Talking with Lois Weisberg about making something big out of nothing
By JESSICA CURRY
Weisberg’s hands have touched it all. From the Grant Park music
festivals to the neighborhood festivals, from Taste of Chicago to
Gallery 37 and the Chicago Cultural Center, she’s not just a
“connector,” as Malcolm Gladwell famously labeled her for her
extraordinary social skills in “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” We sat
down with Chicago’s commissioner of cultural affairs to discuss her
history of organizing and fundraising and philanthropy’s role in city
There have been lots of city budget cuts. How have your programs been affected?
Our programs are all free—everything I do here is free. Arts are
always the first thing to be cut. I’m used to it, in other words. I was
just at a city council meeting, and they were asking me about
Millennium Park and all the money that was spent on that over the
years. I’m running Millennium Park, among other things. They wanted to
know what I was doing about cutting back costs for Millennium Park,
which is almost impossible to do. When Millennium Park started, there
was supposed to be a conservancy to take it over, like Central Park in
New York. It took 20 years for New York to get a conservancy. It was
supported by funds raised from all the millionaires who live around the
park. They asked me, “Don’t we have enough millionaires here living
around the park?” And I said, no we don’t, but we have enough
millionaires in the city who can support Millennium Park. And they have
been up till now more than generous. The philanthropy that was given
toward Millennium Park is about half of what the city paid to build the
park, which is pretty good contribution from Chicago philanthropists.
What are Chicago donors like?
Maybe they’re not all millionaires, but they certainly have enough
money to contribute to the city, and they have for years, starting a
tradition in 1893 with the World’s Columbian Exposition, which set a
pattern for the city. They gave generously to have that exposition,
which is still the largest world’s fair ever in the entire world. Those
are the same people who help the city government today. Those are the
same people who give to the opera, the symphony, all the smaller
organizations, the theaters. They are very generous, and it reaches
down to the smallest person. People in Chicago are accustomed to
giving. We have hundreds of volunteers at the Cultural Center, at
Millennium Park. We have a greeters program—200 people who greet people
who come to the city and speak 16 languages. They’re all volunteers
because they love the city so much. So that’s another form of
Given the economic climate, do you think it’s more important than ever to have free programs?
I said that to the city council yesterday, but you have to be careful
what you say about that because—clearly we’re getting more and more
people coming to our free programs. There’s no question about that.
Which means we’re pressed because we don’t have as much money as
before, and we have to supply programs for even more people. But I made
the point that even in good times, there are thousands of people who
can’t afford to buy a ticket to something. If you want a mixture in the
city of people coming to an event, and you want to have what I would
call a really high quality of life, then you have to have events where
everybody can come. You can’t do that without free events. Right now,
and this is very important to understand, we are getting more support
than ever from the private sector because we’re free. Because of what’s
happening in the country now, free is suddenly very interesting.
What’s attendance like at the free events and programs?
Millennium Park only has a capacity of 13,000 people. We fill that up
really quickly. We’ve had the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts every
Wednesday for 25 years, and out of 500 seats, there isn’t an open one.
What can you say about philanthropy’s role in city programs?
What I have learned about philanthropy, being in government is, and
this is a very important point, when you ask people for money for
government programs in the arts, they will only give if you can show
them that the city is contributing as well. As long as the city is
paying for a large bulk it, people, foundations and sponsors are
willing. And I think it’s a good point. The people who are contributing
to a theater for example, they’re not asking the little theater to put
in their own money, but with government, they are. So that’s been quite
a challenge. It forces the city to contribute, which is important. So
in other words, a foundation will put pressure on the government to
make sure they are giving before they will give.
How has raising money changed over your career?
I’ve raised millions and millions of dollars—over 50 years, a long
time. I was raising money for things, whatever they were, events,
programs, before there were foundations. I had to really go out and
raise money from people. You couldn’t go to a foundation and ask for a
grant. There weren’t sponsors either. You’d get a hold of somebody and
ask them if they knew somebody who you could go to, and it would just
branch out and you’d get more and more people and raise enough money.
Then, all the sudden, we had foundations, and everything changed.
My first experience was very interesting. I was supposedly the only
person in the United States to remember the 100th anniversary of the
birth of the playwright Bernard Shaw. I looked around and said, oh my
god, nobody’s paying attention to this. It wasn’t being celebrated
anywhere. So I found a group in Chicago—an education group, Adult
Education Council of Greater Chicago. I had enough sense to know that
you had to have a sponsor, a group that was going to benefit from it.
It couldn’t just have my name. When I came to see them, I walked in the
door, and there was only one guy there, who had just moved in that day.
It was piled up with books, and he looked out at me, and I told him
what I wanted. And he said, “I have to raise my salary—I just left
another job.” And I said, if we have this Shaw celebration, we can
raise your salary. Anyway, he agreed, so we started this Shaw
celebration, which is a long story. That’s the way I did it—talking to
this person, that person.
What happened with the Shaw celebration?
It was the first thing I ever did. I realized it was going to cost us
money. I thought we’d have a luncheon and sell tickets, but the thing
ballooned. People were coming in from all over the world—Shaw’s
friends, his lawyers, the people who saw him the day he died. Huge
turnout. So that’s when I started to ask different people if they knew
anyone who would give us money. The guys who were helping me and I
would have lunch once a week with someone who might have money. So one
day, we had lunch with Pat Hoy, and he was the head of the Sherman
Hotel and the Ambassador Hotel, and he said he had a neighbor in St.
Charles who had a lot of money. This neighbor was always with his
horses, but he thought he could get him to come in and have lunch with
me. His name was John MacArthur. No one had ever heard of him at that
point. So he got John MacArthur to come in and have lunch with me at
the Pump Room. I walked in and there was this man with a cowboy hat and
riding clothes. He was standing against a pillar, and he was the least
likely person you’d ever think would have any money.
we sat around a table, and it was me, Pat Hoy and Irv Kupcinet, and I
told John MacArthur the story of what happened and how this had gotten
to be such a big thing and how all these performers were coming from
New York. And there’s this dead silence. I will never forget it. Then
all the sudden he said, “Well, young lady, the only thing wrong with
your idea”—and I’m waiting, what’s wrong with the idea—“is that I
didn’t think of it myself. You will hear from me.” He owned a magazine
called Theatre Arts at that time in New York. And the next day, the guy
who was editor of his magazine called from New York and said John
MacArthur had asked him to come to Chicago for a week and follow me
around to see what I was really doing and then they’d consider giving
money. They had no grants at that time—there was no MacArthur
Foundation. The festival was to be held July 26, 1956. He came in May.
He carried a suitcase with him everywhere he went. When he left his
office in New York, he carried the whole subscriber list to the
magazine with him. He wouldn’t even leave it in the office it was so
valuable. So he followed me around, went to all my meetings and then
went back to New York. About four days later, I get a check in the
mail, to me, and this was in 1956, from John MacArthur, for $10,000.
And it was his first thing. It must have inspired him. So that was my
first experience with giving, and then I had to learn other things.
You founded Friends of the Parks. What was it like starting a charity from scratch?
It was very hard to do, but I was working for BPI, a group of public
interest lawyers at the time, and I was their fundraiser—they were a
really good organization. I was always interested in the parks. I’d
take my kids, but they couldn’t get juice, and the concessions were
terrible. There was an article I read in a magazine, a very moving
complaint about the city parks, and the writer was the one who said
there should be an advocate for the parks. In fact, friends of the
parks aren’t really friends. They’re watchdogs. So I called the writer
up and met with her. I told her I’d like to do something about it, and
she said she’d help. Again, you always need support when you’re going
to go out and raise money. You can’t just do it by yourself. It’s very
hard. BPI had a board, and I went to the head, Alex Polikoff, he’s
famous now actually. The lawyers agreed to be a part of it, so I called
all these people together from around the city who had organizations
that were impacted by the parks. And they all came to the meeting. We
didn’t a have penny, but we started the organization. And in those days
it was different—people came on their lunch hour.
Do you enjoy fundraising?
Even since I first started with the Shaw celebration in 1956, I’ve
never really liked asking people for money. I don’t mind asking people
for money for something I’m not involved with, and I bet a lot of
people feel that way. If people come to me to ask if I can help them
raise money, I’m really happy to help them. If I have a program—and I
have lots of programs—and I have to raise money, it’s hard. I recently
told my staff the stone soup story—that’s what we’ve been doing all
these years, making something out of nothing. In the end, if you can
get an individual to give small amounts of money, just regular people
who come here, that’s what encourages you to go on. You get encouraged
when foundations and sponsors give to you, but when people give you
money, you feel best. It’s more anonymous—it’s not me asking for money.
Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide