The aims of a 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan – the city’s first such plan since 1986 – is subject to many interpretations.
What does culture mean, especially as it relates to local government investment?
However, the audience at a well-attended “Town Hall” meeting last night, at Nicholas Senn High School on the North Side, had clear ideas for what they want in a 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan. Namely, the audience members – many who self identified as artists – want the city to focus less on downtown and more on cultural production in Chicago’s diverse and diffuse neighborhoods.
“There’s been a downtown focus and a neighborhood focus and one is funded and one isn’t’,” said Jeff Littleton, a painter who lives in Uptown.
The city’s Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs and Special Events will hold more than 30 community meetings to prepare a cultural plan this year, with financial support from the Allstate Corporation, Chicago Community Trust, and the Illinois Arts Council. The city is preparing a plan in conjunction with the private firm Lord Cultural Resources, which bills itself as "a global professional practice dedicated to creating cultural capital worldwide.”
The event last night was one of four larger Town Hall meetings the city will hold, followed by 29 smaller community gatherings. The city has promised to record all notes taken at these meetings and use them toward their plan.
A new cultural plan follows a controversial shake-up in cultural affairs leadership.
Longtime cultural affairs head Lois Weisberg angrily resigned from her position in January of last year. This was partly because former Mayor Richard Daley had merged Cultural Affairs – known for funding and promotions of events like a Shakespeare Theater production – with Special Events – known for events like Taste of Chicago. Daley also purged the department of 29 employees prior to Weisberg’s departure.
When Emanuel became mayor in May, he named Michelle Boone, a former senior program officer at the Joyce Foundation, as head of cultural affairs. Emanuel also included in his transitional report a goal to make a new cultural plan.
The transitional report speaks of culture as, “Integral to economic development in communities” – similar language to Lord Cultural Resources promotional materials.
But — like attendees of last night’s meeting — the report also acknowledges that “the bulk of cultural activity occurs in the city’s neighborhoods, not just at iconic downtown locations.”
One attendee said the city could have a tourist bus that would take people to Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Another attendee suggested making neighborhood culture more available to out of towners by putting more hotels outside of downtown.
Another popular proposal was better tying Cultural Affairs with other parts of local government – like more funding for arts education in public schools.
“We need to instill an appreciation of the arts when people are school aged,” said Ian Belknap, who is involved in Chicago literary events.
Also, tying cultural affairs with increased public transportation funding. “One issue is making it easier for citizens to move from place to place,” said Steve Ptacek, a Humboldt Park resident involved in city theater companies.
The city’s original 1986 cultural plan focused on some of these modest, but demonstrable improvements. The plan resulted in the city’s redevelopment of Navy Pier, but it also looked at increasing the accessibility of museums, plays and other events to the low-income, disabled and elderly.