If half of the recommendations in the draft of the Chicago Cultural Plan — heck, even 5 percent of the recommendations — were implemented, Chicago would become an artistic nirvana without global peer.
There would be new city grants, microfinancing programs and tax incentives for all artists (part of recommendation 1); new artists in residence employed in every ward and public building (3 and 8); arts installed as a core subject within Chicago Public Schools (4); a new Chief Creative Officer in every school (9); vacant land and buildings donated to arts groups (16); assorted new cultural districts with freshly restored buildings, many of which are massive projects (17); a plethora of newly created matching funds for artists (17); part of the hotel tax going to the arts (22); and even a dedicated new city tax for arts and culture (22, again).
It's good to have a cultural plan — its genesis has been admirably open and we're all talking about it. And it's not hard to make a case for culture in this pluralistic, liberal, arts-loving city. The arts have a diverse array of stakeholders all anxious for their fair shake, so a reasonable person surely can sympathize with what feels like a philosophy of "if somebody brought it up and it sounded good, stick it in the plan." It's the equivalent of creating a long list of wishes for Santa Claus; the smart kid hopes that at least a few of the requests will stick. But there are so many new grants, initiatives, matching funds, incentives and staff positions in the Cultural Plan they all start to blur. Yet there's little money around and the local appetite for more new taxes — even if the Canadians give it up happily for the arts every time they have a beer — is not exactly ravenous.
So let's get real. What could and should actually get done in the near future in Chicago?
For starters, let's spit out some of the harder questions that the plan dodges. Is every self-declared Chicago artist or artistic institution worthy of funding? Well, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera do not hire every auditionee (or even a majority of auditionees). That's why they're world-class institutions. They are meritocracies. A lot of artists who like doing art have more fun doing it than the rest of us would have watching them do it. In other words, there has to be judgment before scarce resources flow, be it from peers, consumers, the marketplace, young populations served, or some combination thereof. The final version of the Cultural Plan should take on that tricky issue, even if it means upsetting some stakeholders by banging out priorities.
And although all aspects of culture and creativity like to say they're part of some beautiful whole, the needs and the social benefits of, say, Lollapalooza or Taste of Chicago are very different from, say, the remarkable Old Town School of Folk Music program that aims to put electric guitars, instead of guns, into the hands of troubled youth. They're so different, really, they need separate plans.
When it comes to the marquee institutions and events that could improve the city's standing with free-spending international tourists (to the city's great economic benefit), what's mostly needed — after ensuring that they're not choked with growth-squelching regulation, have adequate facilities, and that their job-boosting capacity is incentivized — is better and more cohesive marketing. The artistic quality is already there.
Diverse as it may be, Chicago can't be all things to all people. Las Vegas has figured out its cultural brand. Chicago needs to do the same. This week, it was announced that the London production of the musical "Chicago" is closing at the end of the summer, after a 15-year run. It's a great show, but the final bow is good news for Chicago, which does not need yet further definition as the rat-a-tat capital of the world to millions of Europeans.
So what should replace Billy Flynn in our prospects' minds? Authenticity. Realism. The Chicago cultural brand is truth. Whether we are planning new theater festivals, rebuilding Navy Pier (a huge opportunity) or figuring out how to explain our city's culture to outsiders, we should not deviate from that. Look what happened to the Starbucks stock price when the company forgot it was in the coffee business.
Truth is everything in the arts. After being honored by the Sarah Siddons Society on Monday in Chicago, the incomparable singer Barbara Cook had this to say: "The thing that makes you safest on stage is when you have the courage and ability to open your soul. We don't really have the right language for this stuff. But people respond to your being authentic. You need to put your life's blood into what you do. Then people will fall into your arms."
Exactly right. And it doesn't matter if you're a chef or a
Chicago understands this better than any other city in the world. Authenticity fits all the city does, culturally speaking: the gritty artistry of the blues, the unpretentious but artful dance, the industrial magic of its leading restaurants, the frill-averse architecture, the in-your-face theater. We should run commercials with the slogan "Chicago: The Authentic American city." Imagine a TV spot featuring some Brit going to Vegas and thinking he was getting some authentic experience, only for it to be revealed as pure stage-set razzle-dazzle in the final frame. In Vegas, the house always wins. Or imagine the same commercial targeting archrival Orlando: A Danish woman, craving an American experience, walks down an American street. But wait! It's a Disneyfied fake. The backdrop falls away and the leading character learns to choose Chicago next time, where the arts and culture are real and true.
Any such campaign would offer a guaranteed return on investment. Without growing and nurturing the culture audience — be it internationals, city-dwellers or suburbanites — restoring the Uptown Theatre, or creating a new South Shore cultural district, or building a permanent spot for festivals, won't be worth the cost.
And then, separately, the city should focus on harnessing the arts to solve its most pressing problem, which is the violence on its streets. The plan needs to improve access to the institutions that already have infrastructure and a plan to do the work on this problem. We just need to get more at-risk kids in to see the work. Simultaneously, a big investment should be made in getting the arts into the city's schools and troubled spots, not because the work is necessarily anything that general audiences will want to see, but because creating art is a proven way to raise self-esteem, build community, understand yourself and get moving in life. Everything else can wait.
Twitter @ChrisJonestribCopyright © 2015, RedEye