The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events organized four town hall meetings last month to solicit opinions on the forthcoming Chicago Cultural Plan. I went to the last meeting, held February 21 at the National Museum of Mexican Art, with the lowest possible expectations.
The artists and arts administrators I know were wary. The city hadn’t bothered to issue a Cultural Plan after Mayor Harold Washington’s administration created the first one in 1986. Since December 2010, the Department of Cultural Affairs has dismissed many employees as it merged with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, shifted some positions to the renamed Office of Tourism and Culture, and then decided to move them back under new DCASE commissioner Michelle Boone.
So, when Lord Cultural Resources, the Toronto-based consulting firm developing the new plan, invited the town hall attendees to share their “vision of Chicago in 2030,” I wondered if there was any point—especially after a participant identified Taste of Chicago as a “significant cultural experience.”
But once we broke into groups to continue the discussion, I realized that my fellow citizens have great ideas. When we shared our findings at the end of the meeting, one group suggested each ward hire an artist-in-residence. Another asked the city to set up a barter system for arts organizations, so they can exchange goods and services without seeking nonexistent funds.
“Overall, I enjoyed the experience,” artist Adriana Baltazar tells me via e-mail. Simply by bringing people together, she adds, the meeting seemed to address the audience’s concerns “regarding a lack of communication [as well as] segregation in the city.”
Artist-writer Anne Elizabeth Moore was frustrated by the first meeting at Columbia College. “It was kind of like an interesting cocktail party that will accomplish nothing,”she says, questioning why $250,000 must be spent on developing the plan. (Lord will be paid $230,000. DCASE is providing $50,000; the Chicago Community Trust and Allstate are each contributing $100,000.) “We’re paying for people to tell us there’s not enough financial support [for artists],” Moore observes.
According to Lord senior consultant Orit Sarfaty, her firm’s extensive international experience gives it the perspective to evaluate Chicagoans’ recommendations. Lord learned that London’s attempt to give its artists pop-up spaces failed, for example, so “we spoke with the director of the space brokerage and tried to find what the lessons were,” Sarfaty says.
The town hall meetings identified six key issues to be discussed in more depth at the public neighborhood meetings DCASE is convening through April 4. They include demands for comprehensive arts education in public schools, more live/work and rehearsal spaces, a living wage for artists, and events that are more accessible financially and geographically.
I asked Nick Rabkin why the 1986 Chicago Cultural Plan, which identified all of these needs, failed to meet most of them. Rabkin, an arts-policy expert and senior research scientist at the U. of Chicago, is part of Lord’s team overseeing the new plan. As a former deputy commissioner of the DCA, he was also involved in the old one. Rabkin believes the 1986 plan lost momentum because of Washington’s sudden death in 1987 and the retirement of Fred Fine, DCA’s then-commissioner. And for each goal, he cautions, “There are literally dozens if not hundreds of ducks that need to line up…over which the planners and even the city of Chicago don’t have control.”
Still, Rabkin assures me Chicagoans should participate in the planning process. “It’s very unusual for city government to provide a platform for people to get together and talk about the arts,” he says. “It’s important for artists to go to meetings and hear people talk about what they want to see in their neighborhoods. We’re going to shine a light on some good ideas.”
Boone expects the public meetings, which culminate this summer in four events seeking responses to Lord’s draft of the Cultural Plan, will help this version outlive Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. “It’s not the ‘Department of Cultural Affairs strategic plan,’ ” she adds. “It’s the city’s plan. People have to hold onto this as theirs.…and hold us accountable to the ideas that come out of it.”
Given that the 1986 plan emerged from more than 300 public meetings, how will grassroots enthusiasm ensure a different outcome? Michael Dorf, director of the 1986 plan, thinks DCASE is in a stronger position this time. “We changed the mind-set,” he explains. Chicagoans now accept that the arts affect our economy, and aldermen know their constituents care about the arts. “I think as long as Mayor Emanuel and Commissioner Boone trust the people, they will do fine,” Dorf says. “There was not one issue that the experts told us about that wasn’t better said by the people in the neighborhoods when we asked them what they needed.”
For a schedule of the Chicago Cultural Plan’s Neighborhood Cultural Conversations and a copy of the ’86 plan, visit chicagoculturalplan2012.com.