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It's Good to Be the King's Election Lawyer

Will Chicago attorney Michael Dorf be the next head of the National Endowment for the Arts?



A local arts activist threw his hat in the ring for the job of head honcho at the National Endowment for the Arts last week. Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Barbara Gaines, perhaps? Jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis? No—the candidate is Michael Dorf, an attorney with degrees from the University of Chicago and Columbia University's law school who got his start on the staff of Representative Sidney Yates 30 years ago, when Yates chaired the House appropriations subcommittee.

In 1984 Mayor Harold Washington recruited Dorf to direct development of the precedent-setting but largely ignored Chicago Cultural Plan. As a founding partner of Adducci, Dorf, Lehner, Mitchell & Blankenship, Dorf has specialized in arts law and policy, which he also teaches as an adjunct prof at the School of the Art Institute. He was legal counsel to a presidential commission—convened when right-wing culture warriors were attempting to undermine the NEA—that drew up the report that kept the agency alive (and controversy averse). He's a board member of the Illinois Arts Alliance and a former vice president of Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

But here are his killer qualifications: from the time Barack Obama began his run against Bobby Rush for Congress in 1999 through Obama's election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Dorf was his election lawyer. And when Obama wanted to develop an arts platform for his presidential campaign, Dorf was co-convenor of the platform committee.

Dorf has picked up endorsements from Senator Dick Durbin, the Illinois Arts Alliance, the American Federation of Musicians, and all the performing arts unions of the AFL-CIO—including SAG, AFTRA, and Actors Equity. Poet Dana Gioia is due to step down as NEA head on inauguration day; if Obama's not looking to put another celebrity artist in charge—and there's buzz about Wynton Marsalis—the local guy might have a chance.

Think It's Bad Now? Wait Till 2010.

The outlook was grim a month ago, when Donors Forum issued its 2009 economic outlook report, and since then it's turned even grimmer. Nearly every day now we're confronted with news of cutbacks like those at the Field Museum, where president John McCarter's going to have to scrape by on 20 percent less than his usual salary of $450,000 a year.

The report, based on midautumn data, revealed that half the Illinois funders surveyed are planning to give their donations a haircut, while nearly half the organizations they're funding are living hand-to-mouth, with no operating reserves. That's a perfect-storm scenario, but Donors Forum vice president Claudette Baker says nonprofits won't feel the real hit from the current economic debacle until 2010 or later, because "foundation budgets for this year have already been set."

Arts organizations may see an immediate drop in their gate, Baker speculates, and will likely need to cut individual donors some slack on gifts coming due. Instead of writing off pledges from benefactors who back down, they might think about how to extend the payment period and preserve the relationship. Even without a failing economy, Baker says, "there's always some attrition on pledges." How about suing the mopes? "Rarely done," she says. It's expensive, scary for other donors—and if they're tapped out, "what's the point?"

Joy to the Art World

Illinois Arts Alliance executive director Ra (as in rah!) Joy says the optimist in him is excited about what the arts can expect from the Obama administration. But the realist in him warns that in this environment of crisis advocates will have to work hard to keep arts on the table. "We were concerned before the economic downturn, because of [Governor Blagojevich's] draconian $4.5 million cut to the Illinois arts budget in 2008," Joy says. According to an IAA study, that reduction resulted in programming cutbacks by 73 percent of state arts organizations. And that was before the economy tanked.

But Joy the optimist says there's help in the wings. Federal Community Development Block Grants, for example, can be tapped by arts organizations. The IAA and Americans for the Arts have joined the U.S. Conference of Mayors in asking the Obama administration to put $20 billion in stimulus money into CDBG funding, with $2 billion to be set aside for infrastructure projects in the arts. And this week the IAA is submitting a list of a dozen or so "shovel-ready" projects that could draw on that money immediately to rehab and construct Illinois facilities like museums and theaters.

Convinced that Obama will show an extraordinary commitment to the arts, Joy—who worked in a Carbondale school as a member of AmericaCorps—is also juiced about the prospect of an artists corps, floated as part of Obama's campaign arts platform. Meanwhile the IAA is getting ready to survey its members later this month, to assess new damage.

Out to Pasture

The Noble Horse Theatre and stable suspended operations last week after what director Dan Sampson describes as a six-year battle with the city over "simple things." The January 10 performance of The Nutcracker on Horseback was "our last," Sampson says. Classes in the company's 138-year-old, two-story stable have halted, as have Noble Horse carriage rides in Streeterville.

The main issue, according to Sampson, is the city's refusal to reopen two Mag Mile carriage parking and pickup locations, closed in the aftermath of 9/11—one on Pearson east of Michigan and the other on the southwest corner of Michigan and Superior. Without them or comparable new spots, five carriage companies' rigs have to crowd into the three remaining locations, reducing revenues for everybody.

Carriage rides generate half of the Noble Horse's income, Sampson says, and make it possible for him to maintain the building, which is "the only riding hall left in the city of Chicago and the oldest active riding hall in North America."

"After 30 years of running carriages and 25 years of trying to save a historic asset, we're going to have to close because the Department of Consumer Services doesn't understand our business," Sampson says. "I've drawn my line in the sand."

Consumer Services commissioner Norma Reyes says she's "tried to work with the [carriage] industry, but Mag Mile has changed a great deal" and is "much denser" now than it once was. "This is a public safety issue. You can't have that much foot and car traffic and horses all in one area." She maintains that there are other locations the 29 licensed carriages in the city could use, such as the area around Millennium Park.

Madoff Mucks Up Medical Research

Though the New Yorker recently reported that Circa, a Manhattan-based jewelry resale business, dispatched a Brinks truck to Chicago to pick up jewelry ostensibly being sold off by Bernie Madoff's victims, there's been little evidence of direct local hits in Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

There's collateral damage, however, at Northwestern University, which had been receiving annual funding—$726,000 in 2007—for a Parkinson's disease research project under way at its Feinberg School of Medicine. That funding came from the Picower Foundation, whose $1 billion in assets were entirely invested with Madoff. Development dean Katherine Kurtz says Picower was supporting "a very important piece of what we were doing. We are absolutely looking to make up the gap."v

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