Chicago is a hive of open-air cultural activity in the summer, and Michelle T. Boone is queen bee of it all. As Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Boone presides over the events that define summer in the city and help make Chicago one of the premier cultural centers in the nation, from the gospel and jazz fests toSummerDance and the Air and Water Show.
Boone joined DCASE two years ago after a long career that has included stints as a promotions manager in the record industry (she helped launch MC Hammer), as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and most recently as an arts grant maker at the Joyce Foundation. Here, she talks about her lifelong passion for the arts and how the summer season is a yearlong labor of love.
With so many events in Chicago this summer, it must be a pretty exciting time to be at DCASE.
MICHELLE T. BOONE: It’s always an exciting time at DCASE. People think of summer as a busy season, but quite frankly we’re busy year-round. We do close to 2,000 programs, services, and events annually, so there’s a lot of work happening all throughout the year.
What summer events are you most excited about?
MTB: One of my favorite programs is SummerDance. At the Grant Park site—the Spirit of Music Garden—a number of nights a week, you can get a free dance lesson, and then enjoy one of Chicago’s finest music performers and get your boogie on.
What’s your personal motivation for doing this work?
MTB: I’ve always been drawn to the arts. I’m a big pop culture baby. I love music. One of the ways my mother used to keep us entertained was through art experiences, like going to plays very early on. I grew up at the time when museums were free, so every Sunday, we would walk to the Museum of Science and Industry. Can you imagine a better playground? I also realized very early on that I had no artistic talent. [Laughs] But I knew that artists need people who support them and help them do the work that they do.
How far in advance do you begin planning the summer season?
MTB: We’re thinking about it constantly. It’s a really wonderful talented team—programmers that live and breathe their fields on a daily basis, people that are really strong music enthusiasts, who are out there practically every night of the week scouting talent, thinking about new ideas, visiting other festivals.
Can you tell us about some of DCASE’s other initiatives?
MTB: We administer hundreds of grants to support nonprofit organizations and individual artists all across the city. It’s a great resource for new and emerging arts organizations, and in many instances the grant that they receive from the city is their very first grant.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened during the summer season at DCASE?
MTB: What’s crazy is the level of commitment from people here. The time when most people relax on holidays, on weekends, in the summer—those are our busiest times. People love what they do here, and they come back every day. Whenever I think, My god, I’m tired, I step into my office, and there’s some classical music concert, or I go out into the hall, and I’m standing underneath the world’s largest Tiffany dome.... It really is a wonderful privilege.