Alderman resurrects admission fee to Taste, Blues, Jazz festivals

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This year’s Taste of Chicago starts Wednesday and runs through Sunday in Grant Park. | Sun-Times file photo

A rookie aldermen suggested Monday that Chicago charge admission to Grant Park tourist magnets like Taste of Chicago and the Blues and Jazz festivals to generate money that can be “re-distributed” to support festivals and public art in Chicago neighborhoods.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) raised the unpopular idea of ending the free ride at Chicago’s largest festivals seven years after then-Mayor Richard M. Daley rejected a lone bidder’s proposal to charge a $20 admission fee and declared that Taste of Chicago would “always be free.”

“If sponsorship gets us zero so we have a net gain of nothing, then maybe it’s time to start looking at admission to Taste of Chicago, admission to Blues, Jazz and all of the other festivals that we do that are big draws for tourists so we can re-distribute that money back into our neighborhoods,” Lopez said.

“I know charging for the Taste has never been welcomed by anybody because we always say we don’t want to be like Milwaukee [Summer] Fest. But, we need more revenue and we can’t keep hitting taxpayers, property owners and what not. There’s only so many things we can do to generate money and this is still one that we’ve been reluctant to entertain.”

On the hot seat at City Council budget hearings, Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly initially called an admission fee “an idea that can be explored” even as he cautioned Lopez that Chicagoans make up “over 50 percent of the audience” at the Taste.

But under questioning from the Chicago Sun-Times, Kelly appeared to slam the door on an admission fee.

“We offer the most free public events of any city in the country and I don’t see us moving away from that. We’re committed to providing access to our citizens. Though it’s a challenge to fund events, part of the power of Chicago and why we have such robust attendance is because we offer such an incredible array of free events,” Kelly said.

“And then, there’s the public trust doctrine where the Illinois Supreme Court itself spoke that, if it’s in the public way, it has to be free. We do it out of our commitment to our citizens and I don’t see any major shift in that.”

Having said that, Kelly disclosed a fundamental change in strategy.

Chicago is “moving away from festivals” and towards “overall programming” that celebrates the city’s ethnic, racial and musical diversity.

The first hint of that new strategy came when Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) asked Kelly “when Viva Chicago is coming back” after Daley disbanded it years ago to save money.

In response, Kelly acknowledged that “Latino culture is a new driving force” and “we need to do better” in a city where one third of the population is Hispanic.

But, he said: “We don’t have the funding to add additional festivals. … Right now, to my knowledge, there is not a plan to bring any festivals back. We’re moving away from festivals to just overall programming that represents the diversity.”

The second hint came when Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) asked about the possibility of creating a new, week-long festival celebrating the “great artist forms” that have come through Chicago, but gotten short-shrift. They include: stepping, house music, blues and jazz.

“When you travel to Atlanta and Florida, there’s house music. When you go [to other cities], everybody’s stepping. These are things that are world-renowned. Have we thought about highlighting these art forms that have come from Chicago and doing a festival centered around things that originate from here?” Scott said.

Kelly countered that the “traditional festival format may not be the best format for that” because Chicago is “filled with festivals” and the “days when Blues Fest stood by itself” are over.

“That being said, Millennium Park, which is one of the greatest cultural settings in the world, needs to represent the power of Chicago’s culture,” he said.

“So you will see this year a great emphasis on Latino music. You’ll see an emphasis on house music. You’ll see an emphasis on blues and jazz. You’ll see an emphasis on dance and spoken word. Think of it as a summer-long festival representing the culture of the city. That’s what I see as the future of Millennium Park.”

Also on Monday, Kelly announced new programs that will provide up to $1.5 million for new public art installations, festivals and a “public art youth corps” in Chicago neighborhoods.

For the first time, aldermen will be free to earmark $10,000 of their annual “menu money” to finance permanent public art in their wards. The city will match those aldermanic contributions “dollar-for-dollar.”

The new Public Art Youth Corps will be a paid internship program that matches young people with community organizations to work on public arts projects.

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