The Chicago Park District offers arts programming in essentially two forms: one is through opportunities to learn in an instructional setting and the other is cultural events. Both forms assume that Chicagoans of all ages who come to the District looking for classes, camps, workshops, performances, movies, and festivals come in the spirit of community participants.They want to share an experience with their neighbors and be enriched by it. Our Division of Culture, Arts & Nature, which works centrally to leverage resources for parks in every neighborhood, has been creating innovative programs and partnerships for artists, parents, teens and children, life-long learners and local staff for years. We are dedicated to connecting folks with the broad benefits of engagement with the arts, including creative self-expression, social interaction with others, problem-solving and critical thinking, constructive dialogue and assessment, healthy risk-taking, comfort with multiple perspectives and the satisfaction that comes with developing new skills.
We offer an array of visual and performing arts classes and workshops taught by trained, expert Park District instructors, as well as our valued partners. Some examples of classes you could take are: jewelry making; poetry writing; salsa, belly dancing and stepping; teen theater; ceramics; woodworking; hip hop arts (in its various forms); creative movement for moms, pops and tots; audition training for performers; circus arts; and piano and voice.
In terms of events, many people are already big fans and followers of the performances and series we offer. For a quick overview, the Chicago Park District offers: Movies in the Parks, a truly citywide series showing almost 200 movies in every corner of Chicago during the summer months and into September. New in the last year is our focus on showcasing extra-local media talent before the bigger name film; Jazz City, our 10-year long partnership with the Jazz Institute of Chicago that offers 10 concerts annually around the city, showcasing amazing nationally recognized veteran and up-and-coming talent from across the jazz spectrum, and routinely draws audiences of over 500 attendees; Summer Dance in the Parks, the neighborhood edition of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Grant Park mainstay; and Dance in the Parks that introduces young choreographers and companies to new audiences in communities where they might not otherwise have found each other.
We’re coming off an incredibly successful run with Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks, a partnership with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and The Boeing Company that attracted more than 10,000 people to 17 performances in 10 parks. Another inaugural season success was the West Side Music Festival, a joint effort with the Chicago Community Trust to activate and highlight the talent and richness of the Garfield Park, Austin and North and South Lawndale neighborhoods. It occurred on three Saturdays this summer at three west side parks and attracted audiences from all over the city. Other festivals we co-present include the Englewood Jazz Festival and We R Hip Hop in Pilsen.
Because these classes and events are not available at every park, people may need to travel outside their neighborhoods to access different opportunities. The strength of our structure encourages people to not only introduce themselves to new arts experience and media, but also to new locations and neighbors.
A significant piece of our arts landscape is the Arts Partners in Residence program. Arts Partners in Residence (APR) is a formalized, contracted partnership based on a space-for-programming exchange between an arts non-profit and the Chicago Park District. An arts organization gets use of space in a park fieldhouse (for rehearsals, studio or office use, classes, etc.) at no cost in exchange for providing arts programming at no cost to the park. The program piece is determined at the request of the park and could take the shape of arts enrichment for an afterschool program, dance or improv classes for adults or seniors, teen leadership through the arts, or whatever the park has deemed a need. We work to identify good fits between potential Arts Partners and parks based on a kind of alchemy of needs, skills, staff capacity, available space and infrastructure, and community interest.
These APR partnerships are intended as long-term collaborations. Participating organizations must have education or community outreach as part of their stated organizational mission and demonstrated capacity. They must be interested in sinking deep roots in a community, and growing along with the park and its residents. Examples where this model has flourished are: Albany Park Theater Project at Eugene Field Park; Chicago Moving Company at Hamlin Park; Community Film Workshop at Harris Park; Pros Arts Studio at Dvorak Park; and Puerto Rican Arts Alliance at Humboldt Park. These are only a handful of Arts Partners, there are so many more. Eight years ago, there were 13 partners. Now we have 30 partners at 25 parks on the south, west and north sides.
These unique partnerships serve the Chicago Park District and local parks by providing more full-service options to the community. The Chicago Park District is a wonderful place to get exposed to an art form, to test and explore, to be a beginner. We offer a kind of entry-level experience, where adults and children can wet their feet in a safe, affordable, fun, no-pressure environment. If you happen to get hooked and want to pursue more advanced training, you could go on to any of this city’s great arts providers. But through APR you can also stay at the parks and take intermediate and advanced training with organizations like Joel Hall Dancers & Center, Ravinia’s Lawndale Family Music Conservatory or Kuumba Lynx. We’ve worked to develop these in-house pipelines so that people can stay at their local parks and continue to learn and grow.
Organizations who are interested in collaborating with parks through Arts Partners in Residence can begin the process a couple of different ways. They can contact us at our offices at South Shore Cultural Center and we can begin helping them think through their needs and desires, their geographical preferences, their capacity to deliver what a park may be asking for. Alternatively, organizations can visit one or several parks, make some inquiries, and if they’re met with interest, begin developing a relationship with the park’s supervisor. Ultimately, the best partnerships ALWAYS consist of open, communicative relationships between the Arts Partner and the park partner. We, my staff, are very involved in the beginning during contract negotiation, but then pull back and manage the administrative aspects. While we are always available to troubleshoot and support, it’s really up to the leaders of the local park and partnering organization to make the best opportunities and experiences available to the public.
Other opportunities exist for artists and arts professionals interested in partnering with the parks, as well. We regularly have theater companies present works for short runs at park locations. For example, we’re currently in talks with Blair Thomas & Company about restaging one of his pieces. Individual artists can propose residencies or barter arrangements of their own to local park staff. Rooms and spaces for rehearsals or meetings are also available for straight rentals at affordable hourly rates; for these, people should contact the park directly.
Anyone with an innovative programming idea can contact us through our central offices for advice and direction. One caveat would be that we do require offerings to be family friendly and at no or very low cost to patrons. Another would be that the Chicago Park District shouldn’t be looked on as a producer. We provide access to audience and participants in myriad locations where art makers ought to want to present and deliver their craft. We, however, cannot develop or fund proposals that come without other resources.
We fully embrace the new Cultural Plan’s call for connecting artists with neighborhood resources and audiences with opportunities for new cultural experiences as the Chicago Park District has been doing this for years. We achieve this through Arts Partners in Residence, which is over 20 years old; through our Cultural Center Initiative, which established 13 parks to function as regional arts hubs over 10 years ago; through our educational partnership with the museums called Park Voyagers, also over 10 years old; through the various series and collaborations already mentioned, as well as others in the recent past with Redmoon Theater, Chicago Humanities Festival, the Joffrey Ballet, and countless more.
A critical goal we’ve set for ourselves in the upcoming year is to fully inventory and document all the Chicago Park District’s cultural assets. We don’t have a comprehensive, accessible listing of where all, say, the kilns or rooms with Marley floors are. Organizing this information, and making it available to the public, will further improve our ability to activate cultural life in parks and encourage even greater connection between artists and communities.
Carla J. Mayer, Arts and Culture Manager, has worked at the Chicago Park District since 2004 and provides the vision and direction for the Arts and Culture Unit; managing programs such as the Cultural Center Initiative, Arts Partners in Residence, Inferno Mobile Recording Studio, and youth arts programs including Kraft Great Kids and TRACE. She has taught art in Chicago Public Schools and consults on curriculum and programming in the areas of workforce and youth leadership development, as well. Her background is in literature and visual art; she has a BA from Brown University and an MA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College. This story includes editorial support by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal.