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New Cultural Plan a nice wish list, but city should focus on must-haves

Howard Reich

12:07 PM EDT, October 19, 2012

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Give the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events this much: It listened to what Chicagoans said they wanted in a Cultural Plan and wrote it down.

And then wrote some more.

And more.

Released Monday, the Cultural Plan's 48 pages — plus a 20-page executive summary and 24-page supplemental materials — overflow with ideas I heard earlier in the year, when Chicagoans flocked to town halls to make their voices heard. Some of the suggestions leaped onto the page almost verbatim from impromptu working groups that formed at DuSable Museum of African American History on the South Side, Senn High School on the North Side and elsewhere.

I still can hear folks suggesting that tax increment financing funds be applied not only to fancy theaters in the Loop but to neighborhood spots where Chicago artists could work and live. That overlooked or underused buildings be rezoned so artists could bring them back to life. That cultural kiosks rise up across the city, telegraphing what's happening where.

Those inspired ideas, and many lesser ones, have been packed into the Cultural Plan, which was produced with the assistance of Lord Cultural Resources (at a budget of $250,000, funded with $100,000 each from the Chicago Community Trust and Allstate, plus support from the Illinois Arts Council and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events).

Above all, the citizens at the town halls and follow-up neighborhood conversations clamored for an increased emphasis on arts education. This prompted city officials Monday to trumpet a Chicago Public Schools Arts Education Plan, to be unveiled in full in December.

Cultural planning doesn't get much more democratic than that.

But the blizzard of 36 recommendations in the completed Cultural Plan, with multiple initiatives listed under each one, makes the document more of a Christmas wish list than a comprehensible course of action. Real, tangible ideas share acreage with grandiose hopes; ideas that could be launched tomorrow compete for attention with visions that are not likely to be realized, for decades, if ever.

Nothing wrong with dreaming big, of course, but in these hard times — with the city and the state deeply in the red — only ideas grounded in reality seem likely to generate results. Daniel Burnham famously said "make no little plans," but he might have reconsidered after trying to digest the new cultural opus.

The document itself acknowledges its ephemeral nature: "The Plan reflects many of the creative and resourceful ideas that participants discussed in the public process," it notes early on. "Potential initiatives are the civic brain-storming and crowd-sourcing of solutions, but they are suggestions for how to accomplish the recommendations, not a final to-do list of cultural planning in Chicago." (The boldface is in the report.)

So what we have here is a litany of suggestions, some achievable, others improbable, many described in bureaucratese that will make your eyes cross. Here's a case where less would have been so much more. A few sharply focused ideas stated in crisp, plain English would serve to rally support a lot more quickly than some of the overreaching concepts larded into this plan.

One hastens to note, however, that potentially important — and doable — recommendations are hiding in plain sight amid the verbiage. In addition to the ones I've already mentioned, here are a few others:

"Identify specific sites such as bridges, side walls of public buildings, and transit structures to be programmed with changing exhibitions or that can accommodate permanent installations." Indeed, why not turn eyesores into ever-shifting works of art?

"Neighborhood cultural grants to help implement programs and projects." Absolutely — get the money to where people live.

"Comprehensive citywide space inventory for cultural uses." Perhaps an online directory would chart every square inch of cultural real estate, used and unused.

"Dedicated festival site(s) to be used for large-scale festivals and events. …" A not-so-subtle slam at the dismal Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park.

"Youth arts exhibit space: providing dedicated space with curated exhibitions featuring youth-only art." Anything that welcomes youngsters into culture can benefit them and the arts, as well.

But several of the other initiatives, while well-intentioned and often noble, diminish the credibility of the plan:

"Housing allocation that preserves diversity of income levels in cultural districts." Allocating housing has never been a strong point in Cook County.

"Dedicated revenue for arts and culture by exploring the augmentation of an existing tax or fee." Additional taxes and fees don't seem like big crowd-pleasers right now.

"Low-cost health insurance programs for self-employed artists and creative industry professionals." An indisputably desirable goal, but considering the political warfare now under way over President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, a local version catering to one segment of the population seems doubtful.

"'Chief creative officer' in every school to serve as liaison in facilitating citywide collaborations." Need we say more?

And then there's the language of much of the Cultural Plan, its jargon no doubt a thrill to bureaucrats but a struggle for the rest of us. Some choice examples among the initiatives:

"Arts education plan cross-sectoral implementation task force." Say, what?

"Develop a cultural tourism calendar that schedules peak and shoulder seasons with anchor and supporting cultural events." Whatever.

"'SparkPlug' incentive program for new idea generation within the public sector on behalf of the cultural sector." Right.

"Globally renowned art and creative industry accelerator center in collaboration with universities, the private sector, and the City focused on program development, products and patents, technology applications and implementation models."

Stirring, isn't it?

Granted, the new Cultural Plan does no harm. Its unrealistic ideas will be easily ignored and its better ones, perhaps, picked up for development. The plan asserts that 59 percent of its initiatives have a "launch timeline" of present-18 months; 33 percent at 18 months to five years; 7 percent at five to 10 years; and 2 percent at 10 to 20 years (don't hold your breath). As for costs, the plan posits that 34 percent of the initiatives have an annual operating cost estimate of up to $50,000; 28 percent at $51,000 to $250,000; 21 percent at $251,000 to $1 million; and 17 percent more than $1 million.

So it's entirely possible that some cultural good will come of this.

But after seeing so many Chicagoans turning out to participate, after watching the staffs of DCASE and Lord Cultural Resources pour so much energy into this process, I'd hoped for a Cultural Plan that was a lot more muscular, lean, realistic and focused. It might be in there somewhere. If we're lucky, the city's cultural planners can pull it out.

hreich@tribune.com