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03.14.2012
Planning for Art
Chicago revising cultural and economic development strategy.
Lumiere FL / Flickr

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, himself a one-time ballet dancer, has long been a vocal supporter of the arts. Now City Hall is coordinating an extensive outreach effort to check Chicago’s creative pulse, seeking comment on the city’s first new cultural plan in more than 25 years.

After his election in February 2011, Emanuel directed the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to revamp the Chicago Cultural Plan, which was created in 1986 under Mayor Harold Washington. DCASE launched a website in January to coordinate its efforts. They are expected to produce a draft plan by early summer.

“The arts are political,” said attorney Michael Dorf, who directed the process that created Mayor Washington’s plan. “They enrich us, they enrage us, they move us to action. And anything that does that is political.”

Formerly special counsel to Sidney R. Yates, chairman of the congressional appropriations committee, Dorf wanted to democratize cultural planning with the 1986 planning process. Instead of press conferences and backrooms, he said, the city should borrow from the basics of grassroots organizing.

It’s an approach Chicago’s current cultural commissioner, Michelle Boone, has revived for the 2012 plan. With the help of social media, Boone said her department is taking stock of the city’s existing cultural assets, identifying opportunities for “cultural hubs.”

Criteria for defining cultural hubs are also up for discussion. The city could follow the 1986 plan, which suggested the city establish cultural enterprise zones through tax incentives and subsidies. Mayor Emanuel has often mentioned that Uptown could rival downtown as the city’s preeminent theater district, hinting at plans to revive the Northside neighborhood’s eponymous 1920s-era theater, which has been closed to the public for decades.

“What ends up in the plan,” Commissioner Boone said at a recent meeting in Edgewater’s Nicholas Senn High School, “will depend upon what you come up with.” That meeting was one of four town-hall-style gatherings held in February to kick off the planning process. The city will also host 19 “neighborhood cultural conversations” and ten “cultural sector focus groups” in the coming months.

Dan McArdle manages two theater companies in Chicago. He said small theater companies are often forced to shoulder the costs of building renovations—a cost many of them can’t afford on top of rent that can be 80 percent of production costs. And the performers get squeezed hardest. “Unfortunately what a lot of small theater companies do is they just don’t pay their people,” McArdle said. “Pay for artists is the first to get cut, because there’s so much supply.”

That artistic supply will be a resource for input to the 2012 plan. But Boone said the discussions will go beyond the studio. “My hope is to get people who don’t normally think about the arts to engage with our planning process,” she said. Zoning is at the heart of many proposals, like promoting live-work space for artists or community culture centers. That means aldermanic support could be key. Potential storefront venues still feel the pressure of citywide fire and safety codes designed with downtown in mind.

Chicago’s original cultural plan led to the creation of the North Loop Theatre District, to which Mayor Richard M. Daley owes a good portion of his legacy. Although revitalization plans predate even Mayor Washington’s 1986 cultural plan, the rejuvenated district is now a major tourist attraction. Daley drew criticism for devoting public money to the formerly dilapidated downtown venues like the Chicago Theatre. Today, Chicago has the third largest creative economy in the United States, boasting more than 650 nonprofit arts organizations and churning out more than $2 billion each year. The 1986 plan also cleared the way for the renovation of Navy Pier.

But so far in 2012, local participants have sounded a common refrain in Chicago politics: Focus on the neighborhoods. Many hope the new plan will decentralize the city’s economic development, nourishing the artistic communities of Chicago’s more than 200 neighborhoods. The groundwork has already been laid, said 1986-plan veteran Michael Dorf: “It’s taken as a given now that the arts are an economic engine.”

Christopher Bentley