What's up with the Chicago Cultural Center? 

Big things at the Randolph Street landmark have gone missing

You will no longer find a coffee shop here.

You will no longer find a coffee shop here.

John Picken

Did Mayor Emanuel promise to run a transparent administration?

If so, somebody should tell the folks at the newfangled Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Because something mysterious is under way at the Cultural Center. Things are disappearing. Big things.

Like the coffee shop. It vanished at the end of last year, leaving nothing at the Randolph Street entrance but a drab cluster of furniture and a few posters.

And the Chicago Publishers Gallery, with all its hundreds of locally produced books and periodicals, and cozy twin reading nooks. One day in February, gone.

Last week a liquidation sale sign went up on the door of the no doubt soon-to-be-history Chicago-centric gift shop.

Meanwhile, a suspiciously sprawling exhibit of prints from Poland is marking time on the walls of the three big main-floor galleries. It'll come down later this month.

Nobody who works on the first floor of the People's Palace—neither staff nor volunteers—seems to have any clue as to why their surroundings are evaporating. So I asked DCASE. And here's the explanation they sent last week, via e-mail: "The simple answer is that we are looking to create a new and different space in the Randolph Street lobby area but that there are no definitive plans at this time."

Of course! Perfectly sensible!

They're just emptying out the ground level of the city's central cultural showplace and visitor hub without a single idea about what comes next. Because, you know, sometimes you have to clear away the clutter before inspiration can strike. Maybe with all those coffee sippers and book browsers out of the way, they'll get a good idea. And maybe, if they've heard about the mayor's passion for transparency, they'll tell us about it.

Then we won't have to wonder if they have a plan that they're just not sharing.

And we won't be imagining ridiculous scenarios, like how the People's Palace might make a nice private-party venue for the G8 crowd, followed by a long lease for a big, fancy, too-pricey-for-us restaurant.

Or a convenient holding tank during the sure-to-be-nasty protester vs. police spectacle we're staging in lieu of the Olympics.

I know, that's preposterous. But these are the same folks who just put a Canadian consulting firm in charge of developing a new grass-roots-driven cultural plan for Chicago, the city that invented the grass-roots-driven cultural plan back in 1986.

DCASE pegs the total cost of the new cultural plan at $300,000, and says that $200,000 of it will be covered by a couple of big private donations. The out-of-town consultants, Lord Cultural Resources, will be paid $230,000 for their services, some of which they're subcontracting to a few Chicagoans.

During four town hall meetings last month, the imported experts collected answers to three questions: What does culture mean to Chicagoans? What do Chicagoans envision for the city in 2030? And how do Chicagoans think they can achieve that vision?

If you didn't just fly into town, a lot of what emerged sounded familiar. Chicagoans still want arts education in the schools, more support and visibility for arts in the neighborhoods, and more ways for artists to make a living at their art—just like they did when they wrote those goals into the Chicago Cultural Plan of 1986.

As I blogged on the Bleader, more than 300 people showed up at the meeting I attended at Columbia College on February 15. Two things were clear: the Chicago arts community is aching for a new version of the 26-year-old plan—one with teeth—and the consultants are in charge.

Lord Cultural Resources is 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's the 800-pound gorilla of cultural consulting.

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. 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."

They'll also continue to solicit input from locals. About 20 smaller neighborhood meetings will be held this month; check chicagoculturalplan2012.com for dates and locations. But no matter how much input they're collecting here, there's something ludicrous about a Chicago Cultural Plan that'll be written in Toronto. On the other hand, at least it's a plan. 

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