Did GO DO GOOD do good?

Chicago’s art-and-action campaign falls short of its good deeds goal.

Photograph: Alyssa Jongsma
Unveiling of Kay Rosen's six-story art installation

In late May, GO DO GOOD started with a bang. Artist Kay Rosen’s cryptic, six-story text mural on the north wall of 17 North State Street was unveiled in a smiley sidewalk ceremony. Suddenly, yellow-and-black go do good banners littered the Loop. The goal of the summerlong art installation and media campaign, said organizers the Chicago Loop Alliance and the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, was to rack up 100,000 good deeds by sponsoring drives for books, food and school supplies, and urging Chicagoans to donate and volunteer.

But for months, there were few progress updates. Then, last Saturday, surprise: GO DO GOOD was scheduled to have its grand finale at the Open Streets on State Street festival. (Rosen’s piece, however, will be on view until spring 2012.) So, how much good did GO DO GOOD do?

The “GOOD Deed Count” at godogoodchicago.com gives visitors a pitifully incomplete picture. Last updated on July 25, the counter tallies a nice, round 40,000 good deeds. And what constitutes a good deed? The project’s definition is broad. On the website’s “50+ ways to do good” list, each dollar donated to the United Way counts as its own good deed (e.g., $20 = 20 good deeds). While the roster includes some meaningful ideas—cleaning up a neighborhood park, helping people with disabilities find work, staffing a rape crisis hotline—it’s saddled with arguably trite suggestions, such as liking the project on Facebook, spending money at Loop businesses and thanking a CTA bus driver. The debatable merit of such actions aside, Ty Tabing, head of the CLA, reports the campaign fell short of the 100,000 mark, with about 80,000 solids done as of last week.

The CLA is the sole manager of the Special Service Area along State Street between Wacker Drive and Congress Parkway, one of 43 such districts in the city that each generate economic development budgets averaging $540,000 through an extra real-estate property-tax levy. Tabing declined to give a precise number, but told us the price tag for GO DO GOOD totaled six figures—well worth it, he says, for a project that was a net positive whether or not its goals were met. “We brought good deeds to the attention of the city. We collected 671 meals and 4,000 school-supply items. We did a read-in where [former Chicago Bears wide receiver] Rashied Davis read to 53 kids from an underserved neighborhood, so we counted that as 53 good deeds.”

“Even opening the door for someone is a good deed,” adds United Way spokeswoman Sarah Frick. “The hope is they’ll pay it forward.” Not to sound like Miss Manners here, but isn’t opening a door just a simple societal courtesy?

Furthermore, as an installation that amounted to a giant PSA for the initiative, was Rosen’s GO DO GOOD piece bad art? “There’s a fine line between respecting art and cheapening it by commercializing it,” Tabing says. “But we’re not selling soap here, we’re promoting good deeds. The mural replaced a giant ad for [women’s clothing store] New York & Company that used to piss off Mayor Daley when it appeared on TV during parades. Replacing an advertisement with public art is certainly an upgrade.”

Rosen, who lives in Gary, Indiana, and specializes in text-based works, told us via e-mail that her primary goal was to create good art rather than inspire good deeds. “That it also had some social benefit was very gratifying,” she writes. “It’s great when art can multitask.”

Kay Rosen’s GO DO GOOD installation is on display through spring 2012.

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