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Chicagoland's Arts and Culture Brings the Vibrancy -- and Money, Too!

06/12/2015 10:29 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

This article has been co-written with Michelle T. Boone, Commissioner with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Deplaning at Chicago's O'Hare, it's easy to daydream of the world-famous art that awaits: the gleaming, 100-ton stainless steel Cloud Gate, Grant Woods' iconic American Gothic, historic architecture and the homegrown Chicago blues. Suddenly, you encounter a dazzling display of neon tubes and glowing wall panels that grab your attention as you travel in a tunnel between concourses, turning a routine trudge to baggage claim into a joyous cultural encounter. Whether you're visiting Chicago for the first time or returning home, one thing is apparent: this is a city that values its creative sector.

The central role that art plays in Chicago life is one of the many reasons Americans for the Arts, our nation's leading arts advocacy organization, is bringing its 2015 Annual Convention to the city this week, drawing over 1,000 leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. By our estimates, the convention could directly result in nearly $1.3 million in convention-related spending.

Chicago's nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $2.2 billion industry, supporting over 60,000 full-time jobs and contributing $214 million in local and state government revenue. The economic benefit is the tip of the iceberg -- we know that artists and creative businesses anchor communities and power our sense of belonging that is critical to community health and development.

Three years ago, Mayor Emanuel charged the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to take a deep look at the needs of communities and craft a new Chicago Cultural Plan, a framework to guide the city's cultural and economic growth. The Plan focused on reinvigorating arts education, expanding Chicago's creative industries and art businesses, supporting local artists and communities, increasing cultural tourism and using culture to improve the quality of life of everyday Chicagoans.

As a result, DCASE collaborated with Chicago Public Schools and Ingenuity Inc. to develop a first-ever Arts Education Plan, making the arts a core subject in public schools and standing on equal footing with math, science and language arts.

To support Chicago's creative industries and to attract and retain artists in Chicago, DCASE organized the first Lake FX Summit & Expo in 2015, a free conference that offered professional development panels and workshops, music and film showcases and a platform to showcase work of local artisans to more than 10,000 artists and creative professionals.

As a means to bring more quality cultural experiences into its neighborhoods, Chicago launched Make Way for Art: Activating Chicago's Public Plazas, an innovative new approach to transform vacant and underutilized public property. Recently, Chicago was named as one of twelve finalist cities (out of 237 city submissions) in the running to receive up to $1 million as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies' Public Art Challenge. Commissioned artists would develop projects to renew underutilized public malls and plazas within the six neighborhoods.

Cultural tourism also offers great opportunities for growth. Currently, one in three arts attendees live outside of Chicago and spend, on average, two-and-a-half times more per person than local arts attendees ($59.50 versus $24.36). Leveraging Chicago's distinctive cultural assets will continue to be critical for the city to reach its goal of 55 million visitors a year by 2020 -- adding an additional 30,000 tourist-related jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the city.

Today, we look forward to arts and community leaders coming together from across the country to reimagine the importance of the arts as a tool to improve education and economy, and promote healthy, vibrant and equitable communities for us all. A city that radiates so much culture is the ideal backdrop for these discussions.