News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Your vision, your plan, your pop-up

The final version of the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 arrives as a photo op



So, wow. We have our cultural plan. After months of hoopla it arrived in near secret last week from Canada (where it was crafted) as a Monday-morning pop-up event at an elementary school.

You might have missed it. Not to say there wasn't any flash. The mayor was there, in the atrium of the Manuel Perez Jr. elementary school in Pilsen. And so were Chicago's dazzling high-culture hired guns, Yo-Yo Ma and Renee Fleming, jetting in from the east coast. Also—though the mayor himself, or anyone from Joffrey or Hubbard Street could fill this slot—former New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel was on hand.

They sang and played for the few folk who'd been passed the word to get there, along with some Perez school kids, for whom it'll no doubt be a memorable if somewhat mystifying event, a star-studded launch for a plan that's literally out of sight.

Tucked away online at and too unwieldy to grasp from a screen, the plan and its supplements total 92 pages of bureaucratese and unprioritized suggestions, all padded out with familiar-looking photographs of the city. To print it out and read it, you'll need a supply of ink and a good stiff drink—or whatever fortitude builder you'd employ if you were aiming to digest your entire computer manual in a single sitting.

But in fact the finished product is barely changed from the bloated draft version we saw in "ground-truthing sessions" conducted by Lord Cultural Resources, the consulting firm in charge, back in July. There are still ten "equally paramount" priorities and 36 recommendations, each with its own list of four to eight initiatives—or enough to make your head explode. And there's still no real clue about how this incalculably expensive wish list could be financed.

Among the hundreds of ideas still in place are a "globally renowned accelerator center" for the arts and creative industries, a "large-scale major cultural festival that attracts global attention," and a "dedicated festival site."

The mayor announced that he's including $1 million for plan initiatives in his 2013 city budget proposal, and that half of this would go to Chicago Public Schools, which is developing its own new arts-education plan, aiming to "elevate the arts to a core subject." That's enough to pay for a half dozen or so new arts teachers in a system of 681 schools. The remaining $500,000 would go into the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events budget, to be spent on cultural plan initiatives as DCASE deems fit.

And what among the mind-boggling list of possibilities might those be? The end of the report provides a hint under the heading "Immediate Opportunities":

  • Implement a strategic plan for DCASE.
  • Retool DCASE grant programs.
  • Partner with sister agencies.
  • Launch a creative industries unit within DCASE.
  • Connect implementation efforts.
  • Form an association of neighborhood festival organizers.

It looks like most of the initial impact will be on DCASE itself. A timetable in the plan's supplemental materials makes it clear that we shouldn't expect the more expensive suggestions to be implemented any time soon. Most of them would take up to 20 years to achieve, which could mean never.

But one of those superexpensive initiatives has been classified as doable in the next 18 months. That's the "Mayor's newly formed Infrastructure Trust to place focus on cultural projects."

So one thing the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 (promoted as "Your city, your vision, your plan") will do right away is provide the appearance of a grassroots mandate for a mechanism that'll allow the private sector to profit from—and perhaps control—the brick-and-mortar assets that anchor our cultural heritage.

The final words of the plan encourage "Citizen Cultural Planners" to read the plan and actively support it; suggestions for "regular citizens" include joining a neighborhood cultural council, starting your own Awesome Foundation, and trying "something creative you have never done before: singing, dancing, painting, knitting, cooking, etc."

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