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Friday, February 17, 2012

The Toronto Chicago Cultural Plan

Posted By on 02.17.12 at 01:19 PM

Two things were obvious at Wednesday night’s jam-packed town hall meeting to gather public input on the city’s new cultural plan. First, the Chicago arts community (more than 300 of whom showed up) is aching for a new version of the 26-year-old plan—one that would have teeth. And second, the consultants are in charge.

That’s the out-of-town consultants, Lord Cultural Resources, a Toronto-based firm with “the world’s largest professional cultural practice.” Since its founding in 1981, LCR has handled 1,900 assignments in 50 countries on six continents. It is the 800-pound gorilla of cultural consulting, and the lead consultant for the new Chicago plan.

Cultural Affairs commissioner Michelle Boone introduced LCR as “a very important partner,” in the effort to “position Chicago as a global destination for the very best in creativity, innovation, and excellence in the arts.” Then the consultants jumped into the driver's seat for a meeting that primarily consisted of a break-out session and a few, quick reports on ideas that emerged.

LCR senior planner Orit Sarfaty told the crowd that the plan will “give voice to culture in Chicago.” It will also “identify top priorities,” and figure out “what keeps Chicago from reaching its potential.” She said they’ll be looking to us for "initiatives," and will also “look worldwide for the best practices.” She mentioned plans in Austin, Texas (which LCR did not do) and Bilbao, Spain (post-Guggenheim) as successful examples.

Which got me thinking about the hazards of out-of-town consultants.

They can be helpful, of course. After you pay them a lot of money to learn a fraction of what you and other locals already know about your situation, they’ll whip up an analysis or recommendation that’ll carry a certain, sexy, extra authority (useful with boards of directors and such)—even when it’s laden with boilerplate and is essentially what you’ve been saying all along. And sometimes there’s a technical expertise involved that you just don’t have.

But town hall meetings are not rocket science. It’s not like no one in Chicago knows how to announce break-out sessions. And Chicago is not a one-note town like Austin or Bilbao. Those global “best practices” might be useful, or might just make us more like everyplace else in the great, big, homogenized global world of creativity, innovation, and excellence.

We should probably be on generic alert, right now.

And no matter how much input they're collecting here, there’s something ludicrous about a Chicago Cultural Plan that’ll be written in Toronto.

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