Make no small cultural plans

February 24, 2012

The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) has begun to fulfill Rahm Emmanuel’s campaign promise to draft a comprehensive cultural plan for the City of Chicago. We haven’t had a new one since 1986 when Mayor Harold Washington first established the Dept. of Cultural Affairs and ordered a cultural assessment.

The public is invited to participate in preparation of the plan—due to be published in the fall—through public forums and an interactive website.

OK, so what should a cultural scheme for Chicago include?

On the one hand, it should obey the dictum attributed to Daniel Burnham to “make no small plans.” Let’s think big. As Danny Thomas used to say (and he knew whereof he spoke), “If you’re gonna’ have a nose, have a NOSE!” Let’s dream, let’s imagine. Let’s propose new cultural entities and facilities, just as long as we have programs first to fill buildings and not empty buildings waiting for programs to utilize them.

On the other hand, there’s economic reality. Despite the proven importance of arts and culture as a dynamic economic engine for the city (and state), one would be loco to think Chicago will substantially increase the dollars it puts into culture. The city will do everything it can . . . as long as “everything” costs little or nothing or generates revenue.

Where does that leave a cultural master plan? What should it include? What can it include? My thoughts are no more definitive than anyone else’s, but may be somewhat more informed or enlightened by virtue of my reporting on arts and culture for so many years. What I propose may seem vague, but for starters the City of Chicago Cultural Plan needs to address patrimony, places and partnerships.

By patrimony—as the United Nations uses the term—I mean the buildings, archives and collections that form the cultural heritage of Chicago. The plan needs to identify these things and catalog them. Some are obvious, such as our architectural heritage, with regard to which the City has a smudged and spotty record, best summed up by saying our aldermen never met a developer they didn’t like. Also obviously, we have significant public and private art collections which should be identified, in part so we can do what we can to keep them in Chicago.

Listen to the Dueling Critics debate Porchlight's A Catered Affair on Eight Forty-Eight

120224 Onstage Backstage.mp3

But some of our patrimony is less obvious. Our cultural archives and records, for example, are haphazard and scattered, with some papers, photos and clippings at the Newberry Library, some at the Chicago Public Library Special Collections, others at the Chicago History Museum or various universities, etc. A cultural plan might make an effort to cross catalog holdings and to establish a central archive for things not yet collected, such as theater reviews and articles that chronicle the rise of Chicago Off-Loop Theater over the last 45-50 years. DCASE and a cultural plan could be the catalysts for inter-agency and inter-institution cooperation. 

By places, I mean the physical facilities at which cultural events can occur. Again, many of these are obvious and already in use but not all of them. For example, several Chicago Park District field houses are utilized for theater, dance and musical performances, but not all the field houses that might be suitable. The cultural plan could engage the Park District in identifying additional locations and, perhaps, finding ways to finance small capital improvements to make more spaces available.

On another front, several aldermen have assisted performing arts organizations in locating suitable spaces to serve as permanent homes (the most recent example being James Cappleman’s assist in relocating the National Pastime Theater to the Preston Bradley Center), and DCASE itself has brokered such deals. But there isn’t a consistent program or policy to do this sort of thing. Here is another opportunity for DCASE and a cultural plan to serve as catalyst and facilitator at little or no cost.

Finally, the master cultural document needs to address partnerships, meaning public-private partnerships and naming rights. In the current economic climate, such partnerships are among the few ways that arts and culture might generate an infusion of new dollars. The City and the Park District already have created such partnerships in the development of Millennium Park and in corporate support for the Grant Park Music Festival among other examples. I’ve already used this blog space to promote (twice) the idea that DCASE’s CityArts (sic) Grants program should be underwritten by a corporate sponsor with dollars coming 50-50 from the City and the sponsor.

There are, of course, numerous other funding possibilities, the most obvious of which are the huge aldermanic slush fund boondoggles known as TIF Districts, which directly siphon off property tax money that should be going to education, the parks and so on. Our City Council never will give up TIFs voluntarily, but they just might mandate that a certain percentage of each TIF be earmarked for arts and culture in support of specifics in the cultural plan or, better yet, in support of arts in education which has all but disappeared from our public schools (which also must be addressed by the cultural plan).

So there are my ideas for the City of Chicago Cultural Plan. Meanwhile, I have copies of long-deceased magazines and newspapers for which I wrote over the years, and I have my collection of Off-Loop Theater t-shirts and coffee cups all waiting for an appropriate home. Clearly, the Plan’s first recommendation should be a call for the Jonathan Abarbanel Theater Archive, to which my bones can be added not-too-many years from now.