The City of Chicago announces an ambitious plan to reinvigorate and reinvest in public art and artists throughout Chicago neighborhoods.

By Isaac Jacobs

A. Alexander, Cloudgate, in Millennium Park (photo courtesy of The City of Chicago).

From the Winter 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

When you live in a city like Chicago, art is often quite ubiquitous...or at least it should be. It should also be reflective of the cultures that define the city, the history and makeup of its citizens, the ideals of its people and from there inspire refined public discourse revealing commonalities and disparate voices alike. These ideas reflect some of the objectives of the massive initiative announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) last fall designating 2017 the “Year of Public Art” in Chicago.

​A year of public art investment, appreciation of engagement serves as an inspired catalyst for the launch of the Public Art Plan, developed by Mayor Emanuel and DCASE as part of the larger, even more ambitious Chicago Cultural Plan 2012—the city’s first plan for the arts since 1986.

​The Chicago Public Art Plan lays out specific recommendations aimed at helping to shape the future of public art in Chicago and shift how the city discusses and supports public art in general. The initiative serves as a robust examination of the many cultural treasures we take for granted every day, and inspiration for investment in the art and artists that enliven every corner of Chicago. As Mayor Emanuel explained, “The Chicago Public Art Plan is an innovative blueprint that builds on Chicago’s cultural legacy and will inspire ongoing support for public art in neighborhoods throughout the city.”

Pledging that support to artists “across all mediums” and thereby adding to the cultural fabric of the city, Mayor Emanuel and DCASE hope to inspire a new generation of talented artists and new public artworks for Chicagoans to enjoy. The initiative not only seeks to grow the battery of works that adorn the traditional art spaces in communities throughout Chicago, but also art we find in every corridor of Chicago’s landscape, in addition to the works that expand our notion of art and artistry.

After all, public art in Chicago has long been enmeshed in everyday life and the spaces we take for granted every day. From Chicago parks to public libraries to public transit, art abounds in every step we take in this city.

​During this past year, installations, exhibits and other events were presented in all neighborhoods across the city. Projects ranging  from installations on the Chicago Riverwalk this summer to the addition of 15 new Cultural Center sculptures at each of the Chicago Park District Cultural Centers this winter. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) partnered with DCASE to install illuminated light boxes later at select rail stations, expanding on CTA’s current collection of public art, which has nearly doubled under the Mayor Emanuel's leadership and now includes more than 60 mosaics, art glass and sculptures on all eight rail lines.

Touching every aspect of life in the city, the Chicago Public Art Plan will not only enhance the presence of art in public spaces, but also appreciation of its many forms and its value in our everyday lives. Mark Kelly, DCASE Commissioner explained, “The Chicago Public Art Plan aims to be visionary yet grounded in practice. It speaks to how we value art and what it can mean for all Chicagoans. As Chicago powers forward as an engine of creative life, we ought not to forget that public art isn’t just one discipline—it isn’t just sculptures and statues, it’s not only murals on walls; it’s how we as a city bring artistic vision to our streets and to the public realm. By engaging in public art, we bring value meaning and pride to Chicago.”

​Ultimately, the Chicago Public Art Plan weaves policy, history and images together to create the framework for the plan’s recommendations. It celebrates Chicago as home for public art, while providing a path forward—establishing a shared vision for Chicago as a city where public art is valued and more essential than ever.

The field of public art continues to evolve and expand every day. The new plan acknowledges that evolution and is aimed at establishing a process of commissioning works that welcome creativity in all of its forms, offering broad opportunities for participation by everyone. It also advocates for a "diverse public art ecosystem," nurturing art that has the potential to surprise, inspire, challenge and bring people together through shared experiences.

​The importance of this concept emerged as a recurring theme in conversations surrounding Mayor Emanuel's Chicago Cultural Plan in 2012. The plan proposed that expanding art in public places could be a core strategy in elevating and expanding neighborhood cultural assets and a sense of place. With these goals in mind, DCASE began to formally solicit input from artists, cultural leaders, neighborhood advocates and other citizens on the future of public art in Chicago. Mayor Emanuel directed DCASE to increase emphasis on cooperation among city agencies and with community leaders in its planning for public art. Focus groups with the City of Chicago and sister agencies then began to address ways to increase collaboration. This collective input would serve as the basis for the plan’s final recommendations.

A jumping off point for the plan, the citywide celebration, the Year of Public Art, commemorates the 50th anniversary of two seminal artworks—the Picasso in Daley Plaza and the Wall of Respect, which once stood at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue on Chicago’s South Side—and highlights the important role public art has played in Chicago’s history. The year-long initiative, representing a $4 million investment by DCASE and other city departments, includes the creation of a public art youth corps; a public art festival; and the new 50×50 Neighborhood Arts Project, which commissioned new work in all of Chicago’s fifty wards.

​Chicago has long been known as a global leader in defining and shaping public art. The city was one of the first municipalities in 1978 to implement an ordinance mandating that 1.33% of the cost of public buildings be set aside for the creation of original artwork. Managed by DCASE, Chicago’s own formidable public art collection, includes more than 500 works of art exhibited in over 150 municipal facilities around the city, including police stations, libraries, and CTA stations.

These works enhance public life in the city in ways we often take for granted. That public art is so integrated into our daily lives, so intrinsic to our experience in this city that it’s difficult to imagine how mundane our lives would be without it.With this new, reinvigorated investment in the city's public spaces, we’re fortunate we won’t likely have to.