The Culture Connection

Yellow chairs were scattered haphazardly around the room, illuminated by the setting sun cast against electric pink and blue windows. As visitors funneled in, the available chairs dwindled and the audience took to the worn wooden floor, sitting cross-legged. The crowd reached about forty, all gathered April 24 to speak about their visions for the growth of Chicago’s cultural future at the Bridgeport Co-prosperity sphere.

The audience ranged from zany to utterly nondescript. A woman wearing a short leather jacket and stockings patterned with silhouetted houses sat in front of me, while another wearing a beige trench coat and an unassuming dress sat next to me. The room’s thick white walls were blank with the exception of a single panel, where “Fresh Flesh” was spray-painted in a galactic mix of purples, greens, and copper-speckled white. Ed Marszewski, one of the directors of the Co-Prosperity sphere, donned his thick-framed glasses before launching into the plans for the night.

“This is going to be an informal gathering” he explained. “We are going to come up with actionable plans, we’re going to have constructive and generative thought about the cultural plan of Chicago. So, to do that,  you’ll come up and speak for 5  minutes…”

This year, the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) is working on the “2012 Chicago Cultural Plan,” which proposes to first figure out Chicago’s cultural identity and then shape it moving forward. This plan aims to provoke conversation between local artists, community members and anybody aspiring to add to the discussion of Chicago’s cultural identity. In these conversations, participants are invited to put forward ideas and proposals to further the impact of the Chicago arts community. Its aim is to establish an encompassing plan to ameliorate the problems artists face in Chicago through the collaborative partnerships formed in the private and public sectors.

The night began with Marszewski pointing at people to start the conversation. His finger first fell on a stylish advertising agent dressed in red lipstick and high-piled  hair. She stepped forward and spoke about consulting services for artists wanting to spread their image. Marsewski continued to direct the relaxed procession around the room until he abruptly left unexplained–possibly for a bathroom break? However, the floor had already been cleared for passionate debate about reforming the cultural identity of Chicago, and the intensity of the conversation compelled volunteers to step up.

Some of the brainstorming included a proposal for cultural ambassadors, who would be the link between the neighborhoods and the city. These ambassadors would be artists deeply embedded in their neighborhood who could identify problems artists faced and understand the interests and needs of the neighborhood; people who could represent them forcefully, accurately, and passionately about the decline of art production. Many speakers mentioned different systems and programs in other states and in other countries that worked efficiently and effectively to spur artistic creation by providing struggling artists with resources like living and showcase spaces, and materials for creation.

One of the most striking suggestions of the evening, perhaps because it was the only Powerpoint presentation, was the establishment of a space to be called the New Museum. This venue would address the problem that independent artists face today of securing legal spaces to showcase their artwork. Currently, they hold “illegal” private apartment parties out of necessity, always faced with the pressure from the police to shut them down. The New Museum would centralize independent artists in a legal space and integrate artists scattered across the city to increase visibility for emerging artists.

Marszewski, halfway through the presentation, came to a poignant realization: “You know, I’ve been thinking. Let’s face it–the city isn’t going to meet all of our demands. What we need to do is [take this] into our own hands. We need to connect with artists and change Chicago together.”

These community meetings aren’t just a way to communicate to the City of Chicago artists’ needs; they enable networks to form that enrich conversation between artists and about art in Chicago. Theirs is a diverse union, held together by the passion to create, to explore and to challenge; and for future Chicago cultural growth, it is vital to use that common artistic spirit as a means of reinforcing the weakening bonds of art within the city.