Do you want a plan, or do you want culture? Take your pick

February 24, 2012

Chicagoans are big planners, or so we claim: the hoary "Make No Little Plans" has become a kind of civic mantra. And Jonathan's proposals for inclusion in a new Cultural Plan are fine responses to that commandment. But I can't help but be cynical about the development of a new Cultural Plan, when I don't know anyone (h/t Deanna Isaacs) who's read the one we have.

Probably the primary benefit of rewriting the plan is the process which will precede it (gathering the opinions of civilians and arts groups from throughout the city through public hearings like the ones last week, (h/t Allison Cuddy) rather than the document which will crown it. And that's all very well: as someone who's a strategic planning consultant in her other life, I'm well aware that most planning processes are valuable for themselves rather than their results. If you're lucky, people get excited about what can be done, and whether what can be done turns out to be what's planned is mostly beside the point. People may want to measure what's been accomplished against the plan, but "against the plan" is precisely right: whatever is envisioned, the reality will be something else. 

So why pay any attention to what's being written? Because it seems likely to embed in stone (or at least in bureaucratic practice) the view that the function of the arts is to transform the city in all sorts of non-arts ways. If there are arts, restaurants and coffeehouses are sure to follow. If there are arts, people will fill the streets whose very presence will deter crime. If there are arts, children and adults will gain access to educational opportunities we're too cheap or skeptical to pay for through the schools or the social service agencies.  If there are arts, property values will rise. The arts are an instrumentality, practically a panacea.  And if they also represent intrusion on quiet neighborhoods, gentrification or displacement, hey, them's the breaks. 

This view is elegantly and thoughtfully expressed in a report on Creative Placemaking (the subject of a meeting yesterday convened by the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center). The key insight of the report: off with the old notion of arts districts, on with a new broader perspective in which every neighborhood is its own potential arts district. In a city as diverse (and segregated) as Chicago, this makes more sense than expecting people from Pilsen to flock to Bronzeville for their entertainment. Moreover, it's less expensive than the bricks-and-mortar if-you-build-it mentality that's resulted in underutilized hulks like that thing at 38th and Michigan. Maybe this merely confirms Jonathan's view that Chicago will do anything to support the arts that doesn't cost any money, but the emphasis on program instead of platform is welcome.

But does anyone really think that the problems of poverty, crime, economic inequality and weak public schooling can be solved by El stations reflecting neighborhood themes, or by murals decorating underpasses that mostly serve to separate the poor and brown from the rich and white? And why should we believe that this decade's fad for arts everywhere will work any better than last decade's embrace of arts districts? And does the city really need another arena in which neighborhoods compete with one another for ever-scarcer resources? Finally, how can any plan ever catch up to, let alone govern, the individual and conflicting (and virtually indefeasible) decisions of arts organizations that they need new homes?

Let's understand the cultural plan for what it can be: a system for securing public money to support the arts from unexpected sources (e.g. the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) by pretending that the funds will actually accomplish something else. But don't let's confuse it with a "cultural policy." Europeans have cultural policies; Americans, and Chicagoans in particular, have a free-market ethos which has produced the current blooming buzzing confusion of our lively theater, music, dance and visual arts scenes. What "policy" could have done better?

So if I were an artist I wouldn't spend too much time helping the city develop a cultural plan. On the other hand, decisions are made by those who show up, so if I were an arts administrator I'd atttend as many meetings as I was invited to or heard about, just to make sure no one's screwing me over, and on the off-chance that someone else will show up who can help me out.