Local artists react to Chicago’s draft cultural plan

August 3, 2012
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Last month, the city released the anticipated draft of Chicago’s cultural plan, and not all West Side artists and entrepreneurs are impressed.

The 64-page plan offers recommendations, gathered from multiple public meetings and town halls, on how Chicago can become a more recognized and unified cultural city.

The draft calls for more arts education in public schools, turning vacant properties into art spaces, using tax increment financing dollars for artist housing, and creating a second museum campus and a large festival site.

It’s not clear yet where the festival site would be located if approved, but overall, Austin and the West Side are not mentioned in the draft plan as areas where specific projects would take place.

Very little in the plan, however, mentions any specific neighborhoods, said a Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events spokeswoman.

“Neighborhoods are at the heart of the plan, and we didn’t single out any specific communities or neighborhoods in the draft,” spokeswoman Mary May wrote in an e-mail. “This final plan will serve as a road map for all Chicago communities.”

Victor Ochieng, an artist and Austin resident, said he’s upset about the lack of art history and studios in the community.

“Every community you go to in Chicago – North Side, South Side, Pilsen – you see art, and it’s just visible,” Ochieng said. “When you come to the West Side, we don’t have anything. Even Oak Park has an arts district.”

As the plan recommends, Ochieng said he’d like to see more art education in Austin’s schools, but Austin artists should be the teachers.

“We need more art in schools,” he said. “We have a bunch of artists here. It’s been my experience that schools go out of Austin to get artists to come in and do art in schools. We need more artists in Austin coming to the schools.”

One art and culture advocate, Darlene Sandifer, of the Chicago West Community Music Center, said although she hasn’t read the plan yet, it’s a great opportunity to bring more music and other forms of art to the West Side.

She’s also concerned about the lack of art and music in the public schools and said she hopes the plan will “rejuvenate” art activities back into schools.

“In 1979, (the city) took all music out of the Chicago Public School system,” Sandifer said. “Few schools maintained a music program. The majority of students don’t have access to music, particularly on the West Side of Chicago.”

Chicago Public Schools announced earlier this month it’s working in collaboration with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and Ingenuity Inc., which focuses on arts education for children, to develop the district’s first-ever Arts Education Plan to provide quality art education for all public schools.

“For the first time, organizations from across the spectrum of the arts world are coming together to ensure that our students have exposure and access to a quality arts education,” CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said in a press release. “The Arts Education Plan planning process is designed to involve all stakeholders throughout the district to leverage all available resources and ultimately arrive at an actionable plan for offering our students the best possible arts programming.”

To learn more or to provide feedback, visit CPS’ web site dedicated to the art plan.

Asif Wilson, a musician and science teacher at Horatio May Elementary Academy, said the plan’s call for more art education in Chicago’s schools is imperative.

That’s because schools are catalysts for creativity, he said, adding he became passionate about music in third grade.

“That’s where the future citizens of Chicago come from,” he said.

Wilson said some aspects of the draft cultural plan confused him.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel writes in the draft’s foreword that implementing a cultural plan will help turn Chicago into a global city and a destination for culture.

“There’s lots of global vocabulary in some of this when it’s a community plan,” Wilson said.

Ochieng said a community on the West Side, particularly Garfield Park, could be the host of a large-scale festival site.

But he said he’s not sure if that will become reality.

“Nobody is fighting for Austin. Nobody if fighting for the West Side.”

City spokeswoman May said the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events is  making an effort to bring programming to Chicago neighborhoods. For example, she said, the World Music Festival will feature a triple billed performance at Austin Town Hall on Sept. 22, among others.

Malcolm Crawford, co-founder of the Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., said before Austin can be a destination place for large festivals and other cultural attractions, the community needs to establish a business district.

“The reason people come to Chicago is that they know they can go down on Michigan Avenue and feel safe,” he said. “So it’s the same kind of concept. You have to have a business district and area when you go in and out of shops, you eat, you look at the art, some things like that.”

Crawford said the old Brach’s candy factory site off Cicero Avenue at Lake would be a prime spot for a museum or large festival site, but if there’s no business district surrounding the site, then it probably won’t work.

He said visitors won’t have an appreciation of the community if they come to the site for a show or an event and then leave because they feel unsafe or don’t have an area surrounding it to shop and take in the culture.

“You can’t get an appreciation of the community, but if you have a business district, then all of the other things we talk about come into place,” Crawford said.

Crawford said a business district is how a community is formed. He mentioned Chinatown and Greek Town as prime examples of business districts driving the success of a community.

“The size Austin is, it can’t function unless it has a functioning business district,” he said.

Although representatives from the cultural plan held a West Side community meeting in March at the Austin Town Hall Park, Crawford said he’s not impressed with the city’s cultural outreach in Austin.

“We are in dire need more than anybody,” he said.

The city is looking at areas that already have some sort of art or culture established in the community and putting Austin “in the same pot,” he said.

“We have nothing,” Crawford said, adding that “he’s doing all he can” to hold on to the Sankofa Center, one of few cultural destinations in the community.

“I think they should be doing much more … for those who have a heart for art in our community.”

The final plan is expected to roll out in October.

Residents who wish to voice their opinion about the draft plan can post comments and questions here.

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