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Stone Soup

Talking with Lois Weisberg about making something big out of nothing

Lois Weisberg’s hands have touched it all. From the Grant Park music festivals to the neighborhood festivals, from Taste of Chicago to Gallery 37 and the Chicago Cultural Center, she’s not just a “connector,” as Malcolm Gladwell famously labeled her for her extraordinary social skills in “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” We sat down with Chicago’s commissioner of cultural affairs to discuss her history of organizing and fundraising  and philanthropy’s role in city government. 

There have been lots of city budget cuts. How have your programs been affected?
     Our programs are all free—everything I do here is free. Arts are always the first thing to be cut. I’m used to it, in other words. I was just at a city council meeting, and they were asking me about Millennium Park and all the money that was spent on that over the years. I’m running Millennium Park, among other things. They wanted to know what I was doing about cutting back costs for Millennium Park, which is almost impossible to do. When Millennium Park started, there was supposed to be a conservancy to take it over, like Central Park in New York. It took 20 years for New York to get a conservancy. It was supported by funds raised from all the millionaires who live around the park. They asked me, “Don’t we have enough millionaires here living around the park?” And I said, no we don’t, but we have enough millionaires in the city who can support Millennium Park. And they have been up till now more than generous. The philanthropy that was given toward Millennium Park is about half of what the city paid to build the park, which is pretty good contribution from Chicago philanthropists. 

What are Chicago donors like?
     Maybe they’re not all millionaires, but they certainly have enough money to contribute to the city, and they have for years, starting a tradition in 1893 with the World’s Columbian Exposition, which set a pattern for the city. They gave generously to have that exposition, which is still the largest world’s fair ever in the entire world. Those are the same people who help the city government today. Those are the same people who give to the opera, the symphony, all the smaller organizations, the theaters. They are very generous, and it reaches down to the smallest person. People in Chicago are accustomed to giving. We have hundreds of volunteers at the Cultural Center, at Millennium Park. We have a greeters program—200 people who greet people who come to the city and speak 16 languages. They’re all volunteers because they love the city so much. So that’s another form of philanthropy. 

Given the economic climate, do you think it’s more important than ever to have free programs?
    I said that to the city council yesterday, but you have to be careful what you say about that because—clearly we’re getting more and more people coming to our free programs. There’s no question about that. Which means we’re pressed because we don’t have as much money as before, and we have to supply programs for even more people. But I made the point that even in good times, there are thousands of people who can’t afford to buy a ticket to something. If you want a mixture in the city of people coming to an event, and you want to have what I would call a really high quality of life, then you have to have events where everybody can come. You can’t do that without free events. Right now, and this is very important to understand, we are getting more support than ever from the private sector because we’re free. Because of what’s happening in the country now, free is suddenly very interesting. 

What’s attendance like at the free events and programs?
    Millennium Park only has a capacity of 13,000 people. We fill that up really quickly. We’ve had the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts every Wednesday for 25 years, and out of 500 seats, there isn’t an open one. 

What can you say about philanthropy’s role in city programs?
    What I have learned about philanthropy, being in government is, and this is a very important point, when you ask people for money for government programs in the arts, they will only give if you can show them that the city is contributing as well. As long as the city is paying for a large bulk it, people, foundations and sponsors are willing. And I think it’s a good point. The people who are contributing to a theater for example, they’re not asking the little theater to put in their own money, but with government, they are. So that’s been quite a challenge. It forces the city to contribute, which is important. So in other words, a foundation will put pressure on the government to make sure they are giving before they will give. 

How has raising money changed over your career?
    I’ve raised millions and millions of dollars—over 50 years, a long time. I was raising money for things, whatever they were, events, programs, before there were foundations. I had to really go out and raise money from people. You couldn’t go to a foundation and ask for a grant. There weren’t sponsors either. You’d get a hold of somebody and ask them if they knew somebody who you could go to, and it would just branch out and you’d get more and more people and raise enough money. Then, all the sudden, we had foundations, and everything changed. 
    My first experience was very interesting. I was supposedly the only person in the United States to remember the 100th anniversary of the birth of the playwright Bernard Shaw. I looked around and said, oh my god, nobody’s paying attention to this. It wasn’t being celebrated anywhere. So I found a group in Chicago—an education group, Adult Education Council of Greater Chicago. I had enough sense to know that you had to have a sponsor, a group that was going to benefit from it. It couldn’t just have my name. When I came to see them, I walked in the door, and there was only one guy there, who had just moved in that day. It was piled up with books, and he looked out at me, and I told him what I wanted. And he said, “I have to raise my salary—I just left another job.” And I said, if we have this Shaw celebration, we can raise your salary. Anyway, he agreed, so we started this Shaw celebration, which is a long story. That’s the way I did it—talking to this person, that person. 

What happened with the Shaw celebration?
    It was the first thing I ever did. I realized it was going to cost us money. I thought we’d have a luncheon and sell tickets, but the thing ballooned. People were coming in from all over the world—Shaw’s friends, his lawyers, the people who saw him the day he died. Huge turnout. So that’s when I started to ask different people if they knew anyone who would give us money. The guys who were helping me and I would have lunch once a week with someone who might have money. So one day, we had lunch with Pat Hoy, and he was the head of the Sherman Hotel and the Ambassador Hotel, and he said he had a neighbor in St. Charles who had a lot of money. This neighbor was always with his horses, but he thought he could get him to come in and have lunch with me. His name was John MacArthur. No one had ever heard of him at that point. So he got John MacArthur to come in and have lunch with me at the Pump Room. I walked in and there was this man with a cowboy hat and riding clothes. He was standing against a pillar, and he was the least likely person you’d ever think would have any money. 
    So we sat around a table, and it was me, Pat Hoy and Irv Kupcinet, and I told John MacArthur the story of what happened and how this had gotten to be such a big thing and how all these performers were coming from New York. And there’s this dead silence. I will never forget it. Then all the sudden he said, “Well, young lady, the only thing wrong with your idea”—and I’m waiting, what’s wrong with the idea—“is that I didn’t think of it myself. You will hear from me.” He owned a magazine called Theatre Arts at that time in New York. And the next day, the guy who was editor of his magazine called from New York and said John MacArthur had asked him to come to Chicago for a week and follow me around to see what I was really doing and then they’d consider giving money. They had no grants at that time—there was no MacArthur Foundation. The festival was to be held July 26, 1956. He came in May. He carried a suitcase with him everywhere he went. When he left his office in New York, he carried the whole subscriber list to the magazine with him. He wouldn’t even leave it in the office it was so valuable. So he followed me around, went to all my meetings and then went back to New York. About four days later, I get a check in the mail, to me, and this was in 1956, from John MacArthur, for $10,000. And it was his first thing. It must have inspired him. So that was my first experience with giving, and then I had to learn other things. 

You founded Friends of the Parks. What was it like starting a charity from scratch?
    It was very hard to do, but I was working for BPI, a group of public interest lawyers at the time, and I was their fundraiser—they were a really good organization. I was always interested in the parks. I’d take my kids, but they couldn’t get juice, and the concessions were terrible. There was an article I read in a magazine, a very moving complaint about the city parks, and the writer was the one who said there should be an advocate for the parks. In fact, friends of the parks aren’t really friends. They’re watchdogs. So I called the writer up and met with her. I told her I’d like to do something about it, and she said she’d help. Again, you always need support when you’re going to go out and raise money. You can’t just do it by yourself. It’s very hard. BPI had a board, and I went to the head, Alex Polikoff, he’s famous now actually. The lawyers agreed to be a part of it, so I called all these people together from around the city who had organizations that were impacted by the parks. And they all came to the meeting. We didn’t a have penny, but we started the organization. And in those days it was different—people came on their lunch hour. 

Do you enjoy fundraising?
     Even since I first started with the Shaw celebration in 1956, I’ve never really liked asking people for money. I don’t mind asking people for money for something I’m not involved with, and I bet a lot of people feel that way. If people come to me to ask if I can help them raise money, I’m really happy to help them. If I have a program—and I have lots of programs—and I have to raise money, it’s hard. I recently told my staff the stone soup story—that’s what we’ve been doing all these years, making something out of nothing. In the end, if you can get an individual to give small amounts of money, just regular people who come here, that’s what encourages you to go on. You get encouraged when foundations and sponsors give to you, but when people give you money, you feel best. It’s more anonymous—it’s not me asking for money.

Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide