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The Cultural Plan on music: Specifics nonexistent

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The Cultural Plan on music: Specifics nonexistent

And so the much-ballyhooed draft Chicago Cultural Plan finally arrived Monday morning, and what does it say about this blog’s primary concern, music in the Windy City? Drum roll, please…

Actually, cancel that drum roll. What the slick, profusely illustrated, approximately $300,000 draft plan says about the rich cultural community we care about most in this space is little to nothing. In fact, the word “music” only appears eight times in the 64-page document, with no specific acknowledgement of any of the city’s vibrant indigenous sounds and subcultures except for the blues, which are mentioned twice in passing (and one of those in a pull quote from a congressman).

In stark contrast to other concrete recommendations, including the creation of a new permanent festival site (similar to the location of Milwaukee’s Summerfest) away from the lakefront out in the neighborhoods and the creation of a “Museum Campus South” centered on the Museum of Science and Industry, there is no mention of the Uptown Music District that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel often promised during his campaign or anything remotely in that realm fostering the musical infrastructure or trumpeting the city’s rich musical history.

This is despite a note early in the document that, “In 2010, arts attendance rebounded for the first time since 2003” and that “live popular music has experienced the biggest rebound.” (Credited to Americans for the Arts, no specific statistics are cited for this claim, while far more in-depth information long has been available from an economic impact study of the music community done at the request of the Chicago Music Commission by the University of Chicago.)

Veteran observers of Chicago politicians and their interactions with the music and other arts scenes here will not be surprised by the fact that much of the language in the plan sounds good on the surface but lacks any substance once you dig a little deeper. From the mayor’s foreword:

“Financially, Chicago has the third largest creative economy in the U.S., with 24,000 arts enterprises, including nearly 650 non-profit arts organizations, generating more than $2 billion annually and employing 150,000 people. Chicago’s creative vibrancy creates jobs, attracts new businesses and tourists, and improves neighborhood vitality and quality of life. The Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 will chart a roadmap for Chicago’s cultural and economic growth and become the centerpiece for building Chicago’s reputation as a global destination for creativity, innovation and excellence in the arts.”

How will it do that, specifically in the music world? Your guess is as good as mine; the plan never says.

To be fair, the plan is a draft, and it will not be finalized until October, following a series of public hearings to elicit yet more feedback—these after all of the sessions that already have been held. As enumerated in the plan: “Four town hall meetings, 19 neighborhood cultural conversations, an ongoing social media exchange, 10 cultural sector meetings to concentrate analysis, numerous one-on-one stakeholder interviews  [and] independently convened discipline-specific sector meetings.”

“What you see in the draft cultural plan is ideas, suggestions and recommendations that we’ve received directly from Chicagoans,” Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone told Steve Edwards on 848.

Yeah, well… sort of. I attended one of those “10 cultural sector meetings to concentrate analysis,” a session in March also referred to by plan architects Lord Cultural Resources as “a ground-truthing effort,” and blogged about it here. I also interviewed several other music-scene mainstays who took part in similar sessions, and their experience was identical to mine: Many in the music, visual arts and theater worlds cited a long list of very specific grievances at these sessions about the difficulties of interacting with a byzantine city government, often feeling as if they’re competing with the city itself. And they suggested concrete solutions.

None of the complaints are even acknowledged in the draft plan, and few of the specific fixes Chicagoans recommended are mentioned. When they are, it is in more of the consultant-speak that Lord Cultural Resources elevates to new levels of Orwellian obfuscation. (According to the Reader, $230,000 of the $300,000 spent on the plan went into the coffers of this Toronto-based company.)

In the music world, the most tangible suggestion that people from every corner have been making for more than a decade, since anti-music assaults such as the anti-rave ordinance, the promoters ordinance and the post-E2 crackdown on club land, is the creation of a Mayor’s Office of Music similar to the Illinois Film Office or music offices in cities like Austin, Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans. The idea was discussed at length at the session I chronicled, as well as at least two others, participants said. Such an office not only would champion the many diverse sounds coming from this city, but facilitate the interactions of musicians and music promoters with a city government that more often seems determined to silence them than to help them turn it up and be heard.

The closest the draft plan gets to this request is suggesting “initiatives” for a “staffed coordinator with abundant experience in city government who helps organizations navigate city regulatory processes” and the creation of “permitting/zoning to allow for cultural uses: performances, exhibitions, rehearsals, studio space, retail, live/work spaces, etc….” though you’ll notice that music isn’t specifically mentioned.

Other suggestions in the draft plan that sound good, maybe/sorta/hopefully could have some impact on music, but lack any hint of specifics include:

  • “Critically examine and expand sources of cultural funding to match the potential and diversity of the cultural community.”
  • “Use of more TIF funds towards affordable artist housing and live/work spaces.”
  • “Create a comprehensive system to accommodate space needs for artists and creative professionals.”
  • “Matching grants for cultural arts supported by philanthropy, private sector, and the city.”
  • “Increased City of Chicago (DCASE) grants for artists.”
  • “Expand the number of spaces for culture in every neighborhood.”

Again, to be fair, the City Council and the Mayor’s office will be the entities actually charged with making the laudable goals above a reality. “The final Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 will be submitted to City Council for adoption,” the draft notes. But, it adds, “It is intended to be a living document to be used and consulted over the course of its anticipated 10-15 year life span.” And the draft does chart an ambitious “launch timeline” for making all of these things and more happen, claiming that 60 percent will be done within the next 18 months.

Gee, do you think that’s why the Cultural Plan is so incredibly nebulous? How can anyone complain that the city isn’t delivering what it promised in the cultural realm when it never promised anything concrete?

(Links to download the plan in its entirety can be found here.)

P.S. Forgot to mention: That sure looks like a fun concert on the cover, doesn't it?

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