Thursday, March 19, 2009

Loose thoughts on the cultural planning process(es)

I do remember that I promised to share my thoughts on cultural planning with you! Yes, yes: I have been thinking about it quite a lot, trying to come up with the best way to encapsulate a number of conflicting and tumultuous thoughts. And let me also tell you, studying cultural policy formally doesn’t make forming those opinions any easier. Quite the opposite, it often seems to complicate things – not a bad thing in itself, but certainly not welcome when one hopes for a well-rounded, concise answer.

In any case, Gary and I will be participating in the next gathering of the Milwaukee Creative Coalition that is taking place at the Italian Community Center the upcoming Wednesday and I do hope that my rather skeptical views of the whole process will change after that meeting. As long as we can really get involved and the process can indeed become more collective, perhaps my outlook will brighten up. I surely hope so.

Not without caution I want to say that so far I have felt very doubtful about the entire process initiated here, chiefly because I don’t believe that a top-down planning approach can generate a kind of popular mandate that is necessary to keep whatever plan is conceived of alive for an extended period of time. I admit I do share Peter Goldberg’s concern of an expensive, slick report that will be collecting dust on some bureaucrat’s shelf for the next 10 or 20 years.

However, what worries me even more about the process is its emphasis on the notion of “creative economy.” Mary Louise Schumacher mentioned this when she criticized what appears to be a blind adherence to Richard Florida’s discourse on her blog. I am worried primarily because I absolutely do not want economy and culture to become synonymous. Obviously, it would be both na├»ve and irresponsible to deny the connections between the two. We, artists, do have to eat and in the ideal world, we would rather not have day jobs, I assure you. However, the use of the two distinct concepts as practically interchangeable is highly dangerous. It can easily obscure and confound what our priorities should be.

If Milwaukee needs any kind of plan, it needs a cultural plan. If we’re lucky, creative economy that so many seem to stake our future on (a whole separate debate) might arise from our culture, but there is no way it is going to happen the other way around. Consider this a chicken and an egg problem, but let me assure you: I am strongly convinced that in the case of culture/creative economy dilemma, it is very clear to me what is comes first and what – second. You can’t institute culture through the top-down approach; however, you can certainly help nourish it through sensible and sensitive policies.

When Rex Winsome commented on my previous blog post, he expressed doubt about possibility of grass-root organizing on the city-scale. However, as Chicago’s example clearly shows, with enough stamina and determination, it can be done. Chicago Cultural Plan (dating back to 1985) was created through a long (yes, very long) process of micro-scale meetings. As Michael Dorf, director of the Plan poetically described:

We met in church basements in West Town and bank boardrooms in Albany Park. In union halls in South Chicago and park field houses in Austin. In libraries, movie houses, schools ... dance studios, community centers, theaters, museums ... and in every other place where people could come together. And they came. They came to South Shore in the middle of a blizzard and to Beverly in the midst of a summer thunderstorm. To Pilsen on a dark Wednesday night and to Lincoln Square on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Parents came, and kids came, and businessmen, and aldermen, and teachers, and librarians, and historians, and artists and artisans of every kind. They told us of ways to use the arts in the everyday life of the city. They told us of the joy the arts bring to the soul. We realized again and again the central role and image in the world at large. In all, thousands of Chicagoans participated in setting forth a vision for the cultural future of Chicago. They are the authors of the Chicago Cultural Plan.

The thing is, the Plan wouldn’t have looked much different, had it been written by the Department of Cultural Affairs (Chicago has one). Yet, it was giving the people the sense of ownership and agency that in the long run made the plan a “success.” It is partially this grass-root initiated support for culture that lets Mayor Daley get away with the multi-million dollar deficit on the Millennium Park. By saying all this I don’t mean that Chicago is a scene we should model ourselves after, but I merely want to indicate that certain processes are possible, with enough political will and social responsibility behind them. If Milwaukee’s Creative Coalition is indeed able to expand its base (and I certainly hope so), we might be ok, provided we put the clearly defined culture first.

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