City of Chicago Unveils Cultural Plan

Breaking Down City's Proposal to Revamp Arts & Culture Scene

After months – some might say years – of anticipation, the city of Chicago unveiled a draft of its official cultural plan last week. The plan – 64 pages in total, with over a hundred small and large scale ideas to strengthen the city’s arts scene – is the first since Mayor Harold Washington was in office back in 1986.

The list is anchored around a few themes: these include promoting lifelong learning in the arts (i.e. extending opportunities to children and the elderly); making the arts accessible to a wider audience and giving neighborhoods more ownership over cultural offerings; and retaining Chicago’s creative talents against a brain drain that frequently drives artists to cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for work.

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We’ve curated some of the most interesting ideas in this document. Take a look:

  • [1E] Create tax incentives for creative start-ups. The question here: how does the city plan to define a “creative” start-up? Stakes are high in a field in which small margins of profit can make a huge difference for entrepreneurs. 
  • [1G] Offer low-cost health insurance for self-employed artists.
  • [2C] Offer 30-year leases to artists living in cultural districts – an idea that doesn’t sit well with everyone. Gapers Block's Jason Prechtel argues that long-term leases like these will raise property values and, over time, change the intrinsic character of neighborhoods. And despite rhetoric from the city that it will protect income diversity, Prechtel says it’s “hard to imagine that many people of lower-income levels with no creative skillset will be able to live in these new neighborhood magnets for the arts.”
  • [5A] Implement a new arts curriculum for all Chicago Public Schools, with art as a core subject. Also: [9A] Install a CCO – or “chief creative officer” – in every school. As exciting as these ideas sounds, no doubt they’ll be exponentially harder in practice: CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union are still inching towards a contract agreement for the coming school year, and cash-strapped schools across the district are routinely forced to choose between a full-time librarian and a half-time arts teachers. Still, Michelle Boone – commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events – says that arts education was named as “either the #1 or #2 priority” at every single town hall meeting leading up to this draft.
  • [2F] Create incentives to convert “underutilized space” for artists’ use. For a hopeful example of artists reclaiming unused properties, see artist Theaster Gates’ work in the Grand Crossing neighborhood. Here, he’s converted three abandoned properties into cultural spaces for locals – an architecture and design library, a cinema space, and a music listening venue – creating what The Atlantic calls a “minor cultural renaissance” in the neighborhood.

As Chicagoans start to get excited about the ideas on the table, Boone emphasizes that this list is just a “framework of possibilities.” So, what happens now that the framework is public? The city hosts a series of public town halls for feedback and criticism, and unveils the official cultural plan this fall.

Still, questions remain: namely, a perennial elephant in the room called funding.

“We’ll be shaking every tree,” Boone says on how her department will make these ideas a reality. Within the plan are a few ideas: [35D] corporate sponsorship, [22D] raising the hotel occupancy tax, [22E] creating a special arts and culture tax, and [2B] using TIF funds. Also mentioned is [34A] a possible partnership with the controversial Infrastructure Trust, a public-private financing entity with five-member board of business people appointed by the mayor.

In the end, the plan presents both cultural and financial opportunities for the city. Chicago’s creative economy generates more than $2 billion annually, and this agenda is a chance to grow that number dramatically.

“If ever we’re ready for an actual plan for culture, it’s now,” Boone says. “[The goal here is to] position Chicago as the center of the universe in incubating creative talent.”

Michelle Boone joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to discuss the cultural plan in detail.

There are two town hall meetings left this month for members of the public to provide their two cents. Attend one of these, or share your feedback on this website.

Town Hall Meetings:

July 28: 10:00 am - 12:00 pm at St. Augustine College, Essanay Studios, 1345 W. Argyle St.

July 31: 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm at Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.

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