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Chicago's Cultural Plan: Can we democratize culture?

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Tiffany Dome, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center. (Flickr/Duncan)

If you want to figure out how culture grows in Chicago, look no further than the street pageantry put on by local group Pocket Guide to Hell. Over the weekend I participated in their latest production, Like A Secondhand Sea, which revisits some of the events leading to the reversal of the Chicago River, one of our city's great feats – or follies, depending on your point of view.

Pocket Guide's reenactments tackle many corners of Chicago history, from the well-known (Haymarket riot) to the more obscure (the inaugural performance of the Compass Players, hailed for creating modern improv comedy in Chicago). The group is the brain child of Paul Durica, who relies on friends to help mount the production. He's also a bit of a cultural connecter - he brings various arts and community organizations together via a quid pro quo: If those organizations supply bodies for the show, Pocket Guide promotes their missions in its program.

Durica mainly raises money on his own. But he also relies on the city for other contributions: the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) helped in "dealing with the alderman, police, etc."

Helping groups like Pocket Guide navigate Chicago's often labyrinth-like and recalcitrant bureaucracy is actually one of 10 "major priorities" in the new draft Cultural Plan from DCASE. The recommendation to "streamline city processes to simplify achievement of cultural initiatives" manages to both replicate consultant speak and be startlingly clear in its criticism of the status quo. But actual ideas to do so follow: from an audit of current licensing and permitting processes to appointing someone with "abundant experience in city government," to show would-be events organizers the ropes.

That's potential good news for arts, music and cultural groups, who just want to put on a show. But the overall plan also offers an excellent opportunity to all Chicagoans. Rather than just a bullet-point cultural to-do list, we the people have been extended an invitation – to dive deep into democracy, via the messy and multi-faceted art of cultural planning.

This vision is laid out in the plan's main objectives and distinguishes it from the city's previous (and first) cultural plan in 1986, which sought mainly to find a place for culture at the city government table. Now, under the rubric of "Planning Culturally," culture becomes not just something government does. It becomes a very model for government.

Embed culture in all city planning, whether establishing library hours, figuring out bus routes or purchasing street lamps, and you achieve other civic ends, like making "streets safer" or sustaining "local economies." And, cleverly enough, you could scare up some money. To quote the plan, "Funding for culture can be derived from diverse sources citywide when it is linked to reaching broad initiatives like improved public safety."

Of course figuring out how to pay for any of this will be a significant factor in how "democratic" our cultural economy could be. For example, would citizens go for a proposed "dedicated Arts and Culture Tax?"

In some areas, a little of that cultural democracy may already at work. Going into the community process that preceded the draft plan, both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and DCASE Commissioner Michelle Boone seemed wed to the idea of neighborhood cultural districts, specifically a music district on Chicago’s north side, in Uptown. That's a long-standing ambition which has raised as many hopes as it has questions, including where to find what some estimate to be $70 million to restore the Uptown Theatre, which has sat empty for more than 30 years.

Still, based on their shared wish list, I'd thought an Uptown music district might be one of the recommendations of the plan, and generally speaking it is: Priority #4, among other things, "seeks the establishment of criteria and planning for cultural districts." But the route and tools to get there are different. Instead of officially proclaiming one neighborhood over another as the next cultural destination, the plan seeks to give every community the opportunity to designate itself one, largely by strengthening "the role of residents in cultural planning." Let a hundred cultural districts bloom, to misquote Chairman Mao.

Some of those strengthening exercises sound intriguing but vague: neighborhood connectors, who gladhand and facilitate among local cultural groups (an artsy variation on committeemen/women?). How about "vote-generated culture" (sure you hate politicians, but wouldya vote for this play?!), or "Neighborhood Cultural Councils" (another socialist sounding endeavor!).

Some have a familiar, double-edged sword quality to them: "Aldermanic arts initiatives, dedicated funding." Or "thematized city parks as destinations," a proposal perhaps best tackled by the city’s new advertising consultants?  And some of the "Spark Plugs" to encourage innovation have a level of cheese that makes me a bit queasy: "Theater Speed Dating"? "Cultural Hackathons?"

Of course those might well sate other appetites, and I'm just cherry picking here – there are a helluva lot of plans big and small in this plan. Further, just because things are absent from the plan doesn't mean they won't make it onto the cultural agenda, nor that designating and developing a new city festival site (or a new Museum Campus) won't be rife with business and politics as usual. TIF funds are mentioned, after all.

Commissioner Boone keeps telling Chicagoans, “This is YOUR plan.” And the goal as stated is shared responsibility, across the private, non-profit and public sectors, and among all citizens.

So make good on the invitation. Read the details and go to the town halls that kick off next week. Hell, go to City Hall if you think that's more effective. If this is a Plan for the People don't let it be an empty one, like some fear the People’s Palace, aka the Cultural Center, is becoming.

I think it is too soon to tell where we're headed culturally. But your participation - early and often - could set the course.

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