It's no news to readers of RF that I believe culture is a right, not a privilege. That's a hard belief to affirm in the positive, but Chicago is actually one of the few places I can point to as proof. Every summer the city hosts some of the best music and arts festivals out there--and I'm obviously not talking about Pitchfork or Lollapalooza. The Chicago Blues Fest, Wicker Park Fest, Taste of Chicago and countless others are free (though they accept donations), and have hosted some truly original acts of both national and local profile. Wicker Park Fest in particular has been where I've discovered some excellent artists--Ebony Bones, Gemini Club and Hollywood Holt just to name a few. If I had been forced to pay some outrageous sum at the entrance, it's doubtful I would have had this opportunity.
All of this has helped put Chicago as one of the last few places in the country that still provides its citizens with decent music for free, even as the city has sold off everything from parking meters to toll booths off to private firms. Now, in the new age of increased austerity and privatization, this right is going the way of the dodo too. Jim DeRogatis has already reported of how public funds set aside for arts development have been increasingly going missing in recent years. The latest news is now that the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is being dismantled, its staffers laid off, its programs gutted.
And now, the long-held fear of the summer fests being handed over to private companies appears to be coming true. The Blues Festival, Taste of Chicago and five other high-profile fests have been offered up to bidding. It's put organizers months behind on booking acts for this summer, and the news has also surfaced that the new private owners will most likely be allowed to charge too.
The good news (if you can call it that) is that the fests haven't gotten any bidders that music fans know to dread. Live Nation hasn't stepped up to the plate, nor any of its subsidiaries. The one and only company to show interest has been Celebrate Chicago LLC. The only problem? Nobody seems to know anything about Celebrate Chicago LLC!
As DeRo points out: "The company does not turn up on a search of registered corporations in Illinois--possibly because it was formed specifically to respond to this proposal, either as a dedicated venture or a partnership with other entities to qualify for the city's women and minority hiring rules, and probably because it's too new to have been registered yet with the state, especially given the holiday."
The coming weeks will no doubt give us more info on who these guys are. But given Chicago's long history of corporate corruption, the current secrecy doesn't bode well for the future of the city's arts and music scene. A growing number of US cities and states are facing bankruptcy, and rather than doing the obvious thing by raising taxes on the rich and powerful, most governments seem poised to rather take it out on working people. It's our jobs on the chopping block, our homes, our social safety nets, and now our culture.