The Wendy City

If you don’t know her already, you will soon. Wendy Abrams eco-advocate, political insider, philanthropist, mother of four unveils Chicago’s new public sculpture project this summer. And it’s no cows on parade.

Queen of the Worlds: Wendy Abrams, spearhead of this summer's Cool Globes project, in the Chicago warehouse where the globes were decorated and stored   Photo: Thomas Chadwick;

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Abrams, her eldest son, David, and husband, Jim

In her lakefront Highland Park neighborhood, where a quiet social liberalism mixes comfortably with the trappings of serious Republicanism, Abrams was half-jokingly referred to as an “eco-terrorist” for expressing concern about the possible effects of the pesticide treatment on her neighbor’s lawn. In the early years of her activism, around the time of the 2000 election, Abrams was careful to keep her head down-"It was more of an individual thing,” she says-and to avoid political debates. Still, she sometimes couldn’t help herself. There were all those neighborhood SUVs to contend with, all those things she was privately teaching her children, then glossing over with a joke-"I’m sure your next car will be something more environmentally responsible,” she would tell the Hummer owners. And, of course, there was that dinner for some of Medline’s biggest customers, when she launched into a passionate defense of her political hero, Bill Clinton. With a rueful smile, she recalls the tension that hung over the room, as, slowly, like in one of those old E. F. Hutton commercials, all other conversations stopped, and she could hear only her own, slightly shrill voice. “Not my proudest moment as a Medline spouse,” she says now.

The transition from being a corporate wife-whose environmentalism was expected to be just another charity-to being a powerful activist was far smoother and quicker than Abrams might have expected. In the space of two years, she went from quietly coaching her kids about environmental responsibility to holding positions of influence with nearly all of the major national environmental organizations. She has been a member of Environmental Defense’s National Council since 2002 and sits on boards for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sierra Club. Her lobbying efforts have edged Congress closer to legislation that will limit greenhouse gas emissions. And, by setting up a meeting for Oppenheimer with Senator Barack Obama at just the right moment, she has had a major impact on the presidential candidate’s environmental platform.

Abrams insists she doesn’t consider herself a political activist: “I did not get involved with the environmental movement to promote a political agenda; on the contrary, I got involved with politics to promote a nonpartisan environmental agenda,” she says. Nonetheless, her status as a political mover and shaker is undeniable-and it has allowed her to make Cool Globes happen.

The project grew out of a commitment Abrams offered up while attending a 2006 conference held by the Clinton Global Initiative. Sponsored by the former president’s nonprofit foundation, the New York City gathering brought together current and former heads of state, business leaders, academicians, and other bigwigs.

The aim was to come up with programs in several key areas, including combating climate change. Each participant was asked to commit in writing to a personal action plan.

Abrams, whose name appeared on the conference guest list between Jordan’s King Abdullah and Northern Ireland’s Gerry Adams, jokes that she was “the token nobody.” But she took her commitment seriously and began sketching out the details for what would become Cool Globes.

The premise is similar to that of the much-loved 1999 Cows on Parade exhibition: Various artists begin with the same object-in this case, a six-foot-tall white plaster globe-and then paint, decorate, and otherwise modify it to express an individual theme or style. Sponsors pair up with artists to cover the cost of production. Beginning June 1st, the globes-more than 100 of them-will be displayed for the summer along the lakefront, from the Museum Campus to Navy Pier.

While the cows were meant to be cute and fun, though, these sculptures aspire to more: they’ve got a message. Each represents a solution or strategy for addressing global warming. High-profile creative types, including pop artist Jim Dine and architect Stanley Tigerman, worked with Abrams and her team of volunteers to come up with environmentally helpful themes or actions; for example, bike instead of driving. The artists, mostly Chicagoans, will then decide how best to portray those ideas on the sculptures. For the suggestion to people: “Use your feet” by walking instead of driving, Eric W. Stephenson will cover a globe in athletic shoes donated by professional sports teams. To promote wind energy, Lisa Fedich will insert pinwheels into a globe.

Most of the messages promoted will be essentially nonconfrontational. Still, the globe that suggests voting as a means for addressing climate change doesn’t explicitly say, “Vote against conservative Republicans,” but it doesn’t really have to.

In crafting a publicity campaign for Cool Globes, there was some concern that people might be put off by the environmentalist message of the project, which stands in contrast to the quirky charm of Cows on Parade. But at a moment when the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, produced by Abrams’s good friend Laurie David, has just won an Oscar, Rick Jasculca says, “we believe that bridge has already been crossed.”

Abrams and her team did temper some of the messages, however. “Eat a vegan diet” was a no-go (McDonald’s is a major project sponsor). And Abrams personally worked on matching globes to sponsors to make sure that the more staid corporate entities would not be paired with the edgiest works of art. When approaching a potential sponsor, Abrams stressed that attaching itself to the project is a way to promote itself as “green.” She says she was more successful pitching the project to marketing departments than to the corporate foundations that would usually give money to a public art project.

Similarly, the city’s involvement is more political than cultural. Rather than being run through the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, as past displays have been, Cool Globes is attached to the City of Chicago Department of Environment.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist, will be the keynote speaker on June 2nd at the Field Museum to launch the exhibition (tickets for the event are available at coolglobes.com/gala). In September, after the globes are removed from their outdoor displays, each will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to fund afterschool environmental clubs in Chicago public schools.

With an impressive list of corporate sponsors, including, very prominently, ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, as well as BP, Toyota, McDonald’s, and Pepsi, the project aims to strike a mostly nonpolitical and business-friendly tone, while educating the public about global warming. “I’m sure I’ll get criticism saying, you know, ‘How could you have BP as a sponsor?’” Abrams says, but adds the oil company is making strides on finding alternative energy sources. “I’m not suggesting everyone stop driving and stop flying.” Some matters of principle do stand in bedrock, however. “If Exxon had come to me, I wouldn’t take their sponsorship. They’ve been spending money to say that global warming doesn’t exist.”

Rahm Emanuel says Abrams has a gift for finding a way to blend practicality with principle, a key to her success in influencing powerful people. The congressman adds: She’s someone who “knows how to take yes for an answer.”

Randy Mehrberg, the Exelon executive overseeing the company’s sponsorship of the project, puts it another way: “Often when people come with an agenda, they’re burdened by their agenda.” Abrams, on the other hand, “makes us feel good and is genuinely interested in our input.”

Asked if he considered Abrams to be an environmentalist, Mehrberg demurred, saying, “I think of her as a humanist.”

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