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Who is the new commissioner of DCASE? A few questions for Clinée Hedspeth

When Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office announced in February that it would replace Erin Harkey, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) since 2021, it came as a surprise to many in Chicago’s cultural world. Compared to his predecessors, Johnson has been slow to make Cabinet appointments, reportedly leaving city departments reeling from the late-stage shake-up.

Timing was a factor. Harkey’s resignation came just a few months before the start of the summer festival season, DCASE’s most visible public offering. (This year, that includes a 20th anniversary celebration of Millennium Park from July 18 to 21.) But some of the department’s most essential work takes place behind the scenes, with $24 million in artist and organizational subsidies are awarded; that amount is likely to increase this year, with DCASE securing its largest budget yet: more than $87 million.

In March, Johnson announced former art appraiser and curator Clinée Hedspeth as Harkey’s successor. Hedspeth has known Johnson for twenty years; they both got their start in politics working together in the offices of Oak Park Representatives Don Harmon and Deborah L. Graham. She later worked for Johnson as his legislative director from 2018 to 2021, when he was a Cook County commissioner.

Hedspeth, 43, grew up in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood in a family that was both politically and artistically committed: Her mother was a Black Panther and theater enthusiast, and her grandmother participated in early efforts to establish the Northwest African American Museum to target.

She first moved to Chicago to attend Dominican University in River Forest, but put her studies on hold to work. After returning and graduating in 2013, Hedspeth started her own visual arts assessment company and joined the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in 2015 as director of curatorial services. Most recently, Hedspeth worked as an associate specialist in 20th century and contemporary art for Phillips, the prestigious British auction house.

Hedspeth lives in Hyde Park, where she remains board chair of the Hyde Park Historical Society. She is also board chair of Edgar Miller Legacy, a nonprofit organization that supports the preservation of the late artist-designer’s work, and chair of the Literature and Arts Committee at the University Club of Chicago, where Hedspeth made a public debut of sorts. Interview Johnson on April 8.

Hedspeth spent much of her own half-hour interview with the Tribune giving a detailed tour of the art in her corner office at the Chicago Cultural Center, including pieces from the city’s own art holdings: sketches by Alison Saar , a vibrant textile by Nick Grot and a small sculpture by the late Richard Hunt.

But when it came to her specific plans for DCASE — and this year’s $87 million operating budget, the largest ever — Hedspeth had less to say. A shortened and edited version of that conversation, on April 25, follows.

Clinée Hedspeth is the new appointee to the commissioner of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.  (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
Clinée Hedspeth is the new appointee to the commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

Q: Your predecessor Erin Harkey presented five goals to the City Council during 2024 budget negotiations: prioritize the ongoing COVID recovery for the arts sector; streamlining the process for requesting and producing special events; developing more large-scale events; celebrating Millennium Park’s 20th anniversary with new commissions and programming; and self-assessment of DCASE’s own functions for efficacy and efficiency. I wonder what your goals are. Do you share those objectives? Are there things you want to expand or redirect?

A: I have goals. And you know, it’s so funny, because we were like, what’s the vision? And I said, “Well, there’s visions.” There should not be just one view. I have goals, but I have now reached 30 days. I think it would be foolish to share some. I want to work with my team a little more to ensure these are communicated accurately and to demonstrate that they don’t go against what has been done before.

So the answer is: I have them and I plan to share them soon.

Q: But not right now?

Not at this time.

Q: We also just mentioned the budget –

A: – which is important. I mean, you know, that’s the key. That’s an important document that sets these healthy boundaries, right? So I wanted to make sure I was aware of that first and that I understood it.

Q: So you can ask some questions about the budget?

I will wait.

(In a follow-up email, a department spokesperson stated that DCASE’s “festivals and events, public art, cultural grants and other programs will be similar through (2023)” and that the department will “continue to prioritize direct support to artists and arts organizations.”)

Question: Okay. So far, Mayor Johnson has kept his campaign promises to increase DCASE funding. But there are also stressors he could not have predicted, such as the ongoing migrant crisis. We also know that COVID relief funds, which currently make up a third of the (DCASE) budget, are finite and must be spent in 2026. When times get tough, what’s your pitch for maintaining or increasing funding for the arts?

A: My philosophy is: I have to go there. We (DCASE) have to maintain some of these services that we offer, and we bring our own networks to the table. That’s an important part of my responsibility and job: knocking on some of those doors. As people celebrate Chicago internationally, we need to look at ways to encourage people to support what they love (about Chicago’s art scene) beyond here. The funds change, but the need does not. You can’t just have a grants department; I have to be part of that and be hands-on.

What I can say is that my team and I anticipate changes and try to get ahead of them. (We’re) going to institutions, organizations and foundations that have not participated, and again going to organizations that are also not necessarily responsible with their funding practices.

Q; You took office a few months before the summer festival season. What did you find in terms of festival planning when you came in?

A: I mean, the team is good. It’s going well. It only causes me to be overtaken. People won’t notice the difference between who is sitting here now. If anything, they will walk away with additional support that enhances what we have done well and what the department has done well in the city.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.