Help wanted: citizen arts consultants 

While the Cultural Center goes conceptual, the city's arts plans crowdsource

Zachary Cahill's "USSA 2012"

Zachary Cahill's "USSA 2012"

Tom Van Eynde

We now know what the plan is for the Chicago Cultural Center's former gift shop, dumped by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events last spring.

Installation art.

The first exhibit there, Zachary Cahill's "USSA 2012: The People's Palace's Gift Shop," opened late last month and will be on view through September 9.

It has a cool neon sign in the window, and another on the open door, encouraging passersby to come on into the dimly lit interior.

Those who did while I was there lingered an average of 20 seconds, about the time it takes to decide that you've seen better installations in your neighbor's garage at Halloween.

Cahill is a lecturer in the visual arts department at the University of Chicago. He also coordinates the U. of C.'s Open Practice Committee, which according to its website "fosters a genuinely experimental, yet conceptually rigorous environmental space in which strategies of production and description are challenged and renewed."

In case that's not helpful, here are a couple of things about Cahill the exhibit makes clear:

He likes bears.

And he sees connections between things. Take this one, for example. Former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev's name means "bear," and bears are also the symbol and title of Chicago's professional football team. Mere coincidence? Or an ominous sign of the state of things in the "USSA"?

The installation includes culturally allusive ursine figurines, a big pile of expiring balloons, and a video screen flashing plaintive messages like Ghost bear can't sleep. It's all slapdash and ambiguous enough to be a takedown of both gift shop consumerism and conceptual art pretensions.

Which somebody decided is more appropriate than offering visitors a chance to buy a made-in-China Chicago T-shirt.

Nobody asked the public about what should go into this prime piece of real estate (the building draws close to a million visitors every year), but in case DCASE is still open to suggestions, here's one: Turn it into a showcase and salesroom for the work of a broad range of Chicago artists. Include crafts and interesting, locally made commercial products and souvenirs. Curate it smartly, change it up frequently, and it'll be an installation worthy of this unique space. It might even earn its keep.

Meanwhile, opinion is again being solicited about the new Chicago Cultural Plan. A draft version of the plan, incubated at the Toronto headquarters of the consulting group in charge, Lord Cultural Resources, was posted Monday morning at chicagoculturalplan2012.com.

The 64-page plan, which comes with a 40-page supplement, issues ten major priorities, 36 broad recommendations, and about 200 initiatives, including the establishment of a large-scale major cultural festival and a "Museum Campus South," anchored by the Museum of Science and Industry and the DuSable Museum of African American History. Funding suggestions include snagging a portion of the money to be spent on the city's infrastructure, "augmentation of hotel occupancy tax," and establishing a "dedicated tax for arts and culture."

"This plan is your plan," says Mayor Emanuel in the document's introduction. Whatever the final version contains will be attributed to the public, whose attendance is encouraged at "ground-truthing" meetings to discuss the plan, currently scheduled for July 24, 25, 28, and 31. (For details and reservations see the website.)

The Cultural Plan has already spawned one offspring. The first district-wide Chicago Public Schools Arts Education Plan, announced in late May, has a goal broad enough to drive a fleet of trucks through: improving, expanding, and coordinating arts education across CPS so that "every CPS student will receive ongoing high quality arts education both in and out of the classroom." Developed by the local nonprofit advocacy and research group Ingenuity Inc., it's expected to debut in October, along with the final version of the Cultural Plan.

Public meetings about the CPS plan are also under way this month (information at cpsartsplan2012.com); the obvious question is whether all the talk will result in anything more than the appearance of validation for the process. At the Cultural Center last week, CPS's director of arts education, Mario Rossero, closed a gathering for staffers from arts organizations by asking those attending to summarize the impact of the meeting in a word. If he was fishing for positive feedback, he got it: "motivator," "comforting," "connected," "long-term," and "amazing" were the words that came up.

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