here — creating a website and calling existing shows an international festival — would hardly make a NATO-size international splash.
So, in other words, any new international arts initiatives in Chicago must dance a tricky dance: They must bring palpable benefits for the local arts community; they must offer excitement and enrichment to ordinary citizens asked to help pay their bills; and they must raise the city's profile on the international stage, helping increase tourism and bringing economic benefits across the spectrum, from hotel owners to tour-bus guides hoping for more shifts. They cannot fail in any of those areas, lest they fail in all of them.
Potential models can be found not just in Sydney or in Auckland, New Zealand, but right here in Chicago. The Lollapalooza music festival has become sufficiently big, diverse and concentrated to become a national destination. There's a partial lesson there. The 4-year-old TBS Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, slated for the second week of June and put together by a Montreal-based group with heavy sponsorship dollars from the cable station TBS, now manages to bring enough big names to town (Sarah Silverman, Stephen Merchant andConan O'Brien all are on their way) that the week is special for Chicagoans who can see artists they would not otherwise see, and also for comedy-loving tourists interested in scheduling a visit. And yet Just for Laughs also listened to early criticism from local comedians, institutions and comedy actors and has done a much better job this year at seeking out and programming local talent at a slew of small venues across the city. This deft blend of stars, up-and-comers and Chicago-based as-yet-unknowns is starting to attract enough industry insiders to these local showcases that new opportunities for Chicagoans in the entertainment business will surely result.
That's the sweet spot that any international initiative using public funding must find: There must be benefits for everyone, and it must have a populist, inclusive, non-elitist sensibility if it is to fit Chicago. One of the biggest improvements in the Chicago cultural economy over the past few years has been the attention paid to its breakout achievements from outside. No longer does talent or extraordinary work done here typically go unnoticed. Theatrical exports from Chicago have been increasing, from Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "August: Osage County" to, it seems increasingly likely, Goodman Theatre's "The Iceman Cometh." Institutions like the symphony and the Art Institute of Chicago have built on their already formidable international profile; the Lyric Opera has been professing a new openness to collaborations of all kinds.
Still, these improvements notwithstanding, Chicago still lags behind London, New York and Los Angeles when it comes to cultural buyers on the prowl looking for the next hot thing — those who routinely wander the streets and can see an actor and dangle a TV contract, see a concert and put together an international tour, see an artist and offer a commission, see a play and move it toward being a movie or a global stage phenomenon. "War Horse" became a Steven Spielberg movie because his producer happened to see the show in London. Such discoveries should and could happen more in Chicago.
Even as plans are made to better showcase Chicago culture to the world, a goal of Chicago's cultural leaders should be to correct that deficit and thus make the city yet more attractive to opinion leaders and ordinary folks alike, and yet more hospitable to the growing pool of artists who enrich its citizens every weekend of the year.
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