Janet Carl Smith

Chicago’s Cultural Champion

Janet Carl Smith

By Clare Milliken

Janet Carl Smith (BS68) has always been a teacher, one who wasn’t bound by the confines of a school.

Instead, she made Chicago her classroom. Through her more-than-30-year career as deputy commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Smith successfully partnered city agencies with schools and nonprofits to bring free arts programming to the public, setting many precedents and establishing herself as a legendary Chicago arts advocate.

“Rather than teaching in a classroom, I found it more fulfilling to help people take the lead and learn from each other,” says Smith, who retired from city government in 2011. “That was a crucial realization for me. Lifelong learning outside the classroom became the impetus for my entire career.”

A New York native and a true child of the 1960s—she once held a college rejection letter bonfire party—Smith earned a teaching degree at Northwestern. Her first major job, at the University of Illinois Medical Center, was connecting students to the arts.

In 1978 she became director of programs and exhibits at the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center, where she helped create innovative visual art and performance programs that were free and open to the public.

“We were always more effective when we collaborated with other organizations across the city,” Smith says.

This proved true in a big way in 1983, when she launched a four-month project, Stages of Shakespeare, as part of the Chicago Cultural Network. Thanks to Smith’s joining forces with 15 cultural institutions, Stages of Shakespeare brought programming to 100 Chicago Public Schools and public venues across the city in what was, Smith says, “arguably the first all-city collaborative program of its kind.”

Smith saw her role as one of public service. “I believe in the power of government to do things that other entities can’t,” she says. “Free public programming is an important value in the city of Chicago. But I also realized I was working in a bureaucracy and would need to use all my skills to be creative within that system.”

In what could be called her “unretirement,” Smith continues to support Chicago arts organizations and has been recognized for her lifelong arts advocacy. Her record includes longtime Arts Alliance Illinois board membership and stints as council chair at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Profes­sional Studies and on the advisory committee of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Theater and Music.

In addition, she has served as a consultant for the Chicago Cultural Alliance, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Terra Foundation of American Art.

“I like going to places that are not about the arts and reminding people that arts should be part of the conversation,” she says. “I give them a challenge that’s also an opportunity.”