Anybody who thinks government is all work and no play has never met Lois Weisberg. As Chicago’s commissioner of cultural affairs for the past decade, the 76-year-old Weisberg has had the time of her life — while giving her city a reputation for playfulness and good humor that has won friends all over the country and much of the world.
It was Weisberg who masterminded Cows on Parade, the acclaimed and widely copied herd of 300 artistically decorated bovine statues that showed up in public places all around Chicago in the summer of 1999. It was Weisberg who the following year placed 300 Ping-Pong tables all around town, enticing businessmen, tourists and kids to square off in a friendly competition that left a reservoir of good feeling long after the games ended. She was the brains behind Chicago’s unique Millennium celebration: Instead of sponsoring the kind of pyrotechnics that most cities used, she rallied Chicagoans to invite guests from every country on earth to an international dinner to celebrate the occasion.
To Weisberg, the merriment has a serious purpose. Her goal is to knit a huge and diverse city together and to celebrate the things its residents have in common. “People are so isolated by television and computers,” says Weisberg. “They need a chance to come together and to share the same experiences.”
Chicago gives Weisberg a staff of close to 500 people and a budget of $14 million to work her magic. It believes the investment has more than paid off. The city reaped millions of dollars in tourist trade from Cows on Parade alone — and raised $3.5 million for charity when the cows were sold.
But the intangible results have been even more significant. Weisberg has played an important role in revitalizing downtown Chicago. With characteristic creativity, she arranged for Chicago’s famous elevated train system to offer free weekend rides, with docents in each car to point out the city’s many architectural treasures. She converted an abandoned public library building into a cultural center that features hundreds of arts and cultural events annually. And her “Downtown Thursday Nights” program, built on extended shopping hours at major department stores, has provided a crucial boost to the older Loop commercial area that was sagging a decade ago. “Every city has to have a downtown if it is going to survive,” Weisberg explains. “Every city, whether small or large, has to have a place that people see as their gathering place.”
Weisberg hasn’t neglected Chicago’s neighborhoods, either. There are bus tours of the city’s ethnic enclaves, with residents themselves serving as tour guides. “When we started, we thought the majority of people on the buses would be tourists, but we found that 50 percent of them were people from outlying neighborhoods of Chicago.” That’s the best kind of tourism, she insists. “Once people come into the neighborhoods from the suburbs, they keep coming back.”
While cows and Ping-Pong — and more recently, displays of old furniture on downtown streets — have brought Weisberg and her office national attention, she is proudest of Gallery 37, Chicago’s answer to the federal summer-jobs program. Under the 10-year-old program, local teens work with mentors in the visual, literary and performing arts. Rather than while away time in make-work jobs, they get a chance to learn and contribute meaningfully to the city. Weisberg, always eager to break down social barriers, raises private money to make sure that the program serves young people from different backgrounds, not just the low-income youth who qualify for federal aid. “If you talk to kids,” she says, “they’ll tell you the best part of the program is that it enables them to meet other kids from across the city and be friends with them.”
— Christopher Conte
Photos by Ralf-Finn Hestoft