News & Features » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Ten things wrong with the Chicago Cultural Plan so far

Since when is a wish list a blueprint?

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(1) It was outsourced.

Because who could be better equipped to develop a plan that captures the unique soul of our city than Lord Cultural Resources, a big-box Canadian consulting firm that's already done 1,800 other cultural projects all over the world?

(2) It's a rush job.

What? Three weeks isn't long enough to find out about the project, research it, and come up with a well-thought-out strategy? The city issued its request for proposals October 7, 2011; submissions were due November 1; and the entire thing was to be completed in the spring (the deadline's now been moved to October).

(3) The public part of the process has been dumbed down.

We've been wrangled and patronized, but who doesn't like those cute little buttons, Post-it boards, photo collages, catchy slogans, and "ground-truthing" meetings where you get to play with a transponder? As for the widespread public participation on the Internet we were led to expect, well, you can follow the plan on Twitter and "like" it on Facebook.

(4) It's not a plan.

The draft consists of ten broad "priorities" and 36 aspirational "recommendations," each of which has its own list of a half dozen or so "initiatives" or possible actions. (Mostly collected at public meetings in the spring, the initiatives are all over the board: Museum Campus South, permanent festival site, a dedicated tax for arts and culture.) Everything is categorized, but nothing is actually prioritized. That'll come later, via City Hall.

(5) The major ideas are retreads.

We are consistent: nine of the ten priorities and 33 of the 36 recommendations are updates or restatements of items in the original Chicago Cultural Plan, commissioned in 1985.

(6) The public doesn't care about "global."

Nothing in the "executive summary" of the spring town hall meetings suggests a groundswell of demand for anything "global." The public was more concerned with things like access to culture and equitable distribution of resources. So why is "making Chicago a global cultural destination" on the list of ten priorities? Because, as Mayor Emanuel notes in the forward, the city aims to become a "global destination for creativity, innovation and excellence in the arts." We're talking "economic driver" and tourism dollars here.

(7) Participation in the public meetings has been statistically minuscule.

At the last of three town hall meetings this past week—Saturday's, at Saint Augustine College in Uptown—about 75 people used transponders to show support (or lack of same) for each of the ten initiatives. The first meeting, July 24 at Malcolm X College, drew even fewer voters. It's unclear how the final version will be determined, but the current tag line is Your City, Your Plan! Whatever winds up in it will be attributed to public demand.

(8) This will be hugely expensive, and the city's broke.

The consultants estimate that a third of the initiatives could be implemented for less than $50,000 each; about half would cost more than $50,000 but less than a million dollars each; and 16 percent would be more than that. Mayor Emanuel, noting that we have "the largest capital program going on in the country," says some of this can be "integrated" into other projects. The rest is an opportunity for the public to "step up." It's also an opportunity for privatization. Initiatives the public's being asked to validate without fussing over details (they'll come later) include a "cultural projects focus" for the mayor's infrastructure trust, and a private-sector "cultural investment fund." Nobody expects all of it to get done.

(9) It's a bad piece of writing.

The trade-off for having to educate an outside consultant ought to be a high level of professionalism in the product, so this came as something of a surprise. Here's the opening, offering babble for a rationale: "Culture is the shared experiences of a community. Culture inspires innovation and expresses creativity. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked: Art + Creativity = Innovation."

(10) Rocco wants to export it.

Recently in town and at the Cultural Center, National Endowment for the Arts head Rocco Landesman called the plan "visionary" and said he thinks it should be taken "to a hundred cities all over the United States." This is a little worrisome. Will they all want to be global destinations for creativity, innovation, and excellence?

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