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The First Step in a New Cultural Plan

This article is first in a new effort by the Chicago Arts Archive to cover the development of the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan as well as the legacy of the previous 1986 plan. In the coming weeks and months we will be publishing articles on the 2012 planning process and the successes and failures of the 1986 plan.

In 1986, the residents and city government of Chicago took a good, hard look at the state of its cultural life. At that point in time there was no Chicago Cultural Center, and the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) was only two years old. Mayor Harold Washington wanted to know what the city needed to create a robust, vibrant arts community. What was best for Chicago’s culture? Where were things needed most? He asked his questions not of the city council or the DCA, but of the city’s residents themselves — ten thousand residents, to be precise. Over 300 meetings, they demonstrated again and again their need and love for the arts. Their outcry was loud and unprecedented.

Now, twenty-six years later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel seeks that response from today’s Chicagoans. And so all this winter and spring he has been asking, “What should the future be of culture in Chicago?” For this he has hired Lord Cultural Resources, experts in cultural planning headquartered in New York. Lord seeks to uphold the spirit of the 1986 plan and to that end has begun the planning process by holding four large-scale town hall meetings, followed by 19 neighborhood meetings. On February 21, I attended the fourth at the Mexican Fine Art Museum in Pilsen.

From the start, the atmosphere was inviting and convivial. The lobby outside of the auditorium was full of people enjoying a variety of free tamales provided by the museum. Along the west wall stood maps of Chicago, laying out various information about the state of the arts in the city, such as locations of cultural centers and park districts.

At six o’clock we headed inside the auditorium as Michelle Boone of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) took to the stage. Thanking the alderman and cultural transition committee members in attendance, she touched on the 1986 plan and communicated the hopes of the city for the new one.

The City’s Voice

Orit Sarfaty briefs those in attendance on the purpose of the new cultural plan, Chicago IL. February 21, 2012. (Image courtesy of Medill Reports Chicago).

Throughout her introductions, she stressed that this plan was ours to create. “As you go through your workshops tonight, I want to remind you that no idea is too small or too big…The most important voices in this entire process are yours.” When she finished speaking she introduced Malcolm London, a teenage apprentice teaching artist and Louder Than a Bomb champion. After a modest introduction, he launched into a poignant slam poem, expressing the difficulty of life in Chicago and hope for a brighter future. He shouted:


we wear bullet wounds like birth marks
black skin symmetrical to scuba spandex
we’re pushed off diving boards into crimson mistakes
that are only viewed as news when the editors’ board is bored

Towards the end he shouted, “In this city there are poets scribbling untold stories in their notebooks.” Through his poetry, Malcolm personified the artistic potential of our city and the ability of the arts to provide an outlet for life’s challenges. The crowd was energized.

Following Malcolm, was Orit Sarfaty, a planner from Lord Cultural Resources. Passionate and down to earth, she introduced her organization’s approach to the plan and stressed again and again that it was “ground-up plan”.

The room was then split into eleven groups, each tasked with answering three questions:

What is a cultural experience you had in Chicago that impacted you? Where do you want to see culture in Chicago by 2030? How will we get there?

The twenty or so members of my group introduced themselves as various participants in the arts community in Chicago, ranging from apartment gallerists and an Irish MFA student to a participant in West African dance who had attended the three previous town hall meetings. Everyone spoke passionately about their moving cultural experiences, but things really got going when we began to discuss where we wanted to see Chicago culture by 2030.

Chicago’s Hopes and Needs

A post-it note full of hopes for Chicago's cultural future featured on the cultural plan website. March, 2012. (Image courtesy of Chicago Cultural Plan).

People spoke from their own areas of interest: the apartment gallerists wanted better zoning laws for live/work spaces, the DIY art space organizer wanted a hub in the loop for alternative spaces to show and sell work. At the same time, more universal ideas came out, like providing opportunities for self-trained artists to learn professional skills. Before we knew it, our time was nearly up, so we sped through the most difficult question with few concrete answers, “How will we achieve all this?”

The next forty minutes were filled with three-minute presentations by the eleven groups, summarizing their answers to the questions. Each group spent the majority of their time reporting their answers to the second question, “Where do you want to see culture in Chicago by 2030?” There were dozens of ideas between the groups, but certain shared concerns continually surfaced. Nearly every group advocated for adequate arts education in all of our public schools, with some groups receiving applause from the audience. Nearly as popular was the issue of easily accessible information and resources. Half of the groups, including my own, expressed the need for some sort of online social network where organizations could learn of each other, patrons could easily attain information on upcoming events, and everyone could share resources and information. Another recurring desire was for small organizations to have more support from the city, lower fees, and less red tape. This echoed a shortfall of the Daley administration, which overall worked hard to improve large institutions but according to some, fell short when it came to grassroots, neighborhood, and DIY spaces.

Other concerns were familiar to Chicagoans as well. “Pay our artists! Pay our artists! Pay our artists!” one speaker shouted, as the crowd erupted into applause and amen’s. “Keep our talent in our city,” other speakers expressed. Another idea that surfaced among multiple groups was not so familiar: using abandoned buildings as arts spaces. “We have 14,000 abandoned buildings in Chicago, start handing out a percentage of that just to get things going. Someone wanted to put a painting up on an abandoned railroad wall, and they cannot, for the life of them, get the parties involved to listen,” demanded one of the speakers.

Then there was the issue of integration. Numerous groups mentioned a love for the distinct cultures of each neighborhood of Chicago, but expressed a deep desire for a more integrated cultural landscape. “How can we get people in Rogers Park to visit Kenwood?” a man in my group asked. That desire was punctuated by the mix of people in the room.  To me one of the great strengths of the town hall meeting was its diversity. Adults of all ages, ethnicities, and neighborhoods were in attendance. I encountered people from Pilsen, Edgewater, and South Shore, to name a few. At the end of the presentations, we were asked to raise our hands if we were part of certain cultural fields. Again, our diversity was reflected as we learned visual artists, musicians, arts journalists, writers, dancers, theater artists, patrons, and lovers of the arts in general were in attendance. It was clear in the words of the presenters that this open dialogue among diverse Chicagoans was valued. “We get together ever 25 years to talk about culture in our city. Maybe we should get together every year,” said one speaker.

Finding the Funding

Michelle Boone closed the evening by stressing, “There’s always lots of questions around money. I think we have to be clear that what we’re trying to draw out is priorities. We’re not going to be able to fund everything; we’ve got to find the resources for it. Some of it will come from the city but much of it will have to be our

The idea behind the new organization See Potential relies on the use of abandoned buildings on Chicago's south side. 2012. (Images courtesy of See Potential).

creative thinking about new strategies to find those resources. I can’t emphasize that enough…[These meetings] will point us to the things that have the highest value and spread the furthest with the greatest impact.”

Her response is a realistic one and caused me to take a second look at the ideas mentioned in the meeting. Some of those brought up the most also come with the highest price tag: fully-funded arts education in the public schools, making being an artist into a sustainable profession, establishing a cultural liaison in each neighborhood, and better supporting the city’s smaller arts organizations. However, there were many other ideas that could be done with little cost, especially if thought about creatively, as Boone advocated: making use of abandoned buildings, building an online information network for artists and patrons, re-working zoning laws for alternative spaces, cutting the red tape, the potential of sweat equity, making better use of libraries and park districts, and so on.

Public Support for the Arts and the Future of Chicago

Nick Rabkin, an arts-policy expert and senior research scientist at U of C who is both part of Lord’s team overseeing the new plan and a former deputy commissioner of the DCA who oversaw the old one, stressed that our enthusiasm for the arts is a great strength behind the plan. “It may well be that the most important thing about the 1986 plan is exactly what you sensed here tonight. The planning process itself was a way to demonstrate that arts and culture meant a lot to thousands of people living in Chicago. That had never happened before….That made it possible for the DCA to appear before the city council and say, ‘We have a lot to do here in the city. The people believe that the city has a public responsibility to support the arts.”

Clearly, that public belief remains true in 2012. “I will be up in heaven by 2030,” said one woman in attendance, “But from up there I envision a great Chicago for the arts.” One can only hope that this new plan is the first step in making that dream a reality.

Since the town hall meeting in February, the city has continued to meet with the people of Chicago through 19 community meetings held in neighborhoods across the city.  To view information on upcoming meetings, visit the cultural plan website here.

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