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The 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan Unveiled
by Thea Liberty Nichols

The 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan was recently released after roughly five months worth of town hall meetings, focus groups, interviews and conversations with artists and experts. The city hasn’t had this type of grandiose cultural road map since the 1986 Cultural Plan drafted after eighteen months of informational meetings conducted by then Mayor Harold Washington’s administration.

The preparation of the Plan was outsourced to the Canadian firm Lord Cultural Resources, who dressed it up with full bleed color photos, color coding, pie charts and infographics and divided it across four downloadable pdfs. It’s comprised of four sections: People, Places, Policies, and Planning, that contain a total of thirty-six “recommendations” which are accompanied by specific, accomplishable initiatives. If the full Plan’s forty-eight-page length scares you off, and even the Executive Summary’s twenty pages seems a bit daunting, I’d recommend heading straight for the “Supplemental Materials”. Sounds enticing, right? But this document combines the thirty-six recommendations and their itinerant initiatives with dollar amounts and timelines, so you get the meat of the plan plus the bottom line of what it will cost and how long it will take to implement the kinds of things they’re discussing.

While the Plan is quick to point out that over a third of the initiatives cost little or no money, meaning in this case less than $50,000, it’s worth noting that the other half have estimated annual operating costs of up to $1 million, with some even pricier still. Michelle T. Boone, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), noted in a recent WBEZ interview that although Mayor Emanuel has pledged one million dollars towards realizing the Plan’s recommendations, the city will be looking to partner with public, private and not-for-profit partners to make up the deficit. And Commissioner Boone and DCASE are tasked with a lot of the heavy lifting of implementing the plan, although the department is in the midst of creating its own strategic plan; recommendation 33 of the Plan itself calls for a follow up “implementation strategy” to be developed.

Courtesy of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

The Plan is ambitious, and calls for nothing short of a sea change in the way the city thinks about and values culture, with the ultimate goal of transforming business as usual to a “pro-culture” government. I feel it successfully identifies and prioritizes the top three issues facing the arts in Chicago:

• Foster arts education and lifelong learning.

• Attract and retain artists and creatives.

• Promote culture as a fundamental driver of prosperity.

Put another way, the list might read art students, talent drain and gentrification, more or less. And their solutions? Regarding arts education, their main focus is on initiatives that benefit Chicago Public Schools (CPS), with little to no mention of Chicago’s several colleges and universities with either stand-alone art schools, such as Columbia College or the School of the Art Institute, or renowned art departments, such as The University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts, who contribute thousands of jobs as institutions and generate hundreds of thousands of bonafide, certificate-holding professional artists each year.

While I personally support a CPS curriculum that privileges art, music and other creative electives, protects them as a vital part of a child’s daily school day and provides for their growth and success, it’s ironic given that the Mayor is a proponent of charter schools as well as his recent tangle with the Chicago Teacher’s Union. This irony is similar to the city’s budget crisis resulting in funding cuts for the Chicago Public Library despite the Plan simultaneously recommending that evening hours at CPL branches be extended to “accommodate more patrons and cultural programs and partners.” If this Plan is an attempt at commensurating city leadership with cultural priorities, there is much work to be done.

In regards to attracting and retaining creatives, the Plan recommends earmarking more space for artists and creating professional development opportunities for them. These are great suggestions, and I think most artists wouldn’t argue against wanting either or both. But Chicago has had a longstanding reputation as a city full of big spaces with low rent which has already helped retain generations of working professionals, and there’s a vibrant pedagogical legacy of student/teacher exchanges via formal classroom instruction and informal mentorship that, while are slightly tangential to the buzzy “professional development opportunities,” do their part in drawing creatives to the city and keeping them here as well.

Courtesy of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

In terms of promoting culture as an engine of prosperity, it seems that under the previous administration, Chicago’s cultural assets had been increasingly centralized downtown—take for example Millennium Park or the current plans for Northerly Island. But Mayor Emanuel’s vision seems to focus on a decentralization of cultural assets and a recognition of, and appreciation for, the diverse neighborhoods that comprise the patchwork of Chicago. While the former administration may have tried to woo tourist dollars via conventions, this administration seems content to raise Chicago’s national and international cultural profile to get those dollars, but that’s not to say that the Plan ignores local interest or grass roots activities. There’s appreciation for and recognition of some of the more recent guerilla activity already taking place in Chicago embedded throughout the document, such as incentives to create community gardens and the request for permits for food trucks. The Plan also plays up the connection between technological innovation and a healthy community of creatives. This impulse to foster tech innovation is not only forward thinking, but also a savvy identification of an existing asset that could be better capitalized on.

The Policies part of the plan, although it sounds the driest, is actually the section that excited me the most. It promised what I found to be some of the most vital and also the most radical recommendations for change. It provided a place where the city paused to take a look at how it ran things and suggested streamlining several of its own complex processes and out-dated methods. This includes everything from bringing forms and applications online, to updating and revising building codes to encourage, not hinder and punish, artist live/work and retail/co-working/incubator spaces, to implementing long-term leases that would allow artists and organizations to stay in the cultural districts they help build, to the development of new funding mechanisms and multi-year grants that help artists get their start but also sustain their practice or organization over time.

It will be interesting to track the progress of the 2012 Cultural Plan over the next several months and indeed years, not only to see what gets done as recommendations are ticked off one by one, but also, to note how things change—how even with the first road-map of its kind for Chicago in decades, priorities shift, goals re-define themselves, and mind-sets are remade.


Thea Liberty Nichols


(Image on top: CCP logo atop a ROA mural in Chicago; Courtesy of 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan)

Posted by Thea Liberty Nichols on 11/12/12 | tags: Culture Policy

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