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Lightfoot proposes small hotel tax hike to boost grants for Chicago artists

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot speaks with Fran Spielman of the Chicago Sun-Times at City Hall on August 10, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot | Sun-Times file photo

The total tax on a Chicago hotel room is already the highest in the nation at 17.4 percent. But it won’t stay that way if Lori Lightfoot is elected mayor.

She wants to raise it to boost the $1.7 million now devoted annually for grants supporting Chicago artists. Lightfoot called that amount “pocket change.”

“There should be no reason why artists are leaving Chicago to go to New York or L.A. or some other place that’s more friendly and more livable for them. We need to make sure that we create the environment here where they can thrive and feel like this can be their home,” Lightfoot said.

“I believe that one of the things we should do is have a modest increase in the hotel tax so we can expand the amount of monies that are actually available for grant-making for our artists. … We just want to make sure that we’re doing a lot better than $1.7 million in grants to artists.”

Lightfoot said she hasn’t settled on a specific percentage in a hotel tax that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle have raised in recent years.

Lightfoot would only characterize the increase as “modest” and “small” and said she has no intention of “proposing something out of sight.” But it has to be enough to “actually yield dividends,” she said.

“Even a small percentage [increase] — 1 or 2 percent — would go a long way in providing us with a steady stream of income where we could significantly expand our reach in grant making to artists,” she said.

Emanuel talks often about his early days as a ballet dancer in high school and college.

He was widely viewed as a champion for the arts who bankrolled an amusement tax waiver for neighborhood theaters and concerts venues with fewer than 1,500 seats by raising the amusement tax on major concerts from 5 percent to 9 percent.

If elected mayor, Lightfoot said she would re-examine the amusement tax.

“That’s certainly on our radar screen and we’ll take a look at it to see if there’s things that we need to do to change it to make it more user-friendly,” she said.

“We’ve got to look at anything that we can to make sure that we’re not providing artificial barriers for neighborhood organizations to be able to participate.”

Standing before an impressive row of Chicago’s best-known artists, Lightfoot unveiled an arts and education program with the ambitious goal of restoring music and art in every Chicago Public School. Currently, it’s only a handful, she said.

Her arts agenda includes: expanding the “reach and depth of artist participation” in neighborhoods; prioritizing funding for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events; streamlining license and permit regulations, including the public performance and amusement license; developing an artists-in-residence program to build job opportunities for artists and mentorships for young people; and overhauling the “Percent for Art” ordinance, which requires 1.33 percent of the construction or renovation costs for municipal buildings and public spaces go toward original artwork to be displayed on the premises.

The plan was music to the ears of the artists standing behind Lightfoot.

They included mystery writer Sara Paretsky, who created the private detective “V.I. Warshawski”; Joel Hall of the Joel Hall Dancers and Dance Center; and Amy Morton, a Steppenwolf Theater ensemble member who plays Trudy Platt on the NBC show “Chicago P.D.”

“We sometimes in Chicago act as though the arts are a frivolous add-on. We take them out of most of our public schools. But, arts are where we become deeper, broader and more thoughtful as a country,” Paretsky said.

“I’m thrilled to be part of Lori’s team. … She is the only candidate for mayor who understands the deep importance of this issue.”

Amy Morton

Among the artists endorsing Lori Lightfoot’s proposal to boost the arts was Amy Morton, a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member who also portrays Sgt. Trudy Platt on “Chicago P.D.” | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Morton traces her roots as an actor to the drama program at her public elementary school. It laid the groundwork for a now-thriving career.

“Lori passionately believes that every Chicago school in every neighborhood needs art in their curriculum — that an appreciation of art makes people better citizens and that appreciation begins in childhood,” Morton said.

“She knows that, where artists live and work, communities flourish and businesses flourish. Her vision for this city’s cultural life is inclusive. It’s forward-thinking. It’s concrete and it’s do-able. Lori Lightfoot knows that a thriving artistic community is vital to any great city. She should absolutely be our next mayor.”

Lightfoot grew up in small town Ohio in a working-class family that “didn’t have much.” Her parents “sacrificed to buy, on time, a trumpet so I could join the band,” she said.

“Being engaged in music and choir literally gave me the opportunity to stretch myself beyond my current circumstances,” Lightfoot added. “I want our kids to have the same kind of experience and opportunity that I had.”