Chicago's new Cultural Plan | A conversation with DCASE commissioner Michelle Boone
Yesterday, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner Michelle Boone—along with Yo-Yo Ma—heralded the arrival of Chicago's new Cultural Plan, the city's first arts road map since 1986. The 48-page document, the result of a months-long process of community meetings, contains an ambitious 200 initiatives, 59 percent of which will be set in motion within the next 18 months, according to the plan's launch timeline. Boone understands that this is when the hard work starts: "It's great that we have the plan, but now it's time to really roll up our sleeves and get to the business of implementing." Over the phone this morning, the commish talked about ways the city is looking to put the plan into action in the face of the budget crisis, the concerns raised by corporate-sponsored cultural programming, the reason the plan is so naggingly vague, and why "the arts are more than just ways to make people feel good."
Most of the buzz surrounding the Cultural Plan's release has been with regard to the proposal for arts education in the schools. Seemingly, arts are always the first target of school budget cuts. Was it depressing to realize the dearth of arts education in Chicago's schools?
It was a real eye-opener. The way that arts education became a cornerstone of the Cultural Plan is that it was consistently the No. 1 or No. 2 concern residents expressed when we had our community meetings. It was an issue that bubbled up directly from the people when we asked, "What is the No. 1 concern that you have about arts and culture in the city?" Without fail, people talked about the lack of arts education in the schools. This presented an opportunity to use that enthusiasm from the residents to actually craft an arts education program for the schools. It gave the motivation that was needed to really get the administrators and decision makers in CPS to recognize—look, this is something people want to see as part of a comprehensive, holistic education experience for children. As other cities are making hard fiscal decisions and look for arts programs as the first to cut, Mayor Emanuel is not only not cutting the arts, but investing in making them accessible to our children.
Don't you think it's sad that we even have to have this conversation? Common sense would dictate that arts should always have been a priority of Chicago's education system.
Yeah, well, my grandmother used to have a saying: "Common sense ain't common." [Laughs]
I can't argue with Grandma. One of the other themes of the plan is the idea of using the arts as an economic leveraging tool to achieve private-sector objectives. How do you see that working?
There was a study released about two months ago conducted by Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group, in tandem with Arts Alliance Illinois, that looked at the economic impact of the arts in Chicago. It found that the total economic impact for the city is $2.2 billion, about 60,000 jobs. That's huge and not something that's always recognized. The arts are more than just ways to make people feel good and provide creative expression. They are a real economic driver and engine, particularly for our neighborhoods. Having cultural assets thrive in neighborhoods can stimulate community development, economic development. It can attract and draw other businesses to an area. The mayor frequently cites the transformation with the Old Town School in [the Lincoln Square] community. The Old Town School opened in that neighborhood; it attracted restaurants, foot traffic, pedestrian traffic, and it has really been a leader in helping to transform that neighborhood. So we'd like to see other models of that happen in other neighborhoods that could use an infusion of economic activity.
It also seems DCASE—as well as Mayor Emanuel, since the start of his campaign—is interested in hooking up creatives with private funders. That seems to sometimes rattle the nerves of people concerned about the corporatization of culture. Should we be worried about cultural programming being compromised by the whims of corporate funders?
Oh, I don't think so. Chicago has been fortunate in that our corporations have been fantastic supporters and partners of the arts. Boeing has invested hugely in supporting the arts in Chicago. Our banks—Chase, for example, has been a huge supporter of arts education. Allstate was a supporter of the Cultural Plan process. We in Chicago have excellent models of how corporations can be good civic citizens in supporting not just the arts, but also health, education and social services. But it's great they haven't forgotten about the arts. So I don't see corporations as being a hindrance. They're a needed resource in helping us foster more art in the city.
That question stemmed from a conversation I had with Michael Dorf, the director of the 1986 plan. He was of the opinion that whenever an artist tries to get money from the government or private industry, there's always a chilling effect.
That might be more [of a concern] for individual artists. It certainly is harder for individual artists to tap into philanthropic dollars versus that of a nonprofit organization. And of course, most corporate giving is also a platform for marketing. So [companies are] not totally altruistic maybe with their philanthropic dollars. They're looking for ways to reach their customer base. It's a question to ponder, but in the big picture, I certainly don't see it as being [a concern]. The artist can always say no, right? Nobody is twisting anyone's arm to take corporate money.
The concern from a cultural consumer's point of view is that a corporate sponsor is more likely to fund safer, less daring programming.
Yeah, well, we all have to make choices—the choices that artists make in terms of who they accept support from and who they choose to partner with to present their work. The same way they feel like their work is being compromised because of who is underwriting the creation of the work, that same notion might be held as to who is presenting the work. The artist or arts organization is constantly balancing those questions and issues.
The Cultural Plan speaks largely in generalities. Overall, it doesn't lay out initiatives in specific disciplines: music, dance, theater. That's been frustrating to those in the cultural community who brought very specific needs and concerns to the table at the public forums. Is the broadness intentional?
Yeah. I would say that the lack of specificity is designed to ensure that it wasn't exclusionary to some art forms. We say "art" to try and encompass as many points of entry for as many different art forms as possible. We're talking about issues that cross the threshold of lots of different art forms. Issues that impact dance companies in terms of access to space are the same concerns that impact theater artists or musicians have also. We looked at: What are the big global issues and challenges and opportunities that are facing the cultural sector at large? And of course, we did have some sector-specific conversations as well to ensure the plan addresses the needs of… For example, we pulled together the literary community, because they wondered, When you say "artists," where does that put the writer? Having these sector-specific conversations helped ease that tension people were feeling about what it means for them. I had a presentation with the music community because we didn't specifically call out musicians. Does the term "artist" include musicians? Yes, absolutely. The vagueness is meant to paint a broad picture that we hope will provide multiple points of entry for all the sectors to be connected to the plan.
So the people who came to the meetings with very specific suggestions shouldn't feel that their ideas weren't heard?
Right. When you say you're going to put arts education in the schools, that's a comprehensive view of what arts education is. It's not just saying, "Oh, we're going to have more painting and drawing in the classrooms." It's the addition of theater arts, music, literature. This is an inclusive plan to address all art forms.
In the plan, DCASE was able to admit something you don't often hear: that the city's policies can be more of a hindrance than a help. A few of the initiatives seek to cut bureaucratic red tape with regard to the arts: licensing, permitting. Was the process of looking at yourselves in the mirror refreshing?
Oh, totally. If we say we're really committed to strengthening the cultural sector, then we have to look at our own house and make sure we're not a hindrance to making art happen. We had to look at: What are the policies we can change internally that can make art making more accessible for those who want to create? How do we refine some of the bureaucracy in government so it's easier for people to make art? And I think some of those steps are already being made. The modifications Mayor Emanuel has made with the business license process will certainly make it easier and impact venues and other creative spaces that have to go through that licensing process.
TOC has done stories on cultural purveyors who've been tripped up by the city's red tape—artists who want to exhibit in an apartment gallery, emerging theater producers and music promoters starting new venues. They often are forced underground because the city's licensing and permitting process is so daunting.
And that's something we hope to expand, the whole notion of artist live/work spaces. How do we look at zoning that allows for an artist to live in the same space where they make their art? So, yeah, that's part of the plan.
And the great thing about those red-tape-trimming initiatives is that they're cheap, right? You don't need a bucket of money to change a zoning ordinance.
Yeah, in fact, over a third of the initiatives in the plan can be achieved at very little cost—$50,000 and under. Those are the things that we plan to target most immediately: What are the low-hanging fruit, what are the opportunities to change the way we do business that won't cost much money, but have a high yield in terms of benefit to the community at large?
Many creatives seemed excited about the plan's recommendation for low-cost insurance programs for artists. How might that roll out?
I don't know if making insurance available to artists is an initiative that will be driven, per se, by the city. But seeing it as part of the Cultural Plan might inspire companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield to recognize that this is a demographic that has real needs and they might start thinking creatively on delivering their product to that consumer base.
Some of the larger recommendations—a dedicated festival site and a Museum Campus South—are those too expensive to do right now with the city running a deficit?
Well, the Cultural Plan is filled with things that can be implemented and achieved immediately, but we also didn't want to limit the plan on thinking big. The Museum Campus South idea is one that has been percolating around for years. The last time I heard about it was over the brouhaha over the Children's Museum moving into Grant Park. There was a whole campaign over moving the Children's Museum into Hyde Park and creating this whole Museum Campus South. Since the Cultural Plan's draft has been released, people in that community are having conversations on their own about how to reposition and rebrand that collective of cultural resources in a way that might not need to be called the "Museum Campus South." The Smart Museum, the DuSable Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Renaissance Society, the Hyde Park Art Center and now the Logan Center—those guys are having conversations and already talking to one another.
So it's more of an issue of branding to unite those institutions?
It could be. It could be something that's more long-range to create a Museum Campus South. These are ideas in the same way that the '86 plan had the idea of creating a downtown theater district. It took a long time to happen, but the seed was planted. And that's where you have to start. So the idea of a dedicated grounds for a festival site—that's something that's particularly of interest to [DCASE] because we're responsible for so many of the festivals. So we're thinking about: Is there a way to define a space that would minimize the impact on residents, on traffic—and be an accessible safe haven for families to participate in the festival work the city produces? Can we find a place that doesn't require us to shut down Columbus [Drive]? And does it necessarily have to be downtown? Maybe it could be in one of the neighborhoods that could spark and transform a community that's in need of some infusion of economic development.
As far as dedicated festival sites, don't we already have Pritzker Pavilion and the parks?
Well, while DCASE is responsible for programming Millennium Park, the park has its own board of directors and its own mission. I don't think they would want to see that space transformed into a festival grounds. It also has limitations in terms of capacity. Something like the Blues Festival will draw nearly 400,000 people. You can't get 400,000 people in Millennium Park. Grant Park might be a potential site for a dedicated festival grounds, but it's right in the middle of major traffic flows, with Lake Shore Drive to the east and Columbus Drive to the west. And as you know, we've had some challenges with the acoustics and the conditions of the Petrillo Band Shell. So it could be a renovation of Grant Park. If you think about Summerfest in Wisconsin—that's a dedicated festival grounds. That's a space that is there specifically for presenting that music festival.
A detail that comes up in every story about the Cultural Plan but one that's never been addressed is that $230,000 of the $250,000 budgeted for the plan went to Lord Cultural Resources, a Toronto consultancy, to organize the public meetings and compose the plan. Did all that money need to be spent on an out-of-town consultant when DCASE already has a staff?
Well, we have a staff that is dedicated to the programs that we deliver. We don't have a staff that has the expertise to do a cultural plan. So we submitted an RFP [request for proposals] through the procurement process and invited proposals from professionals. Developing cultural plans is a professional practice, so we wanted to be sure that we had the expertise of people who know how to do it. We didn't want to create a cultural plan by trial and error. While our staff was very heavily involved in helping support the work that Lord Cultural Resources did for the plan, we knew early on that we had to have professional expertise to develop the Cultural Plan. In inviting the proposals, we got four in, had a panel to review the proposals and Lord had the best proposal presented. They are a global leader in doing cultural plans and fostering the development of major cultural projects around the world. I think this plan has benefited tremendously from having that global perspective be a part of it, to have a team that could look at Chicago from a broad global perspective. They were smart to hire a number of Chicago consultants to help with the work. So it's not like it was this group of Canadians coming down and telling us what to do. [Laughs] Lord is a global company. They're not just these Canadian hacks that don't know what they're doing. We didn't just throw a dart at the board and say, "Okay, we're giving it to the Canadians." It was a highly thoughtful process in trying to ensure that we got the best possible people. This was important and we wanted to get it right. I think in the end Chicago is going to benefit tremendously from having this level of global expertise to help us with the process.
You've said a third of the proposals can be done for $50,000 or less. But for the other two-thirds of the plan, the big question mark is how the city will pay for those initiatives. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was quoted saying, "Arts studies must be fully supported and cannot be left to the vagaries of funding sources." Are you worried about funding for the Cultural Plan's initiatives?
The arts education plan will be, without a doubt, a major initiative for Chicago Public Schools. Lots of the initiatives in the plan will not be achieved if we're relying solely on the support of public funds. That's why, right from the beginning, we've approached this with public–private partnerships. You mentioned us spending the $230,000 for Lord's contract for the Cultural Plan—that was funded through public–private partnerships. We had support from the Chicago Community Trust and from Allstate, as well as some city resources to make that happen. Lots of the goals in the Cultural Plan, particularly the arts education piece, will be supported also through a combination of funding sources. The Chicago Community Trust has been a huge investor for years in arts education. I can't imagine that they won't be excited and inspired to partner with us by how thoughtful the leadership of the Chicago Public Schools has been to identify a strategy for providing arts education. There's also great opportunity at the federal level. National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman has been really successful at looking at alternative agencies beyond the NEA to achieve some goals in supporting the arts. He's been partnering a lot with HUD and other federal agencies in finding resources to support the arts. I think we're going to be shaking every tree out there to find adequate resources to make these things become real.