After 25 Years, Chicago Gets to Work on a New Cultural Plan

2012 Chicago Cultural Plan Logo

Chicago is crafting a cultural plan for the first time in 25 years. But what were the results and lessons learned from the city's last cultural plan? How will the recent restructuring of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events affect the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan? And why should people care and participate?

The 1986 Plan: "Could We Get a Cultural Plan Which Would Not End up on the Shelf?"

The last time the City of Chicago crafted a cultural plan was 25 years ago under the administration of Mayor Harold Washington. The planning process included 300 meetings with more than 10,000 people over an 18 month period. It resulted in a 39-page plan with 106 recommendations on everything from facilities, technical assistance, and financial resources to the role of the arts in education, tourism, and parks.

Mayor Washington described the plan as a "tribute to the cultural greatness of Chicago and a pledge to enhance and showcase that greatness for generations to come."

Every corner of the city is literally bursting with artistic activity -- with neighborhood dance troupes and community theater, jazz and blues musicians and symphony orchestras, sculptors, painters, and writers -- all contributing to the great excitement and ethnic diversity that makes Chicago so remarkable.

But culture is a precious resource that requires careful attention. It is an integral part of Chicago's spirit and an underpinning of Chicago's economic well-being. Yet this city has never before developed a long-range, coordinated plan for culture and the arts. Now, thanks to the work of so many dedicated Chicagoans, we have one - Mayor Washington

Michael C. Dorf at 1986 Chicago Cultural Plan Presser

"I had read dozens of [other] cultural plans, dozens and dozens, and they were all the same," Michael Dorf, who directed the 1986 plan, told Arts Alliance Illinois. "They had two press conferences. You'd have a press conference when you announced the plan. Then you'd have the experts go off for three weeks or a month, they'd write the plan. They'd come back, and they'd have a second press conference. And half of those plans ended up on the shelf."

What I wanted to is see if we could get a cultural plan which would not end up on the shelf, but could survive the administration. Survive a political process. [We had] people participate in writing the plan so that when we had our second press conference, we would have the political support available to keep it going - Michael Dorf

Go back in time to the Culture Wars and one of the most vicious, racially-tinged elections in Chicago history with Michael Dorf's full account of the 1986 plan on First-Person, the Arts Alliance Illinois blog.

The Restructuring of the Department of Cultural Affairs

Just a year ago, news and speculation about the merger of the then Department of Cultural Affairs and Office of Special Events dominated discussion about culture in Chicago. The merger, which went into effect January 2011, combined the two agencies into one, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and the fallout included 29 lay-offs and the resignation of long-standing Commissioner Lois Weisberg.

Several of the dismissed Department of Cultural Affairs staff were hired by the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, the mission of which was expanded after the merger to include planning and day-to-day implementation of cultural programs.

In the wake of the Cultural Affairs and Special Events merger and the Office of Tourism and Culture spinoff, the transition team of newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel identified the development of a new cultural plan for Chicago as one of 55 priority initiatives for the first year of his administration.

The mayor's transition plan also called for a comprehensive review of City-organized cultural programming and festivals. Cultural Affairs Commissioner Michelle Boone, with the support of the Civic Consulting Alliance, conducted an audit of the programs, services, and facilities of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events as well as the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture.

According to the audit, in 2010 these two agencies offered 88 programs and 37 services. More than 8 million people attended the agencies' 88 programs, which included close to 2,000 performances. The Taste of Chicago, the Air and Water Show, and the Christmas Tree accounted for half of that attendance. Additionally, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events owns, manages, and programs 10 cultural facilities, including Millennium Park, the Chicago Cultural Center, and Gallery 37.

Informed by the audit, Commissioner Boone announced art, music, theatre, and dance programming, which had shifted to the Office of Tourism and Culture in 2011, would return to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in 2012.

Grant programs, such as CityArts, Neighborhood Arts, and Community Arts Assistance, would also be back at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. CityArts, which awards much-needed general operating grants to arts organizations, was whacked in 2010 when its budget was cut in half to $500,000.

The 2012 Plan: "What's in the Cultural Plan? That's What We Hope to Find out Tonight."

Cultural planning kicked off in Chicago on February 15 with the first of four town hall meetings. Held at Columbia College Chicago, hundreds of local artists, educators, and concerned residents shared their definition of Chicago culture today and their vision for culture in the future.

What's in the Cultural Plan? That's what we hope to find out tonight. We are beginning the process of engaging Chicago residents around the question, What is culture? We hope to get ideas, feedback, and thoughts on how best to position arts and culture in the city - Commissioner Boone

Additional town halls were held at Nicholas Senn High School, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, and the National Museum of Mexican Art. Beginning February 29th and continuing throughout March, the City is also hosting 19 neighborhood cultural conversations. Click here for a complete listing of all the conversations.

In addition to the town halls and neighborhood meetings, the planning process will also include industry and thought leader focus groups held in April.

Informed by public input, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events plans to release a draft of the cultural plan in May. A final plan is expected to be completed by September 2012.

Learn more about the Chicago Cultural Plan at