Grounds for Culture

Grounds for Culture

In mid-July, after months of public meetings, the city of Chicago released a draft of the Chicago Cultural Plan. One of its biggest priorities: Space. According to plan project manager Julie Burros, a survey of public meeting participants listed space—along with arts education—as a top need.

“This is a plan—and it is very much about urban planning,” Burros said. “We talk about space a lot, and I think we talk very specifically about place-making.”

The plan outlines its priorities in 36 recommendations, the second of which addresses a “system to accommodate space needs for artists and creative professionals.” Initiatives include the use of more tax increment financing funds and making foreclosed properties available for cultural purposes.

But some arts professionals, including William Massolia, artistic director at the Griffin Theatre, are leery. In 2005, Massolia started dealings with the city to take over the shuttered Foster Avenue police station and use it as a much-needed theater building. In January 2011 the deal finally went through.

In those six years Massolia faced red tape from the city. “Our experience was very arduous,” he said. Designed by theater and performance architect John Morris, known for his new Steppenwolf Theater, the station’s conversion to the Griffin Arts Center will begin in September. “The city didn’t have knowledge of how not-for-profits work. Our main focus and mission is not a building, it’s creating a work of art.”

“The plan is great,” Massolia added, “but the city needs to have a structure in place to make it work in a more expeditious manner.” Noting the recent slew off layoffs within the city’s cultural arm, he asked, “Who’s going to do that work?”

Marshall Brown, assistant professor of architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, who also runs New Projects, an urban design exhibition space in Bronzeville, agrees: “Using space in creative ways to do cultural work is fantastic. But if suddenly you have to go through a lot of paperwork, special zoning designation, a lot of regulation—then it’s not so great.“

Brown also points out that while space is a predominant focus of the plan, the word “architecture” appears only twice, including in a 1939 Frank Lloyd Wright quote integrated into the plan’s colorful graphic design. And, he says, nowhere does the plan mention fostering architects or promoting architectural heritage within the city’s culture and tourism industry.

Burros, whose background is in planning and architecture, hopes that architects don’t feel slighted. “We were trying to be discipline neutral,” she said. “When the plan talks about making Chicago a global destination, raising the global profile of Chicago, it’s a way of saying we hope people think of architecture and Chicago architects.”

Burros specifically points to “Recommendation 27,” which proposes a large-scale festival showing off Chicago’s renowned cultural amenities. “It could relate to a lot of assets,” she said, “but we were thinking of architecture in particular.”