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When the sun, and mayor, pop up for the arts

By Chris Jones

Tribune critic

2:51 PM EDT, May 17, 2013

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Each and every year in Chicago, there is a moment when the problems of the city seem to fall away and everything seems doable and winnable again. It is a moment inextricably tied to the weather. Spring always comes later than even the worst-case scenario. But there's always one day — an hour, even — when it finally arrives with such blazing force you know winter is dead and buried for the year. That's when a smart politician knows to pop up outdoors.

And like a leprechaun carrying his own pot of gold, Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked that very moment last week to bathe in the sunlight of the arts.

Tuesday, Emanuel could be seen at the precious Garfield Park Conservatory, surrounded by purple blossoms and men in tights, announcing an expanded series of arts programming in the parks, drawing from at least $500,000 in new money from the so-called NATO summit legacy fund. Some of the announcement involved long-established programs, like the Theatre on the Lake, and some of the programming was what you might expect to take place in the parks, like the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "The Comedy of Errors."

But there was also some genuine risk taking. Collaboraction's powerful homegrown piece about the causes and consequences of violence in Chicago, "Crime Scene," is to tour Chicago's parks (including LeClaire-Hurst Park, Sherman Park, Hamilton Park and Austin Town Hall Park) July 12 to Aug. 14, which should create a much-needed diversion on those hot summer nights in those challenged neighborhoods. The full title quietly has been changed from "Crime Scene: a Chicago Anthology" (the original title when performed in Bucktown) to "Crime Scene: Let Hope Rise," which I suspect was a political rather than an artistic (or reality-based) decision once the city got involved.

But that can be forgiven if the unstinting content of this piece about the consequences of gun violence remains the same, especially since the show is bring performed, for free, on incendiary weekend nights. It might well save lives right then and there: It's harder to pull a trigger just minutes after the laying out of the direct human consequences. Or so it feels, before warmth turns to heat.

Wednesday, Emanuel smartly popped up again in Millennium Park, surrounded by Chicago children squealing in the sunlight.

It's hard to overstate the emotional weight of Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion, surely the most successful cultural project in a generation in Chicago, on a beautiful morning. No other space confers the same blend of elegance and access. It is the city's indisputable front porch now, but also a reminder of global civic aspirations fulfilled. It tends to ennoble all who step on its stage. And yet, when you sit in the seats, you feel a swell of civic pride looking back at the early-season tourists who have just happened upon this event and are free to stand and watch with only a minor commitment required. Tourists love to just happen upon things, and smart destinations provide such opportunities for peeks into civic life. Add hundreds of kids and the ever-ebullient Yo-Yo Ma, whose blend of world-class chops and egalitarian enthusiasm is a lot like that of the venue in which he stood, and, well, who could not believe at that moment in the power of the arts to fix almost anything?

Who could not believe in the possibility of Chicago? Ma was calling the city — this sun-kissed city, the capital of the heartland — a beacon for "100 million people," a population bigger than that of most nations.

Not everything Emanuel said was new, and nothing is perfect. But this was a simple fact: The mayor of the city of Chicago was standing there announcing that the arts had been added to the core curriculum of the nation's third-largest school district for the first time ever. That is a significant change with proven benefits.

The children there Wednesday morning were all dressed in the uniform of the members of the Chicago Children's Choir. The effect initially was disconcerting. Most Chicagoans know the choir as the choir that stood on the stage performing, but the choir also has affiliate choirs in the Chicago Public Schools, and thus its visual presence that morning was formidable — and political, I suppose — but nonetheless beautiful.

Emanuel took to the stage and used the kind of repetitive rhetoric that political speechwriters like, including the constant phrase "no child need …," which seemed like a riff on another political leader's "no child left behind," only reoriented toward the arts. "They're going to get math and music,' Emanuel said, proceeding happily down the alphabet.

In my row of kids, there were furrowed brows. Children trust adults to educate them well and are often bemused by policy debates or declarations taking place in front of them, featuring themselves as props. It was not clear to them why it was such a big deal to get math and music. Of course, it's not such a big deal unless you don't get both and, years later, come to wonder why others did and why those others seem to have a better place at the table than you.

But one line was a hit. "They're gonna get reading and recess," the mayor said. The kids liked the sound of that. Sunny smiles all around.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib