Future of the City event explores arts' role in building communities

A broad array of arts scholars, cultural leaders and audience members engaged in lively discussions earlier this month at “Future of the City: The Arts Symposium,” a gathering that charted the community-building role that the arts can play in Chicago and beyond.

The 24 panelists who spoke in five sessions at the Chicago Cultural Center represented numerous facets of the arts world, and included performers, architects, visual artists, urban designers, institutional leaders, researchers and authors. The University’s Office of Civic Engagement, the Cultural Policy Center at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, and the National Endowment for the Arts hosted the event.

“The arts play a central role in the life of every vibrant city,” said President Robert J. Zimmer in his opening remarks.

A common theme among many speakers was how artistic projects can help urban communities grow and develop, even as those communities pump life and relevance back into the arts. That exchange is what it means for the arts to be engaged in a city, said Deborah Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She recounted a description from conductor Pierre Boulez, who once said the essence of a great performance is the interplay between an audience and the creative “light” that comes from an orchestra at its peak.

“When I feel that light shining back at me [from the audience], I know that we’ve had a great performance,” Boulez said, according to Rutter. She added, “I think that’s what engagement is.”

Many speakers offered their vision for how the arts can help foster social change in cities. Theaster Gates, an artist, cultural planner, founder of the Rebuild Foundation and director of arts program development in the Office of the Provost, described his efforts to bring artistic life back to his home and community in the Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago.

During a lunchtime session, writer David Simon and actor Wendell Pierce, both from the HBO shows The Wire and Treme, discussed how a sense of tragedy imbues their portraits of urban life. Speaking with moderator Ann Marie Lipinski, the University’s outgoing Vice President for Civic Engagement, they described their shared belief that urban dramas can help spur activism and a more realistic portrait of cities.

“Most of what America seeks for entertainment distinctly avoids tragedy,” said Simon, who was also a creator of both HBO shows. “But when you present an audience with something that’s genuinely tragic and on a human scale, they’re hungry for it.”

In the symposium’s final session, Scott Burnham, creative director and strategist for the UK exhibition center Urbis, offered examples of out-of-the-box inclusive art. Describing cultural projects like the Moving Forest project in Amsterdam, in which trees were planted in portable shopping carts, letting anyone alter the city’s landscape, Burnham argued for a new paradigm for engaging an urban audience.

“When these people go home, they can go on the Internet and they can curate the videos that they watch, they can curate the pictures that they see, they can create their entire online world of friends and images and sounds,” he said. “If people are going to have a piece of public sculpture in their city, why can’t the public create it themselves?”

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Videos

"Valuing Culture in the Global City"

"Art and Urban Drama," featuring Wendell Pierce and David Simon  of The Wire and Treme

"Cities and Their Citizens: Fostering Civic Engagement through the Arts"

"Art Influences Lives: Why Participation Matters"

"Art, Architecture and Design: Transforming Place in Global Cities"

Photos

Future of the Arts - Pierce and Simon
Future of the Arts - Zimmer
Future of the Arts - Farrell
Future of the Arts - Walter Massey
Future of the Arts - Shigekawa
Future of the Arts - Stats
Future of the Arts - Audience
Future of the Arts - Website
Future of the Arts - Michel and Grays
Future of the Arts - Cultural Center

Wendell Pierce, actor on The Wire and Treme, speaks during the keynote conversation of the June 7 "Future of the City: The Arts Symposium," which included Wire creator David Simon (left) and Ann Marie Lipinski, vice president of civic engagement at UChicago.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

President Robert J. Zimmer welcomes the audience to the event, noting "The arts play a central role in the life of every vibrant city."

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

Betty Farrell, executive director of the Cultural Policy Center at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and NORC, shared various strategies for assessing and enhancing the cultural life of global cities.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

Walter Massey, president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, underscored the importance of civic engagement in cultural institutions. "Education has to be a vital part of what keeps cities alive, and that's the melding of arts and education."

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

Joan Shigekawa, senior deputy chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, was the founding officer for the Southeast Asia cultural exchange program and for the Creativity in a Digital Age area of work.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

Prof. Mark Stern of the University of Pennsylvania directs a 17-year-old project which examines the social impact of the arts using geographic information systems. He spoke on a panel that discussed the invaluable role of arts in civic life.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

Audience member Lyn Hughes, founder of the APR Pullman Porter Museum on Chicago's South Side, asks a question of the panel during the Future of the City event.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

The Future of the City event was webcast live and also invited audience members to interact via Facebook and Twitter.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

Bill Michel (right), executive director of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, speaks with Mary and Richard Gray, who on June 6 announced a $5 million gift to UChicago that established the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

The setting for the June 7 Future of the City event, the Chicago Cultural Center, is an artistic showplace, including the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome.

Photo by Jared L. Kelly

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