On a brilliant blue-sky day in Chicago — the kind of day that makes you think the city by the lake ranks right up there with Rio or Vancouver as one of the world’s most spectacular urban settings — Lois Weisberg (C46) is sitting in her sun-drenched office overlooking Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park, getting revved up about cows.
A petite 78-year-old woman with wisps of silvery hair flying out from under stylish rectangular sunglasses perched high on her head, Weisberg, who oversees a $14 million budget, has something cooking that could be a winner. And for this commissioner extraordinaire of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, who is keen on adding sizzle to the city, that’s all it takes to put a glint in her eye.
The cows Weisberg is currently warming to are not the Chicago cows — the famous life-size fiberglass ones decorated by local artists that invaded the city in 1999, generating $200 million in economic impact and drawing a million or so visitors from around the world. Weisberg is credited with making that blockbuster exhibit happen.
The cows currently on the commissioner’s mind are at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences on the far South Side. “It’s the last piece of farmland in the city,” says Weisberg, leaning in. “They have pigs and chickens. They grow corn,” she adds excitedly.
Last fall she organized a scouting expedition to the school to find out if students could grow food that could be used in a new “healthy foods” café she envisioned. (They could.) The café is due to open in the next few months at the downtown Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, another Weisberg pet project, which houses pioneering programs for Chicago teens.
The farm-and-café connection is quintessential “Lois.” Masterminding projects that wed diverse elements, then wooing the public is second nature to the commissioner, whose often-whimsical initiatives have boosted tourism and given the City of the Big Shoulders a more adventurous, fun-loving image.
She has been showered with honors, including the Chicago Tribune’s Chicagoan of the Year award in 1999, Governing Magazine’s Public Official of the Year award in 2001 and the 2003 Alumnae Award from the Alumnae of Northwestern University. In April the Northwestern Alumni Association will award Weisberg the 2004 Service to Society Award.
You’d think she’d have a big head. Instead, during a speech at Northwestern on the fall day she received the Alumnae award, she tossed in a few self-deprecating stories. Not long after joining the staff of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in 1983, she planned a surprise for him “in front of about 5,000 people at McCormick Place. I ar-ranged for a huge birthday cake made out of fortune cookies. A bakery in Chinatown had worked for months to create this monstrosity. As the cake was wheeled out, I realized the mayor would never be able to cut into it and I asked someone to bring me a hammer. Someone did, and as I went toward the mayor, smiling, with the hammer in my hand, I was immediately arrested and removed bodily from the stage because nobody knew who I was.”
That was 20 years ago. These days, people know her — and her startling brainstorms.
“Lois comes up with these ideas and everyone looks at her and says, ‘Are you kidding me?’” says Jennifer Manning, culinary arts coordinator for Gallery 37 Center for the Arts. “But if you think about it, it’s always something everyone in Chicago finds intriguing. I think she is always … trying to keep a pulse on what people are interested in and thinking of what would be different and unique that the city could offer.”
The year after Cows on Parade received global press coverage, Weisberg launched a sort of urban ping-pong fest and put tables all over the city for impromptu matches. Other zesty Weisberg initiatives have included free Loop Tour Train rides on the city’s historic “El,” offered Saturdays from June through September with narration by Chicago Architecture Foundation guides (the rides drew 11,000 people last year), and SummerDance, a free festival on a 3,500-square-foot open-air dance floor in Grant Park. That program features lessons and dancing under the stars with live music, from Afropop to zydeco. Sixty-thousand people turned out to dance in the park last summer.
One of her newer brainstorms will benefit the city’s winged residents: birdhouses designed by Chicago architects and artists to resemble historic buildings no longer standing, including those in the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The plan is for the houses to be on display this summer in the new Women’s Garden outside the Clarke House (Chicago’s oldest home, built circa 1836), where they will help attract both birds and people to the South Loop’s Prairie Avenue Historic District.
During Weisberg’s first few years as commissioner (after serving as assistant to the mayor for special projects, she was appointed commissioner by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1989), she oversaw the transformation of the spectacular 1897 Chicago Public Library building on the corner of Washington Street and Michigan Avenue into the city’s Cultural Center, then filled it with a dizzying array of free programs featuring some of the finest musicians, dancers, actors and artists from around the city.
The commissioner’s Cultural Center office is adjacent to Preston Bradley Hall, where classical concerts take place at noon on Mondays and Wednesdays under a mesmerizing Tiffany dome. (The music drifts into Weisberg’s reception area.) The massive building, which has marble staircases inlaid with glittering mosaics, also has a Visitors’ Center, a busy café and comfortable chairs in quiet corners.
“This was an empty building after it was the library. We didn’t have the things you use to put the light bulbs in. They took everything,” says Weisberg. “So we had to start from scratch and really think about putting plays [and other events] in spaces not made for them, and we’ve been really successful. This is the only place in the city where the people think they really own it. They think this is their building.”
One of her most important accomplishments, she says, was bringing the city’s Office of Tourism into the Department of Cultural Affairs, spawning what is called “cultural tourism” in Chicago. The traditional thinking, says Weisberg, was “to promote the lakefront and the shops and restaurants, but you can’t do that over and over and over again. You have to create new things for visitors to come to.”
And visitors have come. Since 1993, when Cultural Affairs absorbed Tourism (now a $9 billion industry in Chicago), travel to the city has increased 48 percent, according to Dorothy Coyle (KSM01), the city’s director of tourism. Before other people had “figured it out,” says Coyle, Weisberg knew that “cultural tourism is important. Then here come all these studies showing that cultural travelers spend more money when they visit a city. They stay longer. They are high-value travelers.”
Targeting these travelers, Weisberg and Coyle began offering what they call “Immersion Weekends,” partnering with hotels, giving people VIP access to events such as blues and jazz concerts or opera performances and bringing in experts to speak to visitors.
Hans Willimann, general manager of Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel, believes the city is “more embracing, more welcoming from a tourist standpoint” than it was 15 years ago when he arrived. “Lois reaches out to everybody,” he adds, “not only to business and not only to one socio-economic class, but to the entire taxpayer base.”
Indeed, one of the commissioner’s favorite Cultural Affairs programs, “Chicago Neighborhood Tours,” buses tourists (and residents) into the city’s various communities, such as Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Ukrainian Village. “They kept complaining that nobody came,” says Weisberg, who emphasizes that visitors bring not only themselves but also their money, for lunch and shopping.
The four-hour Neighborhood Tours, which go to 23 communities and include visits to restaurants, bakeries, museums and shops, have been “a catalyst to create economic development,” according to Coyle. Two years ago, she points out, Chinatown and Pilsen, a Mexican community, partnered and created funding to extend the city’s free trolley service to their communities. (The trolley circulates from the Museum Campus, including the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium, and is part of the city’s free downtown trolley system that carries about 1 million visitors a year.) That Chinatown-Pilsen initiative evolved directly from the communities’ participation in the Neighborhood Tours, she adds.
Outreach into Chicago’s richly varied communities exposes “the treasures of Chicago’s neighborhoods,” says Weisberg’s boss, Mayor Daley. A fellow not known for gushing, he has heaped praise on his Cultural Affairs commissioner for her “vision” and “tenacity,” adding that she “has made our culturally diverse city into an artistic masterpiece.”
Weisberg has been so good at her job, setting major projects in motion, that she became the subject of a 1999 New Yorker article, titled “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg,” written by Malcolm Gladwell. He stresses that Weisberg is a mighty force, in part, because she is “the type of person who seems to know everybody.” He calls her “a connector.”
Marc Ventresca, former assistant professor in Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and now visiting assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, was so taken by Gladwell’s detailed look at how Weisberg functions that he used her as a case study in his Kellogg course Power in Organizations: Sources, Skills, Strategies.
Ventresca likens her to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who “had the wisdom of the world having never left the little village of Devon. For Weisberg, who has made her life and career and family in Chicago, I think the city is a village of many communities, and she knows them all and has points of access in all of them.”
Weisberg grew up in Chicago’s West Side community of Austin and first attended Northwestern as a high school “cherub” through the National High School Institute in what was then the School of Speech. Later, as a full-time Northwestern student, one of her favorite professors was the legendary Alvina Krause (C28, GC33).
After graduation (which she missed because of emergency abdominal surgery), she taught public school, wrote television scripts for a show called It’s Baby Talk, got married and had babies of her own. (Now a widow, Weisberg has four children: Jerilyn, an artist; Kiki, a tropical fruit farmer; Joseph, a novelist; and Jacob, editor of Slate.com.)
A few years out of school, Weisberg longed to become a theater director. With the help of the late Sondra Gair (C45), a childhood pal and Chicago radio personality, she gathered together a group of city’s radio soap opera stars to form the First Chicago Drama Quartet. Her plan was to have the actors do staged readings at venues around town. “Everybody was sitting in my tiny apartment in Chicago and they said, ‘Well, who is going to direct?’ I said, ‘I am.’ And they said, ‘You?’”
One of the plays Weisberg found for her actors was George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. Burgess Meredith, in Chicago performing in The Teahouse of the August Moon, saw the performance and asked Weisberg to speak on Shaw at an acting class he was teaching. “Back to Methuselah was good,” says Weisberg, “but I couldn’t tell him I didn’t know anything about Shaw.”
She went to the library to bone up and found Archibald Henderson’s authorized biography of Shaw. “I opened the book and the first page said, ‘Bernard Shaw was born on July 26, 1856,’ and this was 1956. I said, ‘My God, it’s going to be the 100th anniversary.’ So I decided to do something about it.”
By then a housewife living in suburban Glencoe with two small children, she went to work making calls, sending invitations, soliciting help. She tracked down Henderson, a mathematics professor at the University of North Carolina who was then nearly 80, and persuaded him to attend the bash, which took place at Chicago’s old Sherman Hotel. Shaw’s British lawyers turned up, as did William Saroyan and Eleanor O’Connell, the friend who was with Shaw when he died.
Weisberg later organized a citizens’ group called Friends of the Parks, became executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers and ran political campaigns. In 1983 she became director of the city’s Office of Special Events, overseeing the sprawling 10-day Taste of Chicago and other hugely successful events.
“I’m not psychic or anything, but I have a good sense of knowing what people are going to like because I’m in touch with them,” says Weisberg. “I’m walking down the street, I’m looking in windows, going in bookstores and shopping and riding the Broadway or the Clark Street bus.”
She even has a hobby — collecting egg cups — grown out of her love of pounding the pavement. “If I would walk by an antique store, I had to buy something small enough to fit in my purse, so it kind of shows you how much I’ve walked if I have 600 egg cups,” says Weisberg.
A walking definition of the word “indefatigable,” the commissioner spends much of her day as doyenne of the Cultural Affairs Department, meeting with people at her highly polished mahogany conference table or at locations around the city. “I just got a desk for the first time in all these years, and I’ve never even sat at it,” she says. She does paperwork in her North Side apartment in the evening or early morning. “They give me two bags every night to take home,” she says. She goes to bed late (midnight or 1 a.m.) and gets up early (5 or 6 a.m.). “I’ve never been much for sleeping,” she adds.
Does she ever contemplate the “R” word? “I’m not retired for one reason,” she says. “This is fun. It’s really fun.”
Anne Taubeneck is a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill. who writes frequently about the arts for the Chicago Tribune.
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