Self-styled 'arts crusader'

Michelle Boone prepares for toughest job of her career as Chicago's cultural commissioner

Chicago's newly appointed Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events happens to be one of the city's most influential jazz advocates.

But Michelle Boone's impact extends far beyond the music she has championed in the job she's about to leave: senior program officer for the Joyce Foundation.

In her seven years at Joyce, Boone has helped direct funds toward culturally diverse drama at Chicago's Silk Road Theatre Project; the training of minority arts administrators at Steppenwolf Theatre; and grass-roots performance organizations across the Midwest – to the tune of $2 million a year.

Though Boone commands a stellar reputation among arts professionals citywide, she knows she's about to take on the toughest job of her career.

"I'm not fooling myself into thinking this will be easy and lots of fun," says Boone, 49. "It's going to be tough. There's going to be a lot of work to do.

"Number one is kind of rebuilding the department. The reality is that there are these two massive departments that have been kind of thrown together," adds Boone.

She refers to Mayor Daley's recent, controversial merger of Department of Cultural Affairs and the Mayor's Office of Special Events (the latter produces the summertime music festivals), with some Cultural Affairs staffers shifted to the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.

"So how do you bring some unity and some sense of a unified theme to (the) two camps?" asks Boone. "While they've been working together on some things, they've really been functioning independently, and they have very different cultures."

How well these factions cooperate will affect the quality of cultural life in Chicago, for the city presents hundreds of arts events, large and small, through the course of a year.

"I've got to wrap my mind around an enormous amount of programming that's being produced in both departments," says Boone.

Moreover, Boone realizes she'll need to form a unified vision for the non-profit arts in Chicago – and how city government can use its shrinking budget to promote it.

Those who have worked with Boone during her career in the arts believe she's up to the task.

"She knows the arts, she knows the artists, she's got an incisive mind, she's straightforward," says David Hawkanson, executive director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

"She is a collaborator – she believes hugely in institutions working together, artists working together, people working together," says Malik Gillani, founding executive director of the Silk Road Theatre Project.

"Michelle's greatest asset is her knowledge of how the arts are happening throughout the city, beyond the Loop," says Deepa Gupta, program officer of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.

"She's got a real understanding of neighborhood-based organizations and the role individual artists play. … She's going to be that bridge-builder. She's already active and visible on the scene, and it will be great to have her in this role.

"And that's not saying anything against Lois Weisberg," adds Gupta, referencing Boone's recently resigned predecessor. "But it's a different era now, and if Rahm Emanuel is serious about not having (cultural) competition between downtown and the neighborhoods, I think he picked exactly the right person."

Not that Boone expected to find herself in this critical post.

"I was probably as surprised as you are," says Boone, with characteristic directness.

Early on, says Boone, her name "seemed to bubble up from the community" as a possibility for the cultural commissioner's job. "But I was really hesitant to even go in and interview for it. And then I got invited to join (Emanuel's) arts transition team."

She savored the opportunity to participate in the arts brain trust and, thereby, have a voice in the city's cultural future. When she was offered the top job, she found it impossible to resist.

"This is a great place, there's so much here – so how could you not want to?" says Boone, who was born in Chicago.

Smitten with the arts since childhood, Boone says that she "played clarinet in the school band really badly" and "was in the choral program singing really badly, in the photography program taking really bad pictures.

"But I knew there was something there for me. In high school (in Gary, Ind.) I got involved in a radio-TV program, and that's when the light went off, when I realized I could do things behind the scenes, that all these talented people need people to support their work."

Thus Boone says, "I'm not an artist, but I call myself an arts crusader."

Born on the South Side, where she now lives, Boone's family moved to Gary when she was 10. After earning a bachelor's degree in telecommunications at Indiana University, in Bloomington, in 1983, Boone worked for the rest of the decade full-time as a TV engineer in Chicago. Subsequent work in record promotions "wasn't for me," she says, so she spent a stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad, from 1994 to 1996. She returned to Indiana University to earn a master's degree in Public Affairs, in 1998.

Her tenure at the city's arts job-training program Gallery 37 stretched from 1998 to 2004, with the last two as director, and "got me on the track for (being an) arts administrator," she says.

In her new post, Boone will head a Cultural Affairs Leadership Team that includes David McDermott as chief of staff for the Department of Cultural Affairs; and she'll collaborate with a Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee chaired by Nora Daley, Mayor Richard M. Daley's daughter, with Marj Halperin as vice chair.

Though Boone believes it's a bit early to spell out her goals, some overarching themes clearly are important to her.

"Pie-in-the-sky, I want the department to continue to thrive and be a resource for high-quality programming," says Boone. "I'd like to see the department be more of a platform for the smaller or neighborhood, community-based organizations. …

"It's still very foggy. Ask me in six months, and I might have a better picture of all that."

Perhaps no constituency is more pleased by Boone's appointment than Chicago's jazz community, for Boone has been a key figure in the Chicago Jazz Partnership, which has poured millions into the music since 2005.

"She has an understanding and an appreciation of Chicago jazz," says Alyce Claerbaut, president of Strayhorn Songs and a leading Chicago jazz advocate.

Boone apparently plans to act on her love of the music.

"Don't worry, my colleagues in the Jazz Partnership are not going to let me forget about jazz," says Boone.

"I read what you wrote about Mayor Daley, that you never saw him at a jazz concert," adds Boone, referring to a Tribune column that appeared on May 1.

"I promise I'm going to get Rahm out there to jazz events, and we'll be snapping our fingers together."

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich
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