Bad move No. 2: Don't even think about placing festival events at Soldier Field or whatever the remodeled home of the Chicago Bears ultimately will be called. Though city officials have floated this idea periodically for years, there is no worse outdoor venue for music events in downtown Chicago.
Designed more for commerce than art, stadium concerts run counter to the intimate, one-on-one nature of jazz, blues and gospel music. Nor would the city's Celtic and Viva Chicago Latin Music Festivals benefit from the football-field dimensions of Soldier Field.
Use Loop venues
Instead of leaning toward such gigantism, the city needs to recast the festivals on a more human scale than it yet has achieved at the already overcrowded Petrillo Music Shell events. Thus, instead of attracting tens of thousands to Grant Park, the city should redirect audiences to downtown venues that practically cry out for summertime use.
Rather than booking multiple, big-name headliners to play Grant Park, why not try for more moderate-scaled attractions in the park, while booking other acts for the refurbished Oriental and Palace theaters, as well as the smaller Gallery 37 and Chicago Cultural Center auditoriums? By scheduling indoor, ticketed concerts to complement the Grant Park performances, the city could accomplish two important feats: upgrading the overall quality of the festivals and breathing life into Chicago's struggling North Loop Theater District.
Certainly the combination of public sponsorship with private venues has proven enormously successful in the case of the World Music Festival, which attracts visitors to clubs and theaters across the city every September. If the Mayor's Office of Special Events would do likewise with the summer music festivals, leading visitors into venues near Grant Park, the city could avoid transforming the newly manicured park into a Navy Pier-style carnival. Meanwhile, theaters and clubs would benefit from the swarms of Chicagoans and suburbanites who otherwise flock to Grant Park, then leave without exploring the rest of the city.
The idea of diffusing crowds across many venues rather than compressing them into Grant Park is a lesson that Chicago still has time to learn, before the music festivals become unmanageable.
That lesson was lost on the city of New Orleans, which is being overrun by mobs that pour into the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Though New Orleans city government welcomes the tourism dollars, the event has become so big attracting more than 160,000 visitors to the city's fairgrounds on the certain days of the fest, earlier this month that complaints have been soaring.
New Orleans' complaints
"In the wake of such a mega-Saturday and an overall seven-day attendance that topped 600,000, breaking another festival records questions about Jazzfest's modus operandi seem more pertinent than ever," noted the New Orleans Times-Picayune on May 13.
"The quality of life of the average fest-goer suffered," added the paper, pointing out that even festival directors conceded the point, "as 160,000 people competed for food, water, bathrooms and space."
Added one reader, in a recent letter to the editor, "My suggestion ... is to find a new site, maybe Mississippi," wrote Louisiana resident Dave Price, on May 9. "Bring in big acts, set your goals high: 1 million people in a weekend, charge for air. We, on the other hand, will go back to our small music festival."
In Chicago, the perils of attracting similarly huge throngs to the city's music festivals are more profound, since Grant Park sits in the heart of downtown. With the masses swarming into a spruced-up park, summer in the city could become as hellish for downtown drivers and pedestrians as it often is for the crush of festivalgoers.
"I definitely think that the new Grant Park opens up a lot of possibilities," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a non-profit organization that helps program the Chicago Jazz Festival. "After this year's event, we're going to be looking at all the possibilities."
Yet, unfortunately, neither the Jazz Institute nor any of the other volunteers that help program the music festivals command the manpower or budget to run festivals that would be staged in multiple venues. Indeed, the entire programming-by-committee approach of the city's music festivals in which politically connected volunteers help decide how to spend taxpayer dollars ought to be scrapped. The time may have come for the city to turn to the pros to help manage the reconceived festivals at Grant Park.
Why not partner with some of Chicago's professional concert agencies to transform a tired festival formula into an expanded summer season that embraces theaters across downtown? With an infusion of private cash and top-notch management, the festivals could grow in duration and budget.
Festivals need directors
Or why not appoint a bona fide artistic director for each of the festivals, giving events the artistic personality and profile that the committees have been woefully unable to achieve?