A couple of weeks ago, I spent two days in America’s “Windy City” gathering information on the local arts scene and the corresponding policies that keep Toronto’s sister metropolis a thriving international cultural capital.
Chicago’s cultural politics have been on public display as of late, as journalists and members of the creative sector continue to criticize outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley’s bold move to make some structural and programmatic changes within cultural departments after 21 years in office. Six months prior to his departure, Daley announced that the Mayor’s Office of Special Events would merge with the Department of Cultural Affairs to make the (big surprise) Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and that several of the city’s free festivals would be outsourced to private companies, potentially compromising their accessibility to Chicagoans and city visitors. As a result of the re-structuring, twenty-nine staff were cut from the former DCA office, though twenty of them were simply re-located to the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture – a city-funded non-profit agency, where they will carry on with the same job profile as before. The staff shuffle was apparently connected to noncompliance with hiring protocols outlined in the Shakman Decree, though the situation seems more complicated than that and even those personally affected seem unable to explain or even speculate on the decision’s full motivation. Lois Weisberg, long-time Culture Commissioner and beloved local culture champion promptly resigned after the decision was made public, having not been consulted by Daley in the process. Nine cultural workers were laid off permanently though no grant programs were lost in the aftermath of the merge. Given Daley’s imminent departure, it’s still unclear as to whether the decision will stick. (Read more on Weisberg’s legacy here).Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel will take office in mid-May and members of the arts community are taking a wait-and-see attitude before fully settling in to the changes already in motion. A former dancer and White House Chief of Staff, Emanuel ran with a strong and positive position on arts and culture. When asked by Time Out Chicago how he would define the importance of arts and culture to the city of Chicago, he replied “The arts help to define who we are, and they make our city an exciting place to work and live while attracting business and tourism. I believe the city government can and must play a role that allows our arts and culture to flourish…” A coalition called Arts Power Chicago played a key role in bringing arts issues to the fore during the recent mayoral election. Much like Arts Vote Toronto, they articulated a set of priorities for the sector and organized an all-candidate arts debate, among other collective actions.
Currently, the City of Chicago invests over $100 million in culture. These funds come only in part from the core Department of Cultural Affairs. Additional monies are leveraged through other departments, including the former Mayor’s office of Special Events, the Parks District (which supports museums), the Chicago Office of Culture and Tourism, and others. In addition to direct public investment, Chicago imposes a “Hotel Operators Occupation Tax Fund”, collecting nearly $14M in 2009, to bolster its culture budget. The city also leverages State and Federal cash through community development programs that funnel money to cities for redistribution. Toronto’s culture budget is currently at $45M, just under half that of Chicago. While this comparison speaks volumes in and of itself, the details of the policy framework are worth a closer look. As I met with arts sector stakeholders, including city staff, service organizations, foundations and corporate donors, I was able to gather some interesting perspective on Chicago’s cultural policy framework and how this system aims to support a thriving, internationally recognized culture scene. Unlike Toronto, very little of Chicago’s local public dollars are invested in the core operations of arts organizations. Operating funds from government sources are acquired primarily and often exclusively through State level investment, whereas local investment is focused in other key areas such as infrastructure and public access through event programming and promotion. According to the newly articulated mandate at the Department of Culture and Special Events, they are responsible for ‘”promoting an ongoing celebration of the arts, supporting the people who create and sustain them, and marketing the city’s abundant cultural resources to a worldwide audience”. The City of Chicago realizes this mandate by funding, programming and promoting thousands of free festivals, exhibitions, performances and holiday celebrations – presented at venues such as Millennium Park, Grant Park, the Chicago Cultural Centre and others (many of which are city-owned) – making the city itself the largest producer of cultural activity in Chicago. Under the joint leadership of Daley and Weisberg, Chicago’s cultural identity developed and thrived through their sixteen year partnership, though for better or for worse, much of this evolution is undeniably connected to their shared vision, interests and ambitions. They were known to act on their interests, at times bringing home creative ideas from other cities they’d visit in the course of their international sojourns, finding ways to make them their own – such as the famous artist-decorated cow sculptures – an idea originated by artist Walter Knapp in Zurich, Switzerland – which Toronto also later mimicked in the form of moose.
The Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture (COTC) is also an important organization in the mix. It is a non-profit agency at arms length to the government that functions as THE major promotional vehicle for Chicago’s arts and culture scene at home and abroad. With a budget of $14M and 120 employees, it is funded by both city and state, as well as through private sector giving. It touts Chicago as a “premier cultural destination to domestic and international leisure travelers, providing innovative visitor programs and services, and presenting free world-class public programs”. Beyond its role as a culture cheerleader, COTC also programs events at city-owned cultural facilities like the Chicago Cultural Centre, Millennium Park and the Storefront Theater, among others. It also provides direct grants and other resources to individual local artists including the Chicago Artist Resource and the Creative Chicago Expo – two initiatives that were born out of the Chicago Artist Survey conducted in 2000. A similar survey was conducted in 2010 called the Chicago Creative Survey. These surveys help COTC periodically take the pulse of the sector and determine what it can do to better support Chicago’s creative workforce. In the last 10 years, Chicago has given focus to three emerging creative industries – the culinary, fashion and literary sectors – designing new programs of support to help nurture these burgeoning cultural scenes. The collaborative spirit within city government and the cultural sector seems to be a key factor in spurring development on all fronts, including the new and the emerging.Because the city is driving so much of the programming and production of culture, it also plays a significant role in cultivating private sector partners – acting as a major fundraiser. Together, Daley and Weisberg developed powerful relationships with key corporate businesses in the city, to ensure cooperation and a shared vision to build and celebrate the cultural assets of the city – attracting tourism, investment and talent. Their personal networks of civic leaders ran deep and in Chicago, a company’s relationship with the Mayor and the city are really important. One of my very first meetings there was with Angel Ysaguirre, the Director of Global Community Investing at Boeing – a company interested in arts and culture (as well as civic issues, environment, early learning, health and human services) as part of its mandate to be a good global corporate citizen. In this portfolio, Boeing positions itself as a partner interested in supporting participation and innovation, including “performances and exhibitions that introduce new voices and perspectives to our community; collaborative efforts developed to create a more sustainable arts and cultural environment; and programs that engage people to become lifelong arts and cultural participants, patrons or practitioners.”
Its Chicago office houses about 450 employees who are deeply engaged in the company’s local charitable mandate. Boeing contributes to the arts through business sponsorships, cash grants, in-kind support, as well as through their employee volunteering initiatives and Employee Contribution Program, where employees direct regular paycheque deductions to causes of their choosing. Their charitable focus on innovation means that, in addition to supporting large organizations and events through sponsorships, they also support small and mid-scale arts organizations through their granting programs. Angel explained to me that they see an inverse relationship between organizational size and innovation, with the largest organizations acting as anchors with established reputations that attract tourism to the city, and smaller organizations as innovative risk-takers that not only play a role in enriching the local cultural scene, but also tend to be more mobile, frequently exporting Chicago’s cultural products and reputation internationally.
Besides corporate partners, Chicago also has several arts-interested foundations, including one of the nation’s largest foundations, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. With an asset base of $5.6 billion, MacArthur operates throughout the US and in 50 countries internationally, though their cultural programs have a local focus in Chicago. They distribute $8M annually to the local arts and culture sector, 75-80% of it in the form of operating grants to 200+ organizations. Because of the relatively low levels of local public dollars supporting operations, MacArthur prioritizes this kind of investment in the arts through their giving strategy, reaching organizations of all kinds and budget sizes. In order to lessen overhead costs, it partners with other foundations to deliver funds. For large institutions (budgets of $2M+), it grants directly, for mid-sized organizations ($500K – $2M), grants are managed through a partnership with Prince Charitable Trusts of Chicago and for small-scale organizations ($500K and under) the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation redistributes MacArthur’s investment as well as provides assistance to applicants. Grants are commensurate with budget size and range from $2,000 to $100,000. In addition to providing operating support, MacArthur also engages in several special initiatives that strategically address key issues identified in the sector. Their ability to proactively initiate and lead such projects is significant to the local sector. As Program Officer for Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives, Deepa Gupta explained that special initiatives are meant to address issues pertinent to the arts ecosystem – projects “that could make a marked difference in the health of the sector”. These efforts leverage public and private dollars as well as galvanize the energy and will of the sector and important partners around key projects and initiatives. Currently they are involved in a national cultural data collection project, a local space rental subsidy program for small and mid-sized organizations, and a capacity building program for minority organizations, among others. They’ve also recently initiated a $1M Working Capital Loan Fund for existing clients of the Foundation to assist with recession-related financial challenges, as well as a $1M International Connections Fund to support the international distribution of local Chicago art and artists.
Another notable foundation is the Chicago Community Trust – a nearly century-old organization that was formed as “an innovative way for concerned citizens to put charitable dollars to work for the benefit of metropolitan Chicago.” The Chicago Community Trust grants over $100 million per year, strategically directed to supporting Arts and Culture, Basic Human Needs, Community Development, Education and Health. The Trust is a convener of non-profits, local governments and businesses, leveraging “knowledge, creativity and resources for a greater impact”. In the Arts and Culture division, current priorities include artistic and cultural diversity as well as organizational development through their Art Works Fund – a funding initiative directed specifically at helping strengthen the management and operations of small arts and cultural organizations. The Trust also partners in research initiatives and in 2009 worked with Arts Alliance Illinois to develop The Arts and Culture Report to support the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional planning effort led by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). The report articulates a vision for Chicago’s arts and culture sector along with a series of 23 recommendations for action. It’s well worth reading all 57 pages.
At The Trust, I had the good fortune of meeting with Cheryl Hughes, who is a former employee of 17 years at the Mayor’s office of Special Events, as well as a member of incoming Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s transition team on arts and culture. She is also the author of a shiny new graduate thesis that analyses the structure and policies of municipal arts agencies in America’s top 60 cities – measuring them against Florida’s Creativity Index. Needless to say, I could have spent all day in her office and emerged fully educated on Chicago’s cultural policies and how they fare relative to other cities all over the US. With the hour I had, she shared with me her recent graduate work, which I have discovered is a goldmine of great information about how cities can enhance their role and status as creative capitals. Her research findings conclude that there are four significant indicators that affect a city’s ranking on Florida’s Creativity Index. They are: 1) the presence of a local government funded culture department or agency, 2) the scope of programs and services provided by such agencies, 3) the presence of a public art program; and 4) city-driven cultural planning efforts.
Using Hughes’ indicators, Chicago fares very well and at first glance, Toronto also seems to perform strongly in all four areas. Though, I would add a caveat that while Toronto has a cultural planning process in place, it is currently not integrated into the plans and priorities of other relevant city departments, and has to fight for implementation dollars amid a host of other spending considerations. Chicago’s GO TO 40 regional plan is a noteworthy example of how a city can effectively integrate planning processes across departments, though it’s worth mentioning that this was developed in a context where there was 16 years of continuity within city administration.
After my return to Toronto, I contacted Julie Burros, Chicago’s Urban Planner responsible for culture, to find out more about her role and how she works with city government and the local arts community. Together with a small staff team, she acts as a high level advisor and advocate for cultural development inside wider city planning processes. She collaborates closely with other government branches such as zoning, transit, business development, housing and others to inspire and implement cultural development projects. She shepherds projects like the development of cultural districts, the designation of city-owned land or property for arts uses, capital projects for cultural infrastructure development and renewal, and the development of artist live/work spaces. Sometimes these projects are led and managed by the city, though often they’re led by arts organizations in the community. When cultural development projects are in motion, she and her team are important intermediaries between cultural organizations and the city. They navigate a complicated bureaucracy in order to help artists and arts organizations leverage the city’s programs, assets, policies and resources for cultural development of all kinds. At times, cultural planning specialists are like pro bono consultants to the arts community – especially small and mid-sized companies – ensuring they have the necessary permits, are accessing available funds, and connecting with relevant departments in the process of realizing a project. Having cultural specialists embedded at a high level of city planning is an intelligent organizational design that ensures arts development opportunities are fully integrated into big picture city planning agendas.As the Toronto Creative Capital Initiative assembles its recommendations on how the city can become a world-class cultural centre, it’s worth remembering that it is our artists and arts organizations that are the heart of the creative city. They are the ambassadors and front line public service deliverers of Toronto’s cultural goods and their ability to live and work sustainably in Toronto relative to elsewhere is an important gauge when measuring the current and future potential of our city as a creative capital. Unlike Chicago’s more bureaucratically controlled system, Toronto’s system of support is based on the premise that public investment is best spent directly supporting artists and organizations working on the ground in neighbourhoods and communities, making Toronto the vibrant cultural Mecca that it is. However, insufficient public investment that hasn’t kept pace with the exciting growth in the industry has, over time, reduced the capacity of the sector to deliver on the city’s goals and aspirations to attract and retain talent, incent economic development and build international profile. So quite simply, if the city wants to improve its global rank and status as a premiere place to live, work, and invest, it should first and foremost equip the cultural sector to deliver by increasing its investment now and in future, ensuring we don’t fall behind our competitors as we have. Important private sector relationships must also be further developed, providing complementary systems of support and promotion at all levels of infrastructure. Beyond direct investment, the city can more proactively promote its cultural assets, working together with service organizations and other agencies like Tourism Toronto to raise the profile of Toronto culture at home and abroad. Encouraging cultural exchange throughout the city region as well as nationally and internationally is an essential part of establishing Toronto as a premiere creative centre. Mayor Ford and other civic leaders should be at the forefront of these efforts. Furthermore, the city could take a greater role in coordinating efforts around bigger sector-wide goals like arts education, the development of cultural districts, affordable artist housing, and cultural infrastructure repair and development. This can be achieved through the integration of culture into higher-level city-planning processes across departments and by strengthening relationships wit the private sector. As urban planners, architects, designers, promoters, politicians and civic leaders gather to set city-building agendas, culture should be an important item on that agenda – ensuring that as we build and maintain roads, parks, sewers and bridges, we also plan and maintain our cultural facilities, treasure our heritage, provide affordable live/work space for our artists, map our arts districts and promote our cultural scenes.
Like it’s sister city of Chicago, Toronto is already a vibrant cultural centre that we can all be proud of. Now more than ever, city leaders within government, private and non-profit sectors must recognize and leverage the potential of the cultural sector to improve Toronto’s position among the ranks of world-class cities – as a true leader in today’s creative economy. Lessons can be learned from other leading global cities, though many solutions will also be homegrown. Great cities lead the way forward, and Toronto has all the talent and potential to set the bar high.