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Elysabeth Alfano Headshot

The Chicago Cultural Plan Takes Chicago Global

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I have been waiting since 1986 for this moment and it is finally here. The draft of the new Chicago Cultural Plan is out, driven by the vision of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the dynamic energy of Cultural Commissioner Michelle Boone and the input of thousands and thousands of Chicagoans. The Plan is out and they nailed it!

In 1986, at 19-years-old, one year before the previous Cultural Plan gave us such wonderful additions as the Navy Pier cultural hub and the Randolph Street Theater District, I moved to Paris. I was already fluent in French and assimilated easily into French life. I was an art history student at the Sorbonne, and my language skills allowed me to work in a French firm which consulted businessmen across cultural barriers. I was also a freelance journalist and wrote my first piece for L'Etudiant on cross-cultural communication in 1987.

Being fluent in French got me invited to many dinner parties in Paris. (Fast forward to 2012 when I launch my own show, Fear No ART Chicago presents The Dinner Party!) After a few glasses of wine, at every dinner party - - to my shock - - it was always the same:

"Where are you from?" someone would eventually ask.

"Chicago," I would say, grinning, ready to dowse them with its list of wonders: our architecture, our music, our park system to name a few. Yet, before I could, they always said the same thing.

"Al Capone! Bang! Bang!" making a gun with their hand AND pointing their gun-hand in my face to represent my city.

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Photo credit: Robert Carl

Then and there, in 1986, I made a commitment to myself to educate anyone and everyone I came into contact with while in Europe about the cultural milestones of Chicago. I stayed in France for several years, later working in the marketing department of IBM's International Headquarters for the Middle East, Africa and Europe. My bosses were Spanish, Italian, and German. I traveled often to these countries, eventually living in Italy, studying art history and Italian. After Italy, I briefly lived in Germany.

In every major city and at every dinner party, it was the same, "Al Capone, bang, bang!" I became versed at talking about the influence Chicago's architectural New Bauhaus school, how the Art Institute has the second largest Impressionist painting collection outside of Paris and that we corner the market on the soulful blues. I was a one-person Chicago tourism center roaming Western Europe taking on an unfortunate stereotype one person at a time. If someone dared imitate Al Capone, I was ready!

Outside of the States you can put me in any major hub and I am happy; but, if I live in the States, I live in Chicago. I returned to Chicago in 1990. In my continued determination to spread the news of Chicago as an economic and cultural city to be reckoned with, I called the president of the International Herald Tribune and, in a bizarre twist of fate, got him on the phone. I told him that the IHT was missing a big market by not having its paper in Chicago. He laughed at me. I couldn't believe it -- in my own country! -- people didn't recognize Chicago's value. I told him I could prove it to him and he hired me as a consultant to outline the factors that would make having the IHT in Chicago a viable option.

Two months later, I delivered stats on the traffic through O'Hare, the number of international banking and advertizing headquarters, and the strength and numbers of our immigrant populations, along with the cultural draw of our music, theater, architecture and museums. The president decided to follow parts of the plan and for a period of time put the IHT in Chicago. I was beginning to feel that my personal mission was having some success. I was getting the word out. In addition, over the years, Chicago was growing beautifully. Mayor Daley was investing in the parks and a public art program was alive and well. Theater was thriving and chefs were starting to make true international ground in this critical arena. Things were looking up!

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Photo credit: Robert Carl

Then I went to graduate school at Thunderbird/International Graduate School of International Management in International Marketing, and I was back to square one. Brilliant, smart, world travelers were still thinking of Chicago as fly-over land and making mobster jokes. I decided I couldn't just talk about how great Chicago is, I had to show it. I was more determined than ever. I made it my duty to invite anyone and everyone to visit Chicago with me as their personal cultural guide.

Since graduate school, I have started three international arts businesses in Chicago: an art gallery featuring European artists, a textile design company focusing on Latin American craftswomen, and a media company promoting Chicago as an international arts destination. Over the years, I have had hundreds of guests in Chicago. Whether they are international friends visiting for the first time, international artists visiting for work or international journalists covering NATO, for the past 15 years, each and every one of them that used to mutter "bang, bang" now describes Chicago as "the jewel" of the U.S., and most promise to come back with their kids. This is all good news. However, taking on one 1920s gangster impersonator at a time isn't the most efficient.

This is why I was downright jubilant when I read the draft of the new Cultural Plan. Now, just when Chicago is primed to take the international stage as a cultural destination with accolades such as having the most regional Tony Awards, jaw-dropping Millennium Park, the largest free dance festival in North America, a revitalized fashion sector, and a major music hub, Mayor Emanuel and Commissioner Boone unveil the draft of The Cultural Plan with a slam dunk of the missing piece of the puzzle!

To be sure, the Plan is far reaching and will be instrumental in building tourism and community through culture. It addresses critical issues like bringing arts education back into the schools, attracting and retaining artists and arts professionals, and fostering art and culture in neighborhoods, in addition to downtown.

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Crowds waiting to attend the 2010 Chicago Dancing Festival in Millennium Park.

Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

It also proposes what I have been waiting for since 1986. On Page 50, Recommendation 27 states: Establish and market Chicago as a cultural destination with extensive global reach. Initiative C for the above is to develop a "comprehensive branding strategy at local, national and international levels." Finally, through the incredible Cultural Plan, an over-arching marketing plan initiative is proposed which, if put into effect, will communicate locally, nationally and internationally the strengths of Chicago through branding it as a vast arts destination: a city of innovation, a city of sophisticated and groundbreaking culture. The city that creates will now be known for more than stuffed pizza and we might actually see a diminishing interest in Al Capone. Hallelujah, happy days are here!

I couldn't be more excited and will continue to write about the progress and developments of the Plan as it continues to get national attention. As an example, Howard Reich in his July 18th Chicago Tribune article noted that NEA chairman Rocco Landesman said, "It is an amazing document." Stay tuned!

In the interim, if you want a sense of Chicago's diverse and far-reaching cultural wealth, if you want to talk for hours about the innovation taking place here, or if you want to taste, dance and listen your way through the city, tune into my show, Fear No ART Chicago presents The Dinner Party, or just stop me on the streets of Chicago and say "bang, bang." I dare you.