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Culture Fri Jul 20 2012

The Questionable Aspects of the Chicago Cultural Plan Draft

chicagoculturalplan2012.jpgAfter months of soliciting community feedback, the city unveiled a 64-page draft (and 32-page supplement) for the Chicago Cultural Plan on Monday. In its own words, the purpose of the plan is to "create a framework for Chicago's future cultural and economic growth and will become the centerpiece for the City's aim to become a global destination for creativity, innovation and excellence in the arts." As it currently stands, the Chicago Cultural Plan draft outlines 36 recommendations and over 100 initiatives to bolster arts and culture throughout Chicago's public, private, and non-profit sectors.

On the surface, the plan has a lot of exciting opportunities and ideas, such as eased zoning and permitting for artists, arts education in public schools, neighborhood participation in public art and cultural events, and numerous creative industry career training and networking opportunities. But despite all the rhetoric about "honoring authentic Chicago culture" and bring together neighborhoods and communities through public art, the plan also has several questionable aspects to it that may not be so beneficial to all Chicagoans.

In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life, Richard Florida makes the case that creative professionals and industries in what he dubs the "Creative Class" are now the engine of economic growth for cities. And much of the current draft of Chicago Cultural Plan looks like something Florida's own consulting agency would advocate to grow such a Creative Class - things like the subsidies to the film industry (Recommendation 1I), tax incentives and incubation for creative start-ups (1E and 1J), the expansion of arts grants (1A and 1B), and the overall cultivation of a citywide focus on innovation and creative thinking (30-31).

At the same time, the plan offers bottom-up Creative Class development in the form of expanded K-12 arts education in the public schools (5), one-year arts job entry programs for college graduates (3A), and the creation of special neighborhood cultural districts and "Creative Enterprise Zones" to concentrate creative professionals of all types in the same areas (17). Collectively, these bolster the overall recommendations to "Attract and maintain artists and creative professionals" (3 and 4) and "Strengthen the critical pathways that accelerate artists' and creative professionals' concepts into market-ready products" (32).

Now taking the most attractive parts of Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, and Berlin and plopping them into Chicago sounds exciting, but there are some consequences to such a citywide transformation.

The first has to do with what some of our new, culture-saturated neighborhoods would look like. Currently, the plan has a variety of initiatives concerning property use and ownership -- eased permitting/zoning laws for cultural and live/work spaces (16A), donations of vacant land to arts and community cultural groups (16D), and the questionable "Commitment to artists residing within cultural districts through 30-year leases" (2C). Making it easier for artists and creative professionals to find work and living spaces in concentrated areas will inevitably raise the property values and change the overall character of several Chicago neighborhoods -- especially those that end up being designated as cultural districts. Despite an initiative to ensure "housing allocation that preserves diversity of income levels within cultural districts," (17G), it's hard to imagine that many people of lower-income levels with no creative skillset will be able to live in these new neighborhood magnets for the arts.

Then there's also the issue of funding the Chicago Cultural Plan itself. From the public sector, we have suggestions to "augment" the hotel occupancy tax (22D) and to create a special tax for arts and culture (22E). More worrisome is the advocacy of using TIF funds to subsidize artist housing (2B). Putting aside Chicago's long history of misuse and abuse of TIF money allocation, does it really make sense for a plan to spend extra money for artist housing if the plan already calls for eased zoning and permitting?

What really concerns me are the funding vehicles from the private sector. The mysterious Chicago Infrastructure Trust - made up of several investment banks and an appointed 5-member panel -- is suggested to place its focus on cultural projects (34A). Along with a private "Cultural Investment Fund" (35), a nonprofit-funneled "Public Art Trust" (36A), and "Corporate sponsorship of cultural infrastructure projects citywide," (35D), we will suddenly have a variety of potential revenue sources with no details and little potential oversight of how they will be spent.

When I looked up the phrase "cultural infrastructure" to see if it had any specific meaning outside of this plan, I found it can be defined as infrastructure that (surprise, surprise) supports cultural activities and industries, such as libraries and museums. However, if the plan is going to "Integrate culture across all City departments and agencies and within major infrastructure projects," (34), then doesn't that make just about anything in the city fair game for private "cultural" investment? And if private investment vehicles are designed to re-coup a profit, how many of these "cultural infrastructure" assets that they fund are going to end up resembling the Chicago Parking Meters deal?

While there are noble goals within the Chicago Cultural Plan draft, it's obvious that much of it is really a thinly disguised economic plan to expand Chicago's cultural and tourist industries by any means possible. There's a lot in the plan draft that I like, and that I believe will vastly benefit Chicagoans of all stripes. However, as outlined above, there are several aspects to the plan that deserve far more scrutiny than has been given so far. An expanded Creative Class in Chicago would be great for some, but several of the means to accomplish this may not be so great for many Chicagoans.

But the good news is that the plan is not set in stone. There are four more "Cultural Town Halls" over the course of next week to solicit feedback about the plan draft. If you have any particular feelings about any aspect of the plan -- good or bad -- I would suggest attending one of these meetings. Regardless if you're an artist or someone who doesn't even pay much attention to the arts, the implementation of the Chicago Cultural Plan will radically shape the city you know and love for years to come.

Town Halls for the Chicago Cultural Plan will be held July 24 at Malcom X College from 6pm-8pm, July 25 at the South Shore Cultural Center from 6pm- 8pm, July 28 at St. Augustine College-Essanay Studios from 10pm-noon, and July 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center from 6pm-8pm. More information about the meetings and plan can be found here.

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Shellie Lewis / July 23, 2012 11:14 AM

I do not know by what information you are stating that the Cultural Plan is or will be concerned with arts education in the school system. Commissioner Michelle Boone clearly indicated in the Tribune 3/30/2012 that public schools are not a part of the program stating they "can’t be the deliverer of arts education programming in CPS". There is a vague indication of communication or possibly an advisory capacity in the same part of the interview but I have found no indication of direct involvement, funding or programs. A group named the Chicago Public Schools Arts Plan, unless I am mistaken it is to my knowledge a separate and unrelated initiative from the Cultural Plan, was formed to address the lack of programming and education, has been created independently to try and resolve the problem. They have a website and are looking for people to become involved in teaching, school administration and the wider community.

Jason Prechtel / July 23, 2012 9:49 PM

Shellie, Recommendations 5, 6, and 7 of the Cultural Plan directly concern expanding arts education in the CPS, including (but not limited to) developing and implementing an arts education curriculum in all schools, advocating the adoption of new state standards for arts education in Illinois, corporate and nonprofit adopt-a-school arts education programing, and citywide CPS arts exhibitions and performances.

garcho / July 25, 2012 10:37 AM

This plan smells like someone's job more than a real 'plan'. Why not pick ONE thing to try at a time from that list? Instead of wasting time coming up with this silly plan, we could have some of it implemented already.

Tom Tresser / July 25, 2012 6:53 PM

I've been kicking around Chicago's arts and nonprofit scene since 1980. I ran two theaters and have led or started 12 nonprofit enterprises. This cultural planning exercise happens every 10 years or so. Big money spent on outside consultants to find out the obvious. A lot of meetings and long lists of recommendations.

But, in the end, it comes to MONEY. Which is a function, in this town, of CLOUT. Does our arts and cultural sector possess enough clout to get more funding from the city? And will the arts sector be asked to sign on to the really bad idea called the Infrastructure Trust is hopes of getting some cash? Personally, I am opposed to the Trust and to the entire TIF Program.

I would love to see the line items in the city budget that would vastly expand the CityArts Program, extend the Percent for Arts to the CTA and other city agencies, and provide for the innovations outlined in this new plan. I would also support a General Obligation bond for infrastructure upgrades (new parks, libraries, mass transit) that would include neighborhood performing arts spaces.

I'm deeply skeptical. But let's give the cultural planning team and the hundreds of arts champions that participated in the process the benefit of the doubt.

Shellie Lewis / July 27, 2012 3:52 PM

I'm really feeling the 180 from the earlier 3/30/2012 interview. I'll believe the plan helps the schools when it starts happening. This is still a draft after all. I agree with the dominant focus of the plan being a thinly veiled program to attract tourists and have myself criticized comments in the interview for being exploitative towards college students. The art colleges Boone names off in the interview are all the ones neatly clustered in the tourist Mecca of downtown, while other schools in the city with excellent arts programs such as Northeastern were not named at all. Why name the schools in the hub instead of indicating an interest in participation from all Chicago colleges and universities? Follow the tourists.

Shellie Lewis / July 27, 2012 4:00 PM

Tom, I especially like your suggestion of neighborhood performing arts spaces. The Beverly Arts Center on 111th and Western Avenue comes to mind. It can host plays, films, lectures, concerts, art shows and has a small shop for sales. It is a well loved and well attended asset in its neighborhood and multi-use for visual and performing arts. That is the kind of infrastructure that would be useful; a venue for the community and a small staff to run it.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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