Imagine the Possibilities: What Marty Walsh Can Learn from Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel

Mayor-Elect Marty Walsh called for a Boston “arts renaissance” during the Create the Vote coalition’s Oct. 18 public meeting on the arts. He could learn a lot by following the blueprint set by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

In October, Mayor Emmanuel and Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) Commissioner Michelle T. Boone marked the one-year anniversary of the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012, which Emmanuel has described as a sweeping strategy “to elevate the city as a global destination for creativity, innovation and excellence in the arts.” As the birthplace of blues music, improv comedy and slam poetry, the city has a reputation to live up to, and Emmanuel is keenly aware of that.

Emmanuel and his DCASE chief marked the one-year anniversary of Chicago’s cultural plan with an announcement that roughly half of the 241 initiatives in the detailed plan have already been addressed or implemented. Among the many achievements:

  • 60 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have completed Creative Schools Certification, which categorizes schools based on how well they meet the goals and priorities outlined in the CPS Arts Education Plan—an initiative to systematically improve, expand, and strategically coordinate arts education for all CPS students. The certification provides opportunities for additional resources to help schools address gaps in arts learning, build more robust arts programs, and ensure that every CPS student can access quality arts education.
  • Re-launching the online Cultural Grants Program, which awarded 200 grants totaling $1.2 million.
  • The inaugural Chicago Theatre week, which sold 6,200 tickets to 300 performances.

On top of that, the Metropolitan Planning Council, a local development non-profit, is honoring the Chicago Cultural Plan with the Burnham Award for Excellence in Planning, an annual award that recognizes visionary planning efforts with demonstrated results in the Chicago metro region.

The Chicago Cultural Plan is indeed visionary, laying out these 10 commonsense and affordable initiatives to strengthen the city’s creative sector and ensure that art and cultural events are accessible to all.

  1. Reinvigorating arts education and creating new opportunities for lifelong learning.
  2. Attracting and retaining artists and creative professionals.
  3. Elevating and expanding neighborhood cultural assets.
  4. Facilitating neighborhood planning of cultural activity.
  5. Optimizing city policies and regulation that impact the arts and creative industries.
  6. Strengthening capacity within the cultural sector.
  7. Promoting culture’s value on Chicago’s economy and our way of life.
  8. Strengthening Chicago as a global cultural destination.
  9. Developing and sustaining innovation in culture.
  10. Integrating culture into daily life—across public, nonprofit and private sectors.

Chicago’s original cultural plan was developed in 1986 under Mayor Harold Washington and resulted in the creation of the Loop Theatre District, a major tourist destination and economic booster. The plan was novel at the time for a US city and dozens of other major cities followed Chicago’s lead and undertook the development of their own cultural plans. But the plan languished in later years; under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, DCASE was dramatically understaffed and ineffective. Emmanuel campaigned on pledges to renew DCASE’s mission and re-invest resources for its functioning, and to create a new cultural plan that emphasized all city neighborhoods rather than just downtown, which has long been the hub of the city’s cultural scene.

Shortly after taking office in 2011, Emmanuel directed DCASE to revisit the original Chicago Cultural Plan and assess its current relevancy. DCASE then set about drafting a plan that would reflect input from every corner of the city and broad public engagement. Beginning in February 2012, the city heard from thousands of residents, civic and business leaders, artists, philanthropists, and educators through eight town hall meetings, 20 neighborhood conversations, and 50 other cultural conversations and planning meetings. There was also a strong social media campaign which solicited ideas from more than 35,000 people. The citywide conversations resulted in the plan’s more than 200 initiatives.

The entire plan is laid out and summed up in this amazing infographic, which is itself award-worthy in our opinion. Creating—and selling—an effective, innovative, affordable cultural plan isn’t rocket science. With political support from Mayor-Elect Walsh, Boston can experience the same cultural re-birth Chicago is currently enjoying.

You can hear for yourself about what’s happening in Chicago on Nov. 18 at the Institute of Contemporary Art when Maria Rosario Jackson, Chicago’s Urban Planning and Cultural Policy Specialist, and Julie Burros, Chicago’s Director of Cultural Planning for the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs will talk about their work in the Windy City at a one-day seminar sponsored by The Barr Foundation, Technical Development Corporation, and the Institute for Contemporary Art. The event is free but please register for tickets by Nov. 11. The panel will take place from 1:30-3pm. 

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