An Inconvenient Truth 

When Lawrence Weschler picked global warming as the theme for the Humanities Festival, it was still a topic nobody was talking about.

It was unseasonably hot on the day two weeks ago that Lawrence "Ren" Weschler spoke at the Arts Club. Weschler's ostensible topic was his latest tome, Everything That Rises, a picture book in which he shows that the resemblance between certain images--say, a photo of Monica Lewinsky and the Mona Lisa--can be the germ of a quirky essay. Everything That Rises won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism last year, and it was the subject the members lunching at the Arts Club were expecting. But Weschler had another item on his agenda: before he cranked up the PowerPoint for a spin through convergent art, he launched into a spiel on "The Climate of Concern," the name for this year's Chicago Humanities Festival.

In early 2006, when Weschler took the job of artistic director for CHF, he did it on the condition that the 2007 festival theme would be global warming. "The striking thing was that hardly anybody in America was taking it seriously" at that time, he says. It was showing up as the number-one issue in opinion polls all over Europe, but in the United States it was lagging behind the likes of health care, taxes, and the Iraq war. "Public policy people, politicians, and scientists had been trying to break through on this subject and hadn't succeeded," Weschler said, adding that he thought he knew why: "The problem was a real crisis of vision." If environmental change is amorphous, distant, and hard to visualize, he reasoned, the task of making it clear should go to "the people whose job is vision: artists, historians, philosophers, poets, playwrights. The people we regularly bring to the Chicago Humanities Festival." The subject was slated: the festival would be the vehicle for raising public consciousness about climate change. Then, he says, "Gore happened."

Weschler is a busy guy: the Humanities Festival is a commuting gig for him. He's in Chicago only about five days a month and lives in New York, where he heads the New York Institute for the Humanities, based at NYU. A former New Yorker staff writer, he recently finished putting together two volumes of interviews he's done with David Hockney and Robert Irwin over 25 years. And in his spare time he writes comments online about the winners of a contest McSweeney's is running on its site: McSweeney's Books, which published Everything That Rises, has invited people to submit their own visual convergences (dad putting up a clothesline in the backyard and the Iwo Jima flag raising, for example). Weschler's going to publish a book of those too. But right now he's focused on the festival, which runs October 27 through November 11.

Weschler says Al Gore's 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, turned global warming into the "flavor of the year" and left CHF with a different kind of challenge than the clueless lack of interest he'd originally anticipated. As Weschler told the audience at the Arts Club, the new task was to engage people who'd seen the Gore movie and might be thinking "been there, done that." Stretched over three weekends this year rather than the usual two, the festival offers more than 120 events at 25 venues, plus a concurrent children's festival. On Weschler's list of highlights: a sidebar of programs on the end of the world (because this ain't the first time it's been in sight), including the fall of Rome, bubonic plague, and Y2K; the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef (the "AIDS quilt of global warming") at the Cultural Center (see Our Town for more); staged readings of half a dozen one-acts commissioned from the likes of Don DeLillo and Sarah Ruhl; and a goodly number of women artists talking (Maya Lin, Tara Donovan, Ann Hamilton, and more) because, he says, there was a nice little convergence between the start of the "consciously feminist art movement" and the first Earth Day, in 1970. Plus talks by writers like E.L. Doctorow and young adult author Philip Pullman (whom Weschler and his daughter, Sara, will interview).

One thing not on Weschler's plate this year is the CHF benefit gala on November 2: a concert of show tunes, jazz, and cabaret favorites by Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell at Symphony Center, followed by a $500-a-plate dinner. (Tickets to the concert only are $25.) Weschler's attempt at gala planning last year, a melange dubbed Curiodyssey and hyped as the place to be, was such a resounding flop he's been taken off that duty. Curiodyssey included a sampling of festival-like offerings--a lecture on octopus camouflage, a screening of decaying film stock accompanied by live new music--eccentric enough to leave many attendees mystified. He says he was told when he came on board that there'd been too much musical stuff at past galas and that something different would be welcome. But he learned that "the people who come to the gala, who can afford to pay that kind of money, and the people who go to the festival are different kinds of audiences. The people who come to the gala, I now understand, want to see Brian Stokes Mitchell." Curiodyssey--"too downtown," he says--was "really hated" by a third of the audience. And the comment he heard most from those who didn't hate it was "This is fantastic. You are in so much trouble."

CHF, started under the auspices of the Illinois Humanities Council in 1989 but an independent entity for a decade, now has an annual operating budget of just over $3 million and a staff of 18. It sells about 30,000 festival tickets annually, gives away another 10,000, and reaches between 6,500 and 9,000 individuals, most of them middle-class, white, and middle-aged. It's been without an administrative head since founder Eileen Mackevich was forced out in 2005. (Cofounder and board chair Richard Franke, who stepped down earlier this year, has been succeeded by Willard Fraumann.) But this week Evanston native Stuart Flack joined the staff as executive director. Flack comes from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he was a partner and publisher of a journal on management, strategy, and finance, the McKinsey Quarterly. CHF won't be his only interest either; he's a playwright (Victory Gardens productions include Homeland Security and Jonathan Wild) and, it appears, another global thinker. At least he lives locally.

A Garden Can Be Art

Artist Chapman Kelley claimed a preliminary victory last week in his ongoing suit against the Park District over its destruction in 2004 of much of his 66,000-square-foot wildflower artwork in Grant Park. According to Kelley's attorney, Frank P. Hernandez, U.S. district judge David H. Coar ruled that the garden was a work of art; that Kelley owned the flowers, valued at $1.5 million; and that the Park District should have given him notice of changes. Additional briefs in the case, which turns on the question of protection under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, are to be filed at the end of the month. No comment from the Park District.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lawrence Weschler photo.

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