June 22, 2011

By Jeremy Manier
JUNE 22, 2011

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?”