Chicagoans respond to draft Chicago Cultural Plan

Orit Sarfaty

Orit Sarfaty, project manager at Lord Cultural Resources, goes over the Chicago Cultural Plan at Malcolm X College Tuesday. (Armando L. Sanchez, Chicago Tribune / July 25, 2012)

How do Chicagoans feel about the draft Chicago Cultural Plan 2012, which was released July 16?

That's precisely what cultural planners sought to learn when they launched the latest round of Town Hall meetings Tuesday evening at Malcolm X College, on West Van Buren Street.

Though the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) had held more than 30 public meetings earlier this year to gather input for the Cultural Plan, this time was different. Now a draft version existed, and Chicagoans had had a week to study its 64 pages (plus 38 pages of supplemental material), all of which had been posted online at

It will be awhile until the data from this new round of Town Hall meetings is tabulated, released and incorporated into the final version of the plan, due in fall. But some general trends were apparent from the first round of polling conducted Monday evening.

Among the 10 priorities spelled out in the draft Cultural Plan, four received "strongly support" votes among arts professionals and everyday Chicagoans who turned out at Malcolm X College:

Reinvigorate arts education for all Chicago and create opportunities for lifelong learning.

Optimize city policies and regulation so creative initiatives thrive.

Integrate culture into civic life – across public, nonprofit and private sectors.

Strengthen capacity of arts providers at critical stages of growth.

At the meeting, which drew about 100 people, visitors were given transponders that they could wear around their necks or hold in their hands. When a particular priority of the draft Cultural Plan appeared on screen, voters could press a button to choose "strongly support," "support," "do not support" or "no opinion."

In this way, DCASE and Lord Cultural Resources (which is collaborating on producing the report) hope to gauge reaction to the document, as well as intensity of feeling.

The evening began with cultural commissioner Michelle Boone citing the draft plan as "a road map for arts and culture in Chicago."

Orit Sarfaty, a senior consultant at Lord Cultural Resources, then opened the discussion and polling process on the draft plan, telling the audience: "We need to know from you: Did we get it right?"

To find out, she began soliciting electronic votes on each of the plan's 10 priorities, then invited participants to break into groups, each to analyze and discuss specific recommendations in the document.

The groups would "go even more granular," she said, asking contributors to "sink your teeth into" the plan's specific proposals.

For the next hour or so, Chicagoans did just that, sounding off among each other on what they liked in the document – and what they didn't.

"Some of this language sounds like business language, not what artists might use," Abra Johnson, a sociology teacher and arts organizer, told her group, which was analyzing the report's first priority: "Attract and retain artists and creative professionals."

"When everything was flashing on the screen, it seemed very vague to me," added Gretchen Kalwinski, a writer. "We need specifics."

As the group dissected the draft plan's recommendations for attracting and retaining artists, they dug into those specifics.

Kalwinski and the others, for instance, ardently supported the plan's recommendation to "create a comprehensive system to accommodate space needs for artists and creative professionals."

"My husband and I are both artists, and we may have to leave Chicago, because it has been so hard to find space to live and work (in) here," Kalwinski told her group. "My friends are leaving every week."

Fo Wilson, an artist and educator, thoroughly agreed.

"I'm very new to Chicago," she said. "When I came here, it was very hard to find space."

But at least one of the plan's suggested sources for arts space, which had been suggested at earlier Town Hall meetings, drew some resistance.

Gwenn-Ael Lynn, a visual artist, objected to the recommendation that said space could be found in "foreclosed properties available for cultural, creative and artistic purposes."

"I have a problem with that," he said. "Someone gets kicked out of their house, and the city would take it over and turn it into a cultural space?"

The groups grappled with these issues, which was exactly the idea.

"Two hours is a little stingy," said Jim DeJong – a Chicago cultural activist who attended all the earlier Town Hall meetings – at the end of the evening.

"But I'm sure it's about accumulation of information. … Basically, I'm impressed with what they've done with the plan."

The final verdict, however, is not yet in.

This newest round of Town Hall meetings will continue with sessions from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr.; 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at St. Augustine College-Essaney Studios, 1345 W. Argyle St.; and 6 to 8 p.m. July 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.

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