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The Questionable Aspects of the Chicago Cultural Plan Draft

This article was originally posted at Gapers Block on July 20, 2012 by Jason Prechtel.  In line with our past coverage of the Chicago Cultural Plan, this article is a response to the recent release of the first draft of the plan. This article is also part of a series of article exchange partnerships between Sixty Inches From Center and other online blogs and journals that have missions similar to ours–to document and support the visual arts happening in Chicago. The goal of these partnerships is to build bridges within our writing community, help promote one another to new audiences and give more exposure to the art that keeps our Chicago experience compelling.

After months of soliciting community feedback, the city unveiled a 64-page draft (and 32-page supplement) for the Chicago Cultural Plan on [July 16, 2012]. In its own words, the purpose of the plan is to “create a framework for Chicago’s future cultural and economic growth and will become the centerpiece for the City’s aim to become a global destination for creativity, innovation and excellence in the arts.” As it currently stands, the Chicago Cultural Plan draft outlines 36 recommendations and over 100 initiatives to bolster arts and culture throughout Chicago’s public, private, and non-profit sectors.

On the surface, the plan has a lot of exciting opportunities and ideas, such as eased zoning and permitting for artists, arts education in public schools, neighborhood participation in public art and cultural events, and numerous creative industry career training and networking opportunities. But despite all the rhetoric about “honoring authentic Chicago culture” and bring together neighborhoods and communities through public art, the plan also has several questionable aspects to it that may not be so beneficial to all Chicagoans.

In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, Richard Florida makes the case that creative professionals and industries in what he dubs the “Creative Class” are now the engine of economic growth for cities. And much of the current draft of Chicago Cultural Plan looks like something Florida’s own consulting agency would advocate to grow such a Creative Class – things like the subsidies to the film industry (Recommendation 1I), tax incentives and incubation for creative start-ups (1E and 1J), the expansion of arts grants (1A and 1B), and the overall cultivation of a citywide focus on innovation and creative thinking (30-31).

At the same time, the plan offers bottom-up Creative Class development in the form of expanded K-12 arts education in the public schools (5), one-year arts job entry programs for college graduates (3A), and the creation of special neighborhood cultural districts and “Creative Enterprise Zones” to concentrate creative professionals of all types in the same areas (17). Collectively, these bolster the overall recommendations to “Attract and maintain artists and creative professionals” (3 and 4) and “Strengthen the critical pathways that accelerate artists’ and creative professionals’ concepts into market-ready products” (32).

Now taking the most attractive parts of Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, and Berlin and plopping them into Chicago sounds exciting, but there are some consequences to such a citywide transformation.

The first has to do with what some of our new, culture-saturated neighborhoods would look like. Currently, the plan has a variety of initiatives concerning property use and ownership — eased permitting/zoning laws for cultural and live/work spaces (16A), donations of vacant land to arts and community cultural groups (16D), and the questionable “Commitment to artists residing within cultural districts through 30-year leases” (2C). Making it easier for artists and creative professionals to find work and living spaces in concentrated areas will inevitably raise the property values and change the overall character of several Chicago neighborhoods — especially those that end up being designated as cultural districts. Despite an initiative to ensure “housing allocation that preserves diversity of income levels within cultural districts,” (17G), it’s hard to imagine that many people of lower-income levels with no creative skillset will be able to live in these new neighborhood magnets for the arts.

Then there’s also the issue of funding the Chicago Cultural Plan itself. From the public sector, we have suggestions to “augment” the hotel occupancy tax (22D) and to create a special tax for arts and culture (22E). More worrisome is the advocacy of using TIF funds to subsidize artist housing (2B). Putting aside Chicago’s long history of misuse and abuse of TIF money allocation, does it really make sense for a plan to spend extra money for artist housing if the plan already calls for eased zoning and permitting?

What really concerns me are the funding vehicles from the private sector. The mysterious Chicago Infrastructure Trust – made up of several investment banks and an appointed 5-member panel — is suggested to place its focus on cultural projects (34A). Along with a private “Cultural Investment Fund” (35), a nonprofit-funneled “Public Art Trust” (36A), and “Corporate sponsorship of cultural infrastructure projects citywide,” (35D), we will suddenly have a variety of potential revenue sources with no details and little potential oversight of how they will be spent.

When I looked up the phrase “cultural infrastructure” to see if it had any specific meaning outside of this plan, I found it can be defined as infrastructure that (surprise, surprise) supports cultural activities and industries, such as libraries and museums. However, if the plan is going to “Integrate culture across all City departments and agencies and within major infrastructure projects,” (34), then doesn’t that make just about anything in the city fair game for private “cultural” investment? And if private investment vehicles are designed to re-coup a profit, how many of these “cultural infrastructure” assets that they fund are going to end up resembling the Chicago Parking Meters deal?

While there are noble goals within the Chicago Cultural Plan draft, it’s obvious that much of it is really a thinly disguised economic plan to expand Chicago’s cultural and tourist industries by any means possible. There’s a lot in the plan draft that I like, and that I believe will vastly benefit Chicagoans of all stripes. However, as outlined above, there are several aspects to the plan that deserve far more scrutiny than has been given so far. An expanded Creative Class in Chicago would be great for some, but several of the means to accomplish this may not be so great for many Chicagoans.

But the good news is that the plan is not set in stone. There are four more “Cultural Town Halls” over the course of next week to solicit feedback about the plan draft. If you have any particular feelings about any aspect of the plan — good or bad — I would suggest attending one of these meetings. Regardless if you’re an artist or someone who doesn’t even pay much attention to the arts, the implementation of the Chicago Cultural Plan will radically shape the city you know and love for years to come.

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