08/20/2012 11:46 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

A Cynic Sees Some Light on the Cultural Plan

I recently attended a town hall meeting on the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan at the South Shore Cultural Center, and admit I was prepared to be negative. Like many in Chicago, I questioned the choice of paying a Canadian firm to prepare the plan, especially when the mayor abruptly reduced Chicago branch library hours and staff in January citing budget problems.

As someone who volunteers weekly to help provide what the Plan calls "lifelong learning in the arts," I've seen the role Chicago's branch libraries and librarians play in the neighborhoods they serve. Another part of the Plan's priorities is to "honor authentic Chicago culture" along with "a focus on Neighborhoods." As one of the few consistent city services in nearly all of Chicago's neighborhoods, libraries and librarians don't stop at providing books (although the shuttering of many bookstores has made this service even more important); they also offer many Chicagoans free and convenient Internet access (roughly 40 percent didn't have Internet at home in 2007), and they provide a safe and cool place for community meetings, arts programming and for children and teens during this summer of record breaking heat.

At the Town Hall presentation, the 10 priorities of the Plan were introduced, grouped under four categories: People, Places, Policies and Planning Culturally. The diverse audience rated each priority, using instant voting recorders, America's Got Talent style. This will presumably give the Plan designers the opportunity to provide statistics about citizen participation and to make some guesses as to support for each of the plan's priorities. It would be great to see the city use this technique before approving TIF districts, which all too often are essentially done behind closed doors and usually seem to favor the well connected. The Plan does include using TIF funds towards affordable artist housing and live/work spaces but forgive me some mild cynicism about this becoming a reality.

The audience then divided into small groups focused on one of the four categories. Each group's facilitator reviewed the Plan's specific recommendations with participants as to their understandability, how well they addressed the priority, and what could be immediately implemented. This was the moment when my skepticism turned to admiration. I joined the "reinvigorate arts education for all" session. Both the facilitators and the group participants were completely engaged and deeply knowledgeable. They were also willing to challenge some assumptions about process that clearly came from the more corporate side of City Hall. A "Chief Creative Officer" in every school; a "Mayor appointed commission to drive funding for citywide arts education," and a "Mayor's Corporate Arts Citizen Award for support of arts education" were among the initiatives challenged by participants as too top down and potentially exclusive. Participants who have witnessed corporate, federal, state and city funding for the arts dry up without warning were understandably wary of initiatives that rely too heavily on the belief that corporations will always be good partners for the arts.

Most of the participants in my circle were young and, contrary to some of the assertions made in the press about Chicago public school teachers lately, willing to work after hours for no pay to see progress. They included several CPS teachers, as well as teaching artists from theater, dance and music and park district employees who work with teens. (I'm a former classroom teacher and have created professional development programs in using the arts in schools and across the curriculum for artists and educators for over thirty years including at Urban Gateways and Art Resources in Teaching, two of the city's oldest and most respected arts education agencies.)

Now that the mayor and the Chicago Teacher's Union have come to an agreement about infusing the school day with arts and physical education (which by the way can easily and effectively be taught using music, dance, and folk culture), I hope that arts education really will become a regular part of every school in Chicago, as described in the Cultural Plan.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy issued a report last year which noted that the majority of national funding in the arts goes to organizations with budgets larger than $5 million and only 10 percent of funding goes to organizations that explicitly provide programming to underserved and minority populations. Several of Chicago's funders have signed NCRP's "Philanthropy's Promise" Pledge to donate at least half of their grant dollars to underserved and minority communities. An "immediate step " by Commissioner Boone and the Mayor could be to call on other funders to sign the Pledge and to support the Chicago Plan.

To be sure, Michelle Boone and Lord Cultural Resources have defied the expectations of many of us by actually opening the Plan up for discussion and input. Now we hope to see Commissioner Boone, Mayor Emmanuel and the City Council extend the process into reality by involving the hundreds of citizens who have shown they are ready, willing and able to make the plan a reality and by making sure that resources in the arts truly are shared with all.