Lois Weisberg is one of the key components that made Chicago what it is today. Without her, there would be no Chicago Blues Festival, no Friends of the Park or Chicago Cultural Center, no Gallery 37 program or Chicago Gospel Music Festival. She brought Cows on Parade to Chicago and helped to spark a U.S. art phenomenon. She left a permanent mark on this city and its people.
She served as the city of Chicago’s first Commissioner of Cultural Affairs from 1989 until January 2011, when she retired and moved to Miami, Florida, where she passed away recently on January 13th, 2016 at 90 years old of kidney failure. In addition to raising four children and raising the cultural status of Chicago to the internationally-respected place that it is today, Weisberg won several award for her contributions to the city of Chicago.
Lois Weisberg was awarded the League of Women Voters Civic Contribution Award, Governing Magazine’s Public Official of the Year Award, the Harold Washington History Maker Award, an honorary Doctorate from Chicago’s Spertus Institute, the Chicago Tribune “Chicagoan of the Year” award, as well as an inaugural Five Star Award from the City of Chicago in 2014. Just to name a few.
While she is most recognized for serving under Mayor Richard M. Daley as the city’s commissioner for cultural affairs from 1989 to 2011, that wasn’t her first position in Chicago government. Through the 1980s, Weisberg served as as the head of the office of special events in the administration of Mayor Harold Washington until his death while he was still in office. Weisberg continued her position until Mayor Daley began his mission to revitalize the Chicago as a true cultural gem of the midwest, rivaling other major U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles.
The programs and events she launched have brought millions of Chicagoans and tourists to more actively participate in the cultural goings-ons of the city, and celebrate the important and diverse heritages within it. In the wake of her death, The Chicago Tribune’s chief theatre critic, Chris Jones wrote that Weisberg was “perhaps the most significant architect (or savior) of cultural Chicago the city ever has known.”
Lois Weisberg was the driving force behind taking vacant city lots and repurposing them as incubators for local art. Nine years after she and Mayor Daley’s wife, Maggie, turned one of those lots into an arts apprenticeship program, it had more than 3,000 participants, and it has since expanded beyond just the arts to become the renowned program, After School Matters.
She was born and raised in the West Side of Chicago. She graduated from Northwestern University and studied theatre. It was there that she started organizing community-based, civic-driven events. Her influence grew and she became famous for knowing everyone famous, and for using those connections in such a way as to facilitate change and happenings.
Malcolm Gladwell, who first wrote about Lois Weisberg in The New Yorker, and later in his best-selling book, famously said, “She’s a grandmother, she lives in a big house in Chicago, and you’ve never heard of her. Does she run the world?”