News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

One year in, the Chicago Cultural Plan is already receiving plaudits

But that doesn't mean it's not window dressing.

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Earlier this month at the Metropolitan Planning Council's big annual luncheon at the Hyatt Regency, Americas at Google president and keynote speaker Margo Georgiadis (former COO of Groupon) said the Google of the future will be an indispensable personal assistant, not only answering our questions, but anticipating them.

That sounded like a pretty creepy amplification of the data mining and stalking Google's already doing.

But then it occurred to me that this really amped-up Google would know the question that was on my mind at that moment, and would be able to figure out why, at this very luncheon, the Metropolitan Planning Council was awarding the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events a Daniel Burnham Award for excellence in planning for its Chicago Cultural Plan, which had just celebrated its first anniversary.

Daniel Burnham's plan for Chicago is the one that laid out the gorgeous part of our Paris on the Prairie. The 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan is the one the city outsourced to a Canadian consulting firm, which jetted in for a series of public meetings and then went back to Toronto, where it incubated a plan cum wish list with ten big-picture priorities, 36 recommendations, 241 initiatives, a sky's-the-limit potential cost, and no specific advice about how to finance it.

The Metropolitan Planning Council said in a statement announcing the award that it was impressed with DCASE's "wide range of initiatives." And DCASE commissioner Michelle Boone, who was on hand to accept it, said in the same announcement that "half of the 241 initiatives in the plan have been addressed."

Wow. That sounds like a lot of progress.

But what does "addressed" mean?

Thinking I knew exactly where to find out, I headed for chicagoculturalplan.org, which was formerly a photo-filled website launched under the auspices of the Toronto consulting firm. Instead I found myself on the DCASE page of the city's site, where you can now download the cultural plan and get its history in the form of an abbreviated time line.

But if you're looking for an update on its progress, all you'll find is a list released last January of 45 initiatives with red check marks in front of them and a spiffy new two-page graphic titled "Year One—By the Numbers."

The graphic lists 19 "highlights of initiatives completed since the Plan was released," with an emphasis on tallies. For example:

  • 200 grants totaling $1.2 million were awarded through the cultural grants program.
  • 513,000 meals were served by 280 restaurants during Chicago Restaurant Week.
  • 71,000 children read 2.1 million books in the Chicago Public Library's Rahm's Readers program.

Once again, wow! But wait a minute—wasn't some of that stuff happening before the new cultural plan?

If you want to figure out what's been accomplished because of the cultural plan, you'll have to look elsewhere for help.

Like to the Google we've got now.

I did that, and found:

  • That the city's been giving out million-dollar arts grants for years ($1 million in CityArts Grants in 2009, for example, when that was only one of four grant programs the Department of Cultural Affairs administered).
  • That more than 200 restaurants were already participating in Chicago Restaurant Week in 2012.
  • And that 50,000 children read 1.2 million books in the library's 2010 summer reading program.

So, the planning council award notwithstanding, DCASE is telling us essentially zip about what, if anything, the Chicago Cultural Plan has accomplished in its first year.

But help beyond Google might be on the way.

In an anniversary statement, Mayor Emanuel announced that "a new stewardship committee for the Chicago Cultural Plan will be organized by Arts Alliance Illinois." He said this "strategic group of advisors" will "inform the development of an impact framework to measure progress toward the Chicago Cultural Plan's top priorities."

The key words in that boilerplate are "impact," "measure," and "top priorities." Arts Alliance executive director Ra Joy says, "This is about putting the cultural plan into action. We want to establish clearly defined outcomes and track progress toward those outcomes."

Joy says the arts alliance has raised private money to support this effort and hopes to have a committee of up to 30 members in place by early next year. It's already landed attorney Michael Dorf, director of Chicago's original cultural plan (under Mayor Harold Washington), as a cochair.

"There's a lot of recommendations in the cultural plan," Dorf says. "You can't do them all at once. We want to make sure that there are priorities and focus. We're working with a very friendly administration, a mayor who believes in culture. But we're going into this with our eyes open: it's our job, in a cooperative way, to hold their feet to the fire."

A stewardship committee could be useful to DCASE either to endorse its efforts (and build the appearance of public support) or to shoulder responsibility and take the blame if things go south. And it might be able to attract foundation or corporate money for plan initiatives.

We'll see if it can also turn the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan into something more than the window dressing it's apparently been so far.

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