"If you can mandate these meetings, mandate some money!" That was one of many recommendations greeted with applause and hollers at a local meeting last night, held at the National Museum of Mexican Fine Art in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
Listen to Alison Cuddy on Eight Forty-Eight
848 120222 alison.mp3
The meeting was convened by the City's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) - it was the last of four town halls that have served to kick off the department's 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan.
After introductory remarks from DCASE commissioner Michelle Boone and Orit Sarfaty, a consultant at Lord Cultural Resources (the Toronto-based firm hired by the City to help with the plan), it was the public's turn to get cracking.
Armed with notepads and pens, people broke into nine groups numbering about twelve to over 25 in size. They listed their experiences and expectations of culture in Chicago, and provided advice on how to get from "here to there" (there being the year 2030, a somewhat loose target date suggested by DCASE).
Then each group took to the mic to present their findings - here is the representative from Group 4:
120221 Group 4 Presentation web.mp3
The tape gives you a sense of the warmth, goodwill and energy that filled the room. The groups were definitely chatty, with no shortage of ideas and exchanges going on.
The gathering was very diverse. Lots of people of color and most age groups represented, including seniors and high school students. There were people from the neighborhood, artists of every stripe (especially the visual arts) and heads of arts organizations (including Marwen's Antonia Contro, who also serves on the City's Cultural Affairs Advisory Committee). As for politicos I was told Alderman Danny Solis was there, though I didn't spot him myself.
Ideas that got the most applause included funding for arts education, turning vacant buildings over to arts groups, and "organizing". Nearly every group emphasized working with business interests. And along with repeated calls to focus on arts at the neighborhood level, there were also recommendations to create more events on the scale of downtown extravaganzas like Lollapalooza and the Chicago International Film Festival.
As the meeting got underway I spoke with Commissioner Boone about her take on the process. I also asked her why they've embarked on this plan when she hasn't yet fully staffed her Department - you can listen to our exchange here:
120221 Michelle Boone web.mp3
But for me it all comes back to where we started - the recommendation to "mandate some money". Does the Department, still regrouping under Mayor Emmanuel, have the political support and financial backing needed to implement any of the ideas they'll gather?
Or is DCASE in effect going back to the drawing board, to make the case for culture as planners did in 1986, when the city's first big cultural plan was mapped out? Is the public process a way of once again building political capital for the merits of investing in Chicago's arts and culture scene?
That remains to be seen. Meanwhile the public will continue to weigh in - a sort of cultural version of "March Madness" will get underway on February 29th, with a month-long series of neighborhood conversations taking place throughout the city.