Art Works Blog

MICD 25 Spotlight on Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

Cermak Cluster as seen from Cermak Street looking north. Photo by Julie Burros

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) was established in 1984 to enhance the cultural life of the city, often partnering with other city agencies---such as the Department of Zoning and Urban Land Planning and the Department of Community Development---on cultural planning projects. We spoke with DCA Deputy Commissioner Matt Nielson to learn more about Chicago's MICD 25 project.

NEA: Please give a brief description of your project and what you hope it will bring to the residents of Chicago.

MATT NIELSON: The Cermak Creative Industry District is an opportunity to re-envision an existing ensemble of four historically significant, but very under-utilized warehouse buildings that are located just south of Chicago's Loop, in an industrial zone along the Chicago River, and to create a sustainable, affordable area that is dedicated to the creative uses that are on the ascendency in the 21st century. From small-scale arts entrepreneurs and recent graduates of local art schools to larger institutional tenants in creative businesses, we aim to use planning, zoning, and a variety of incentives to foster a mix of uses that will create jobs, enhance the education of local youth, attract tourism, grow community, and create an environment that sparks innovation.

NEA: Why is it important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts?

NIELSON: The last thing you want at a community planning meeting is for people to be bored. With arts and culture at the table, you get people who think outside the box, who make creative connections, who collaborate, and who are genuinely interested in what is best for the community. People who work in arts and culture tend to go the extra mile to create events or situations that are very meaningful, perhaps even life-defining, for the community. They help create an identity for a community, attracting visitors and new business, becoming a source of pride. Without arts and culture, your community may have all the needed infrastructure---transit, schools, businesses, parks---but not have a place or a mechanism for celebration, for distinction, for expression. When Chicago works to attract world-class industry to the city, a major attraction is our thriving arts and culture. If a company can locate anywhere in the world, arts and culture become very important ways to distinguish Chicago's community and provide a unique, customizable incentive that appeals to a growing workforce and their families.

NEA: How do you think the creation of arts districts benefits the civic life of a community?

NIELSON: Both formal and informal arts districts, i.e. those that are community-generated, contribute to the civic life of a community by offering opportunities for gathering, expressing, creating an identity, sharing experiences. They offer a concentration of activity that leads to new collaborations and new opportunities because of proximity. In an art district, you may cross the street to your local coffeehouse and run into the filmmaker, the costume-maker, the web technologist, and the scriptwriter who you need for the event you are planning for the patron who bought your first work. That wouldn't happen in anywhere else but an art district.

NEA: Chicago has a long tradition of public art. Although your project is not explicitly about public art, how do you think arts districts expand or redefine that term?

NIELSON: Often people think of public art as an object---an outdoor sculpture or mural, but it is actually much more. It is an invitation to an experience that is available to anyone---music, theater, dance, performance, poetry, plastic cows, and much more, available for free to whomever chances by. Whether temporary or long-lasting, public art uniquely defines a place and a time and offers a sense of adventure and possibility. In Chicago, if you meet someone "by the Picasso" instead of "by the Federal Building," you set up a pleasurable or playful expectation outside of the daily grind. In an art district, you have an amazing concentration of people who create these types of activities, and the entire area is set up to encourage and foster them---whether spontaneous or planned. So an art district can become an incubator of adventure and possibility, available to anyone who chances by.

NEA: How important is MICD 25 funding for the success of your project?

NIELSON: MICD 25 funding enabled us to go to the next phase of planning much faster than if we had to piece together other sources of support. More importantly, MICD 25 funding validated our efforts and vision and added a national perspective to the work that was already underway. The arts and culture community in Chicago is very excited about the possibilities for the Cermak Creative Industry District, and we are excited to bring them all together to create an arena where they can thrive.

NEA: Any last words?

NIELSON: Over several decades in city after city, we've seen the phenomena of artists "colonizing" or gentrifying an otherwise empty or neglected area, organically creating or reinventing a community, only to be displaced once the area improves or is successful. Our aim is to create a district that is supported by incentives and protected by regulations so that creatives who locate there can grow their practice or business and stay, and not get gentrified out of the area. We also hope, in the long run, that perhaps our approach can be duplicated in other areas of the city so that more than one cluster of creatives can grow and thrive and continue to make contributions to the community over the long haul.

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