It has been an honor to be a part of the creation of a new cultural plan for the City of Chicago. I have enjoyed going to town hall meetings and hearing what all kinds of people are thinking about the plan and about the future of our city. We will all have a role in the arts playing an important and significant role in the future of Chicago.
I have been asked to blog about the priority of the plan that calls for us to “Optimize City Policies and Regulation so Creative Initiatives Thrive.” Can’t say no to that! Recommendation 21 calls for us to “Develop the resources, systems, and coordination across city department that reflect a pro-culture government.” Recommendation 23 calls for us to “Streamline city processes to simplify achievement of cultural initiatives.” I think these two are so similar that they should probably be combined. I would argue that many of the initiatives under these recommendations could be achieved if the entire culture of City government were transformed so as to be streamlined and service oriented. This cuts across all business lines and I imagine would be most welcomed by all. In fact, I don’t believe that any of these initiatives CAN be accomplished without changing the culture of City government. It is difficult in the extreme to obtain complete and accurate instructions for any kind of permitting or licensing and, while I have certainly met City employees (especially DCASE staffers) who are kind and helpful (the tow truck driver who had to tow me off Lake Shore Drive when my car broke down, I will never forget that guy), let’s face it…many of them are not. It doesn’t show up in the initiatives but I would love to see a DCASE staffer (or maybe more than one) charged with assisting arts organizations in navigating through other City departments.
Another of the initiatives in this area calls for Aldermanic arts initiatives and dedicated funding for that. Aldermen can be extremely helpful in many ways already. I know that many neighborhoods and wards are not adequately served by arts organizations and I think this would be a wonderful way to connect arts groups with neighborhoods and to strengthen arts groups that already serve neighborhoods. Aldermen are given so-called menu money for infrastructure improvement in their wards – this money is currently not allowed to be allocated to the arts. If a portion of that money (more than $1 million for each ward) was dedicated to the arts that would be transformative for neighborhoods and for arts organizations.
Recommendation 22, Develop New Revenue Streams for Culture. Fantastic! Included in the initiatives are percent for art ordinances, real estate development incentives towards cultural contribution and augmentation of hotel occupancy taxes and dedicated tax for arts and culture. All good ideas and should be done right away. But I would also say here that direct grants for general operating support are the best way for the City to show support for arts and culture in Chicago. It is the best way for organizations to grow and to innovate. It shows that the City is willing to put its dollars where its ideals are. Bringing more money into cultural organizations is the best way to achieve many of the goals of the plan. These are difficult times and that is understood by all, but if Chicago truly wants to enhance its cultural assets, that is the way. I don’t think the plan says it directly anywhere (it does for artists but not for organizations).
I know I talk a lot about money here but there is some truly astonishing art happening in this City within organizations that are constantly on the brink of financial ruin. This leads companies to shrink, to not take chances and eventually, in some cases to stop, because they just can’t make it work. That is a shame. I believe that the tax dollar investment in these companies and these artists pays us back in an infinite number of ways.
The priorities of the plan are excellent. I think the results of the process are well worth the effort that everyone has put into it. I strongly urge everyone to read it. So many of the priorities, recommendations and initiatives dovetail into each other it would seem that there is tremendous incentive to move forward. The cost of the recommendations of the plan seem like a small investment in something that already makes our City great and can only enhance other efforts underway such as job creation, infrastructure improvement and making Chicago a global destination.