No Shit; Map Quest | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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No Shit; Map Quest

According to a new U. of C. study, the city's biggest arts organizations are the domain of rich, educated white people.


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No Shit

"You already know this"--that's what National Opinion Research Center vice president Colm O'Muircheartaigh had to say about the initial conclusions he was drawing from an assortment of eye-popping maps at last week's presentation of a study about local "cultural participation" at the Cultural Center. Funded by a $128,000 grant from the Joyce Foundation and conducted by the U. of C.'s Cultural Policy Center, the study analyzed information from Chicago's 12 largest cultural institutions to find out who's benefiting from them. The Joyce Foundation wanted to know whether attempts to engage diverse audiences were working, and the researchers said they needed a baseline before they'd be able to figure that out. "Now," said O'Muircheartaigh, as the audience squinted at a kaleidoscopic parade of red, orange, yellow, green, and blue shapes in dizzying recombinations, "we've got numbers for it."

On their way to making Chicago the first major city with a cultural participation map, the researchers collected 1.4 million electronic records from the dozen big institutions for 2004. The institutions were chosen according to the size of their budgets ($8 million was the minimum) and ranged from the Art Institute to the Joffrey Ballet. The researchers tracked 600,000 participating households in the 14-county metropolitan area and sliced and diced that information with data from the 2000 census. And here's the main thing they found out: it's mostly about money. The best predictors of participation in the city's large cultural institutions are education and income level. Wealthy neighborhoods along the lake on the city's north side and in the suburbs (New Trier Township, along with River Forest to the west) turned out to be the hot spots. Those are also areas with relatively few African-American and Latino residents. The city's cultural participation map and its racial and ethnic distribution map turned out to be inverse images of each other.

In this geography, red is the flag of high activity, blue the opposite. Looking at Cook County, a wide river of blue sweeps up from the southern suburbs to the northwest and turns left into Elk Grove and Schaumburg. (It looks like everything but the North Shore could float away without a blip in attendance at, say, Lyric Opera.) In the city the near north and west sides, Lincoln Park, and Hyde Park glow crimson, while nearly everything else to the south, west, and northwest is bathed in blue. The authors note that participation rates are low throughout the metropolitan area, but "consistently lowest in areas with large percentages of African-American or Latino households." Since the cost of a midlevel day pass to the Field Museum, for example, for a family of four is at least $75 (including parking but not lunch), and the map of African-American and Latino population is nearly a match for the map of low-income distribution, that's not surprising. But here's where eyebrows in the audience did go up: when researchers compared similar socioeconomic groups, they found that African-Americans were less likely to participate than whites and Latinos. Income aside, the authors conclude, "We find an association between the percentage of African-American residents in an area and unexpectedly low arts participation."

Museum of Science and Industry vice president Valerie Waller, offering a response to the research, said she sees evidence of the lack of diversity nearly every time she eyeballs the crowds on the museum floor. She thinks communication, price, hours, and transportation are factors that could be addressed, and says it may be more realistic to focus on turning orange areas to red, rather than trying to stretch for the blues. The mapping project also included limited research on 49 smaller cultural organizations, including some geared to specific ethnic groups. (Nearly 500 such organizations were invited to participate; all but the 49, perhaps lacking data, failed to respond.) The researchers found that many of these smaller entities are tapping audiences that have little overlap with the participants at the big organizations. For those folks and a lot of others, the daunting dozen--those pricey, tax-supported, mostly lakefront playgrounds for the affluent and the tourists, with their displays of Girodet and performances of Shakespeare--may just be off the map.

Map Quest

Daniel Tucker, editor of the new biannual arts-and-activism tabloid Area, says he felt conflicted as he watched the mapping presentation. "I wanted them to come out and make policy recommendations," he says, "but on the other hand I was thinking, Don't say anything more, because of the limitations of their study. We can't rely on those kinds of institutions--fine-art museums and symphony orchestras and ballets--to make up the map of meaningful cultural participation in Chicago." Even among the smaller organizations studied, he says, places like community centers, storefront galleries, and cafes were left out--"places that are meaningful in communities that are disengaged from the large institutions or don't have access to them.

"Historically there's a lot of power in who gets to make up maps," Tucker adds. "There's a danger when cultural policy makers turn out dramatic maps that seem to suggest stark contrasts between people's engagement with culture. It can be misleading. I don't fault the mapmakers, but it's about this form and its power to influence. I'm fascinated with the potential of what they're trying to do, and happy they're doing it. But what it inspires for me is more of an interest in the unmappable components, relevant things happening across the city. Are there ways to represent them?"

Area's offering an alternative in the form of a blank pullout map of Chicago in its current issue. Readers can fill it in with locations they think are significant, then submit it for inclusion in an online archive, a planned book, and upcoming exhibitions, including one that opens at Polvo gallery in Pilsen on April 28.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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