Remarks by Jonathan Fanton at MacArthur’s Arts and Culture Panel Discussion
November 2, 2006 | Speech | Arts & Culture in Chicago

Good afternoon.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation.

On behalf of MacArthur and our partners the Prince Charitable Trusts and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, it is my pleasure to welcome you to this celebration of the leadership of the arts and culture community in Chicago.  Our commitment to the arts in Chicago is broad and deep – from the Museum Campus to Uptown, from Pilsen to Edgewater, from South Chicago to Austin, and out to Skokie and Glen Ellyn.  Together our foundations support 186 organizations.

We call this gathering a celebration because we want to recognize the professional and volunteer leadership of Chicago’s arts and cultural organizations.

We salute you for your creativity, your courage and your commitment to community.

The arts are central to our lives and to making Chicago a world class city.  Our three Foundations support the arts because we believe they are a sensitive lens through which to see how neighborhoods are developing, how kids are learning in school, and how society is confronting change.  There is no better indicator of the spiritual health of our city, its neighborhoods, and the larger region than the state of the arts.

One of the great treasures of Chicago is the number and diversity of arts and cultural organizations that call this great city home.  And new groups are constantly emerging.  From museums and orchestras that are influential throughout the world to the smallest of neighborhood theaters, Chicago is alive with offerings that enrich our lives and stimulate our imaginations.  We also recognize the many individual artists who persistently challenge our perceptions and preconceptions.

The arts deepen our understanding of the human spirit, extend our capacity to comprehend the lives of others, allow us to imagine a more just and humane world. Through their diversity of feeling, their variety of form, their multiplicity of inspiration, the arts make our culture richer and more reflective.

This occasion is meant to be more than a celebration.  It is an opportunity to inquire about the present and future state of the arts.  We hope this will be an annual town hall meeting, a chance to hear a thoughtful panel and then engage in a serious and candid exchange.  No topic is off limits.

There is a lot to talk about.  Are we supporting the arts in an appropriate manner, allowing for exploration, risk-taking, and challenges to inherited orthodoxies?  Does the current climate encourage artistic freedom or are the forces of comfort and conformity gaining ground?  What about the audiences of the future?  How do we take account of new technologies and the promise of the digital revolution to enable many more people to become creators as well as consumers?  Are we taking full advantage of the power of the arts to bridge divides of all kinds and build greater understanding across national boundaries, cultural and religious traditions, racial and ethnic identities?

We have an outstanding panel to address these and other questions.

Let me introduce them:

  • Les Coney is Executive Vice President and Senior Managing Director of Mesirow Financial.  He is the founding board president of Congo Square Theatre, and the new board chair of the Goodman Theatre.  Les serves on the boards of several other non-profit organizations including the Kohl Children’s Museum and the DuSable Museum.  He is an example of the strong support of Chicago’s civic and corporate leadership for arts and culture groups.
  • Martha Lavey is an ensemble member and the Artistic Director of Steppenwolf Theatre, where over the last decade she has nurtured a generation of Chicago performers.  As an actress herself, she has appeared in productions at the Goodman, Victory Gardens, Northlight and Remains theaters, and in New York at the Women's Project and Productions.
  • Kerry James Marshall is a visual artist whose paintings portray allegorical depictions of African American themes and subjects.  His large-scale canvases display a complex layering of diverse references and techniques to celebrate African-American culture while questioning the ways in which America has constructed social identity.  He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997.
  • Lawrence “Ren” Weschler is the Artistic Director of the Chicago Humanities Festival and Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.  For two decades he was a staff writer for The New Yorker.  Ren is a perceptive observer and advocate for arts and culture nationally.

Our moderator is John Callaway, a Chicago legend.  A 49-year veteran journalist, John was host of Chicago Tonight from 1984-1999.  He is now host of the Chicago Tonight’s Friday Night program, and Host and Senior Editor of WTTW’s Chicago Stories program, the critically acclaimed documentary and interview series that has won seven Emmy awards in its first four seasons.  He also is host of a monthly public affairs series at the Pritzker Military Library.  John is an author and playwright, having performed two autobiographical one-man shows at Pegasus Players Theatre.  He is the winner of a Peabody Award, sixteen Emmys, the Benton Medal from the University of Chicago, and an inductee of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame.  He will lead our discussion and invite you all to participate.

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